War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their liv...

Talking about this stuff "publicly"

Some of my fellow Soldiers have questioned whether I should be addressing this issue--the need to talk about the moral justification of killing and its possible linkage to PTSD/PITS--in such a public forum. There's a concern that this is our 'dirty laundry' that we shouldn't air out for everyone to see.

It’s true, after all, that some anti-war groups have used some of my words (usually out of context) to further their agendas.

So, here's some thoughts on why I think we as Soldiers should talk publicly about this issue:

Public discussion on killing will be good for the Army and its relationship with the people its serves because civilian readers will likely be pleasantly surprised-to-shocked to realize that: the Army actually educates and trains Airborne-Ranger types who care deeply about morality in war; that officers study morality and war; that West Point teaches it as part of a required class; that the Army encourages and rewards critical thinkers; that its leaders care about the long-term well being of America’s sons and daughters; to list just a few largely unrecognized truths.

With less than 10% of recent generations serving in the military, many of our fellow citizens do not personally know a Soldier or Marine. This blog is a way to communicate directly with the American people, at a more personal level. Who I am as a military professional may have a greater impact than what I say. In each and every of the many situations in which I have talked to civilians about the morality of killing in war, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People stand in line to thank me…although what really connects with them is that they experience what they want desperately to believe—that their nation’s Army, the world’s most powerful army, is genuinely concerned about doing the right thing.

The fact is, our military is much more morally aware than Hollywood movies and media-frenzy aberrations like Abu Gharib give us credit for. In this blog, I will be able to share many true anecdotes that convey the humanity, the moral goodness of our soldiers and leaders. By engaging with the American people--even those who have anti-military opinions—in reasoned and thoughtful dialogue, we can break some anti-military stereotypes and project a more accurate, positive view of America’s military.

In another sense, this blog and other efforts on this issue will be good for the Army because the Army is Soldiers, and our efforts will raise awareness on an issue that will help Soldiers. External awareness of an internal issue is a good thing, when change is needed. The Army is a bureaucracy, and like all bureaucracies it reinforces the status quo. It’s amazing how a great idea, said at a staff meeting, gets nods but no action, yet the same idea reported in the civilian media gets immediate action. It doesn’t have to be a critical news report; in fact, bureaucracies retrench and resist change in the face of criticism. But bureaucracies respond well to external validation of an issue that they recognize as valid as long as it is communicated in a positive way. That is what I try to do.

A captain who commanded an infantry company in OIF-1 sent me a note after reading the New Yorker article: “Moreover, infantrymen have to kill at a personal level, and in many ways physically experience the death of both enemy soldiers and non-combatants. I think that overall, soldiers will be better prepared for combat and recover from the experience more completely if the Army educates them it moral acceptability…I did not observe any immediate negative psychological impact, however, at the time none of us had the distance necessary to really contemplate the events… The real question is what occurs once soldiers are safe and think fully about their actions.”

The problem of PTSD will not go away. The only right thing to do is to take action that might be able to prevent or relieve it for thousands of Soldiers. The smart PR action is to show the people we serve that we are concerned about the problem (which is already all over the news) and we are working to address it.

Think about it. We are the first Army in centuries to recognize and address this problem. We take care of our people, and in doing so we will reinforce right conduct in battle. That’s a story the American public should hear.

This is not a risk-free endeavor. But nothing worthwhile is ever risk free. As military professionals, we must do what’s right by our Soldiers, America’s sons and daughters who volunteered to defend our Constitution. They are our credentials. They must be our priority.


Anonymous said...

We are the first Army in centuries to recognize and address this problem (PTSD). We take care of our people, and in doing so we will reinforce right conduct in battle. That’s a story the American public should hear....

Boy, Americans can be so unbelievably provincial and elitist! All armies, everywhere throughout history, have recognized PTSD-- under whatever name-- and have taken steps to deal with / mitigate/ forestall it.

Try reading Pat Barker's award-winning "Regeneration" trilogy about how the British army dealt with (and studied) "shell shock" or "neurasthenia"-- as they called it-- among British officers in WW1.

Try reading Carolyn Nordstrom's wonderhul anthropology about Mozambican traditional healers dealing with the PTSD of the affetados during their country's lengthy civil war...

Try, in short, reconnecting with the rest of the human race and its lengthy experience of war?

Pete Kilner said...

I'll ignore the namecalling and sarcasm, which are neither conducive to learning nor welcome on this blog.

I encourage everyone to read from old-to-new on this blog, to have context on more recent posts.

My particular interest in post-combat trauma is unique in that I focus on what soldiers do and have done, not on what they saw and what happened to them, which is the traditional approach taken in the literature cited. Dr. Rachel McNair calls the former PITS (perpetration-induced traumatic syndrome), a particular form of the longer-recognized PTSD.

By looking at what soldier DO, we bring morality into the equation. I argue that one (not the only) cause of psychological trauma is unresolved guilt about killing. Often, this guilt is needless; the soldier did the "right" thing, which in war is the lesser of evils. A lesser evil may be the right moral choice, but it still may feel wrong.

I know that killing in war can be justifiable, so I want to bring that justification to soldiers so they can live with themselves if they've done the right thing, and at least understand themselves if they've done wrong. We have to recognize a sin before we can seek forgiveness.

If any other army in the last 300 years has tackled this topic, I'd love to hear about it.