There are two kinds
of courage in war - physical courage and moral courage. Physical
courage is very common on the battlefield. Men and women on
both sides risk their lives, place their own bodies in harm’s
way. Moral courage, however, is quite rare. According to Chris
Hedges, the brilliant New York Times war correspondent who
survived wars in Latin America, Africa, the Middle
East and the Balkans, “I rarely saw moral courage. Moral courage
is harder. It requires the bearer to walk away from the warm
embrace of comradeship and denounce the myth of war as a fraud,
to name it as an enterprise of death and immorality, to condemn
himself, and those around him, as killers. It requires the
bearer to become an outcast. There are times when taking a
moral stance, perhaps the highest form of patriotism, means
facing down the community, even the nation.”
and more U.S.
soldiers and Marines, at great cost to their own careers and
reputations, are speaking publicly about U.S.
atrocities in Iraq,
even about the cowardice of their own commanders, who send
youth into atrocity-producing situations only to hide from
the consequences of their own orders. In 2007, two brilliant
war memoirs - ROAD FROM AR RAMADI by Staff Sergeant Camilo
Mejia, and THE SUTRAS OF ABU GHRAIB by Army Reservist Aidan
Delgado - appeared in print. In March 2008, at the Winter
Soldier investigation just outside Washington
D.C., hard-core U.S. Iraqi veterans, some shaking at the podium, some
in tears, unburdened their souls. Jon Michael Turner described
the horrific incident in which, on April 28, 2008, he shot
an Iraqi boy in front of his father. His commanding officer
congratulated him for “the kill.” To a stunned audience, Turner
presented a photo of the boy’s skull, and said: “I am sorry
for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent
The Winter Soldier
investigation was followed by the publication of COLLATERAL
DAMAGE: AMERICA’S WAR AGAINST IRAQI CIVILIANS, by Chris
Hedges and Laila Al-Arian. Based on hundreds of hours of taped
interviews with Iraqi combat veterans, this pioneering work
on the catastrophe in Iraq
includes the largest number of eyewitness accounts from U.S. military personnel on record.
The Courage to
cannot understand the psychological and moral significance
of military resistance unless we recognize the social forces
that stifle conscience and human individuality in military
life. Gwen Dyer, historian of war, writes that ordinarily,
“Men will kill under compulsion. Men will do almost anything
if they know it is expected of them and they are under strong
social pressure to comply.” “Only exceptional people resist
atrocity,” writes psychiatrist Robert Lifton.
How much easier
it is to surrender to the will of superiors, to merge into
the anonymity of the group. It takes uncommon courage to resist
military powers of intimidation, peer pressure, and the atmosphere
of racism and hate that drives all imperial wars.
Witnesses to War
War crimes are collective
in nature. Especially in wars based on fraud, soldiers are
expected to lie - to their country, to their community, even
to themselves. The
silencing process begins on the battlefield in the presence
of officers, power-holders who seek to nullify the perceptions
and personal experience of troops under their command.
In his war memoir,
Aidan Delgado describes attempts of his commanders to suppress
the truth about Abu Ghraib. First his captain says the Army
has nothing to hide, Abu Ghraib is just a rumor. But then
the captain continues: “We don’t need to air our dirty laundry
in public. If you have photos that you’re not supposed to
have, get rid of them. Don’t talk about this to anyone, don’t
write about it to anyone back home.” In the U.S. military, the truth is seditious.
Two years ago, Marine
Sergeant Jimmy Massey published his riveting autobiography
(written with Natasha Saulnier) in France and Spain. How the Marine Corps - through indoctrination
and intimidation - transforms a homeboy from the Smoky Mountains
of North Carolina into a professional killer who murders “innocent
people for his government” is the subject of Massey’s unsettling,
impassioned, Jar-head raunchy, and ultimately uplifting memoir,
COWBOYS FROM HELL. (No U.S. publisher has
picked up the book. A Marine who speaks truth to power is
not without honor save in his own country.) In Chapter 18,
Jimmy describes a seemingly minor encounter with his captain.
Here Massey gives us a look into the process of human denial
in its early phase.
