January 21, 2008
“It cannot be stopped at the border;
Or trapped in a shelter of stone;
Or arrested by following orders.
War has been coming home.”
In my first column two months ago, I discussed the mental health problems that our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing. I drew on a recent study of veteran suicides by CBS News and a study of homelessness by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Now comes a third study by the New York Times, “War Torn: Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” which discusses some of the 121 cases that the Times uncovered in which veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have been involved in or charged in killings.
Some of the stories are heart-breaking, such as the case of Stephen Sherwood. Sherwood lost his entire tank unit to a rocket attack while he was on leave to celebrate his son’s first birthday. Several months later, he returned from Iraq and shot his wife and himself.
Or Seth Strasburg, who shot and killed an Iraqi dragging a sack of gravel by the roadside, thinking the man was about to plant an IED.
While home on leave, his gun went off in a drunken scuffle and killed a man.
Stories like these should surprise no one. Mass murder, such as what typically happens in modern warfare, is not natural to the human species. The military goes to great lengths to break down societal conditioning against murder. Undoing such training may not always be as simple as those who glorify war might pretend. And such instances as these must be considered as part of the societal costs of war.
Many manage to readjust to civilian life, in spite of whatever wartime traumas they have lived through. However, there are some who have difficulty readjusting, and do not seek or receive needed help. Some of these end up living on the streets; and some end up killing themselves or others.
This is true of every war, from time immemorial. Some will bring the war back home with them with disastrous results for society. Take, for example, Timothy McVeigh.
McVeigh was awarded the Bronze Star for service in the 1991 Gulf War.
He claimed to have been shocked by being ordered to execute surrendering prisoners, and later wrote, “Do people think that government workers in Iraq are any less human than those in Oklahoma City? Do they think that Iraqis don’t have families who will grieve and mourn the loss of their loved ones? Do people believe that the killing of foreigners is somehow different than the killing of Americans?”
McVeigh was executed in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168, including 19 small children, an act which he characterized as “revenge” against the government.
Fortunately, there is hope. As Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology remarked, “The real tragedy in these veterans’ cases is that, where PTSD is a factor, it is highly treatable,” and “when people are exposed to serious trauma and don’t get it treated, it is a serious risk factor for violence.”
In other words, there is treatment for the symptoms. But, how much better would it be to treat the disease, as well as the symptoms? War is the disease of which PTSD and other mental illnesses that plague our soldiers and veterans are merely symptoms.
This disease has plagued humanity for at least 10,000 years. We think we are cured, only to relapse and fight again and again. We recognize this every time we use phrases like, “perpetual war,” or “war without end.”
If we do not wish to be fighting “perpetual war” for the rest of eternity, then there is only one solution: Work for peace.
The opening quote is from the song “The War Has Been Coming Home,” by Charlie King.
Tom Sager is a retired professor at the University of Missouri – Rolla. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org