This war walks among us
Most of the injured in Iraq are surviving, and their homecoming could undercut Bush
In wartime, the silence of the American dead is a vacuum that the powerful in Washington try to fill. While loved ones are left with haunting memories and excruciating sadness, the most amplified political voices use predictable rhetoric to talk about ultimate sacrifices.
But the wounded do not disappear. They can speak for themselves. And many more will be seen and heard in this decade. Thanks to improvements in protective gear and swift medical treatment, more of America’s wounded are surviving – and returning home with serious permanent injuries.
During the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War, 76 percent of American troops survived combat wounds. But in this century, the U.S. military’s surgical teams “have saved the lives of an unprecedented 90 percent of the soldiers wounded in battle,” the New England Journal of Medicine reported in December.
Back in the United States, thousands of survivors are now coping with injuries that might have been fatal in an earlier war. Many have lost limbs or suffered other visible tragedies, but often the affects are not obvious. The Iraq war is causing an extraordinarily high rate of traumatic brain injury, and the damage to brain tissue is frequently permanent.
This month the Defense Department released data showing that the official number of U.S. troops “wounded in action” in Iraq has gone over the 11,000 mark. Notably, 95 percent of those Americans were wounded after May 1, 2003.
In a bizarre echo of President George W. Bush’s top-gun aircraft-carrier speech on that day, the Pentagon still asserts that the U.S. casualties since then have occurred “after the end of major combat operations.”
Although the media routinely find space for reports on American deaths in Iraq, news outlets rarely convey the magnitude of injuries.
“More corpses are en route” to the United States, former Marine Anthony Swofford anticipated in late 2004, “and more broken bodies, shattered psyches, damaged souls.”
Since authoring “Jarhead,” his memoir of the Gulf War, Swofford has continued to probe beneath the popularized war images that drew him to enlist at the end of the 1980s.
“The romance of a combat death evaporates when combat arrives,” he wrote this winter, reflecting on photos from the funerals of seven American soldiers who perished in Iraq.
“I wonder, then, when the men and women whose burials we see in these photographs lost their romantic attachment to combat, killing and death, their own death and the deaths of others. Be certain that at some point they entertained such fantasies. Perhaps only for a few days of basic training; possibly, like me, until they landed in theater.”
Dead soldiers, of course, can’t talk to fellow Americans about that evaporation of war’s romanticized mist. But the swelling ranks of the wounded will be heard as they try to resume their lives in the cities, suburbs and small towns of the United States.
The human toll among veterans, extending well beyond those who were physically harmed, includes common chronic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: such as extreme anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, panic attacks, displaced rage and survivor’s guilt. Families and relationships are at heightened risk of falling apart.
The upsurge of newly wounded veterans would not be so potentially explosive in political terms if the public had confidence in the rightness of the Iraq invasion and ongoing war. When so many Americans perceive that the war was built on a foundation of falsehoods, the war’s architects are liable to find themselves on thinner and thinner domestic ice as time goes on. The wounded among us will be widely seen as victims whose suffering was avoidable.
Historically, mounting U.S. casualties have not stopped most Americans from supporting a lengthy war – if that war seemed justified. Throughout World War II, public support remained above 75 percent. In sharp contrast, the public’s backing for the Vietnam War, with far fewer total dead and injured, spiraled downward to 30 percent.
Even at this early stage, Iraq war veterans are gradually becoming more outspoken. Robert Acosta, for example, is a 21-year-old former U.S. Army specialist who re-entered civilian life in early 2004 – just six months after losing his right hand when a grenade landed next to him in a vehicle on a Baghdad street.
“I was there, and I’m proud of my service,” he said. “But I really questioned the war once I was in the hospital. . . . I feel like we – the guys who went in to do the job – were lied to.”
Several months ago Acosta joined the fledgling group Iraq Veterans Against the War. He speaks with clear authenticity. “A lot of people don’t really see how the war can mess people up until they know someone with firsthand experience,” he says. “I think people coming back wounded – or even just mentally injured after seeing what no human being should have to see – is going to open a lot of eyes.”
Founded in midsummer 2004, Iraq Veterans Against the War has expanded from eight to 150 members while organizing forums and teach-ins around the country and attracting some appreciable media coverage. The group’s national coordinator, Michael Hoffman, joined the Marines in 1999 and participated in the invasion of Iraq.
“War is dirty, always wrong, but sometimes unavoidable,” he says. “That is why all these horrible things must rest on the shoulders of those leaders who supported a war that did not have to be fought.”
America’s physical wounds from the current war cannot be tucked under the national rug. And in the long run, neither can any of the psychological pain that afflicts many combat veterans.
President Bush is likely to face a growing backlash that will further reduce his credibility – and strengthen the healthy skepticism that Americans should utilize when the president insists it’s time to go to war.