Massey has just
participated in a checkpoint massacre of civilians. His sense
of decency, his sanity, is still in tact. Like any normal
human being, he is distraught. The carnage of the war, the
imbalance of power between the biggest war machine in history
and a suffering people devoid of tanks and air power - the
sheer injustice of it all - begins to take its toll on Massey’s
In the wake of the
horrific events of the day, his captain is cool. He walks
up to Massey and asks; “Are you doing all right, Staff Sergeant?”
Massey responds: “No, sir. I am not doing O.K. Today was a
bad day. We killed a lot of innocent civilians.”
Fully of aware of
the civilian carnage, his captain asserts: “No, today was
a good day.”
cars destroyed, blood all over the ground, Marines celebrating,
civilians dead, and “it was good day”!
The Massey incident
goes beyond the mendacity of military life. It concerns the
control, the dehumanization of the psyches of our troops.
As one Vietnam
veteran put it years ago: “They kept fucking with my mind.”
In 1994 Jonathan
Shay, staff psychiatrist in the Department of Veterans Affairs,
published a pioneering work on post traumatic stress – Achilles
in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.
According to Shay, who recorded volumes of testimony from
Vietnam veterans, commanders routinely try to
efface the perceptions and the normal feelings of compassion
among American troops. Military necessity, including the ever-present
need for political propaganda, determines what is perceived,
and how it is perceived, in war.
It was an extremely
common experience in Vietnam, Shay writes, to be told by military superiors
dealing with crime and trauma: “You didn’t experience it,
it never happened, and you don’t know what you know.” And
it was fairly common for traumatized soldiers to say to reporters:
“It didn’t happen. And besides, they had it coming.” Shay
recorded the testimony of one veteran who, in great anger,
describes the pressures to alter his perceptions of collective
The collective process
of denial on the battlefield eventually extends to the homeland.
Returning soldiers, to be sure, are often honored, but only
so long as they remain silent about the realities, the pathos,
the absurd evils of war. Willful public ignorance is a source
of pain for veterans.
brilliant short story, Soldier’s Home, published in
1925 after World War I, gives us insight into the reluctance
of civilians to address the psychic needs of soldiers back
The simply told
story is about a young man named Krebs who returns to his
home in Oklahoma.
At first Krebs does not want to talk about the war. But soon
he feels the need to speak - to his family, his neighbors
and friends. But as Hemingway tells us, “Nobody wanted to
hear about it.” His town did not want to learn about atrocities,
and “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie.”
There’s the rub.
His ability to assimilate into civilian life depended on his
willingness to fabricate stories about the war. Soldiers are
not only expected to lie on behalf of the military during
the course of war, they are also expected to participate in
homecoming rituals that preserve the civilian fantasy of war’s
In Hemingway’s story,
the pressure to lie is so powerful, Krebs begins to manufacture
stories about his experiences in battle - just to get along,
just be able to lead a normal life.
is a major cause of mental illness and loneliness. Krebs morale
deteriorates. He sleeps late in bed. He loses interest in
work. He withdraws into himself.
That’s all Hemingway
tells us. It’s a quietly told story, all the more powerful
for its understatement.
is a connection between Hemingway’s war-informed fiction and
real life. As Shay notes, there is a tension between a soldier’s
need to communalize shame and grief and the unwillingness
of civilians to listen to troops whom they sent into battle.
One Vietnam veteran told the following story:
Welcome home, soldier.
Now shut up.
Georgia Stillwell is a mother of a 21-year-old Iraqi war veteran.
Her son is now homeless, unemployed, and despondent. Early
one morning he drove his car over an embankment. She says
that her son is a mere physical shell of himself. “My son’s
spirit and soul must still be wandering the streets of Iraq.”
It is not simply what happened in Iraq, but how veterans are treated at home when
they seek to unburden their souls, that reinforces post-traumatic
stress. On the night he drove the car off the road, he was
crying, talking about the war. “His friends tell me he talks
about the war. They describe it as ‘crazy talk.’ He wants
the blood of the Iraqis he killed off his hands.”
writes Chris Hedges, “discovers its own disillusionment, often
at a terrible price. And the war in Iraq has begun to produce legions of the lost
and the damned.” For our morally courageous veterans - for
all of us, really, who seek forgiveness - only the truth can
Guest Commentator, Paul Rockwell, is a writer living in the
Bay Area. He is also a columnist for In Motion Magazine. Click here
to reach Mr. Rockwell.