Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Then and now (1)

Let's do NOW first: Fighting unseen enemy creates psychological pressure on troops by Tom Lasseter, Knight-Ridder 08/26/05.

The inability of U.S. forces to hold ground in Anbar province in western Iraq, and the cat and mouse chase that ensues, has put the Marines and soldiers there under intense physical and psychological pressure.

The sun raises temperatures to 115 degrees most days, insurgents stage ambushes daily then melt into the civilian population and American troops in Anbar find themselves in a house of mirrors in which they don't speak the language and can't tell friend from foe.

Most Marines and soldiers in Anbar live behind massive concrete barriers, bales of concertina wire and perimeters guarded by sniper towers and tanks.

Despite their overwhelming military might, they must watch every alleyway for snipers and each patch of road for mines or bombs, which can send balls of flame through their vehicles. That happened earlier this month south of Haditha, when an explosion killed 14 Marines in an amphibious assault vehicle. ...

Walking down an alley in Hit a few days earlier, stepping over pools of sewage, Lance Cpl. Greg Allen had watched the Marines around him. They were picking through garbage, tugging on wires and kicking boxes, looking for bombs and mines and hoping that if they found one it wouldn't go off.

"They (insurgents) are doing a hell of a job fighting this war. They know they can't take us head on but they can do a lot of damage with bombs," said Allen, 19, of Syracuse, N.Y. "There's no one out here to fight."

The men in Allen's squad stopped at a grocery to buy water and sodas. As they walked away, several of them wondered if they'd just given money to an insurgent sympathizer.

On a recent patrol through southern Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Sgt. 1st Class Tom Coffey, 37, of Burlington, Vt., looked through the thick bulletproof windows of his Humvee. Children were peeking at him from behind a half-closed garage door.

"I'd love to play soccer with them but we'd have to stage gun trucks and then we'd still end up being a large soft target," he said.

After he went back to the base to pick up some supplies, a call came: A roadside bomb had hit one of his Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

THEN: From Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans - Neither Victims nor Executioners (1973) by Robert Jay Lifton.  Relating a conversation with a Vietnam War veteran who recalled his thoughts while in Vietnam, "What am I doing here? We don't take any land. We don't give it back. We just mutilate bodies. What the [Cheney] are we doing here?", Lifton writes (my emphasis):

These questions express a sense of the [Vietnam] war's total lack of order or structure, the feeling that there was no genuine purpose, that nothing could ever be secured or gained, and that there could be no measurable progress. We may say that there was no genuine "script" or "scenario" of war that could provide meaning or even sequence or progression, a script within which armies clash, battles are fought, won, or lost, and individual suffering, courage, cowardice, or honor can be evaluated. Nor could the patrols seeking out an elusive enemy, the ambushes in which Americans were likely to be the surprised victims, or the "search-and-destroy missions" lashing out blindly at noncombatants achieve the psychological status of meaningful combat ritual. Rather, these became part of the general absurdity, the antimeaning. So did the "secret movements" on this alien terrain, since, as one man put it, "Little kids could tell us exactly where we would set up the next night." The men were adrift in an environment not only strange and hostile but offering no honorable encounter, no warrior grandeur.

Now there are mutilations, midst absurdity and evil, in any war. Men who fight wars inevitably become aware of the terrible disparity between romantic views of heroism expressed "back home" and the reality of degradation and unspeakable suffering they have witnessed, experienced, and caused. Onethinks of the answer given by Audie Murphy, much-decorated hero of World War II, to the question put to him about how long it takes a man to get over his war experiences. Murphy's reply, recorded in his obituary, was that one never does. What he meant was that residual inner conflicts—survivor conflicts—stay with one indefinitely. These conflicts, as I was able to generalize from my Hiroshima work, have to do with anxiety in relationship to an indelible death imprint, death guilt inseparable from that imprint, various forms of prolonged psychic numbing and suppression of feeling, profound suspicion of the counterfeit (or of "counterfeit nurturance"), and an overall inability to give significant inner form - to "formulate" - one's war-linked death immersion. This impaired survivor formulation undoubtedly was a factor in Murphy's repeated difficulties and disappointments after his return from his war, as it has been in the unrealized lives and premature deaths of many war heroes; and, indeed, in the paradox quoted earlier (from Charles Omen) about warriors during the Middle Ages being "the best of soldiers while the war lasted . . . [but] a most dangerous and unruly race in times of truce or peace." ...

But the central fact of the Vietnam War is that no one really believes in it. [He refers here specifically to the combat veterans with whom he worked.]

Lifton discusses at some length how these combat conditions created an "atrocity-producing" environment in which murders, rapes and war crimes were more likely to occur.  But he writes about this in order to understand the situation, not to excuse crimes. Yet he stresses the ways in which under certain conditions, almost anyone can be mightily tempted to act in ways that transgress all boundaries, even those drastically altered ones that apply during combat.

The copy of Home from the War with which I'm working comes from a local library and has a sticker inside that says, "GIFT FROM: Country Joe McDonald."  I think that's pretty cool.

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