The Things They Carry, Continued…

Two stories from today’s New York Times.

What a coincidence.



On March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre was carried out by United States troops under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr.

Accused G.I. ‘Snapped’ Under Strain, Official Says


The American staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers had been drinking alcohol and suffering from stress tied to his fourth combat tour, a senior official said.


As ever, our capacity to resist learning anything from our mistakes remains impressive, and appalling.

Revisiting some thoughts from 9/09:

Chris Hedges knows more than you do.

So it is his prerogative to be pissed off. He’s seen the things many of us have not seen (indeed, have not even heard about because it would require being in the places he has been since our mostly craven media certainly isn’t providing anything approximating an unfiltered account). It is sometimes painful to read his work because he is so obviously aware of what he is talking about, and he is so utterly vindicated by the courage of his convictions. The uninitiated are encouraged (and the ignorant are admonished) to pick up a copy of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (excerpt here). Little is likely to change, but the war against war is a battle that can only be won one victory at a time, and each person who becomes awake and enlightened counts as a victory. The only people who can speak truthfully about war are the people who fight in them and the people who witness them. More on that, shortly.

Hedges contributes a column each week to truthdig and, as I say, his writing is both unsettling and essential. In this recent piece he elaborates one of the dirtiest and most despicable open secrets in American society: how we handle veterans of our wars. I feel obliged to quote extensively because there is little I could say that is as persuasive, intelligent and disturbing as what he so cogently lays out.

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have unloaded hundreds of thousands of combat troops, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, back into society. According to a joint Veterans Affairs Department-University of San Francisco study published in July, 418,000 of the roughly 1.9 million service members who have fought in or supported the wars suffer from PTSD. As of August 2008, the latest data available, about a quarter-million military veterans were imprisoned on any given day—about 9.4 percent of the total daily imprisoned population, according to the National GAINS Center Forum on Combat Veterans, Trauma and the Justice System. There are 223,000 veterans in jail or prison cells on an average day, and an unknown number among the 4 million Americans on probation. They don’t have much to look forward to upon release. And if any of these incarcerated vets do not have PTSD when they are arrested, our corrections system will probably rectify the deficiency. Throw in the cocktail of unemployment, powerlessness, depression, alienation, anger, alcohol and drugs and you create thousands, if not tens of thousands, who will seek out violence the way an addict seeks out a bag of heroin.

War and conflict have marked most of my adult life. I know what prolonged exposure to industrial slaughter does to you. I know what it is to confront memories, buried deep within the subconscious, which jerk you awake at night, your heart racing and your body covered in sweat. I know what it is like to lie, unable to sleep, your heart pounding, trying to remember what it was that caused such terror. I know how it feels to be overcome by the vivid images of violence that make you wonder if the dream or the darkness around you is real. I know what it feels like to stumble through the day carrying a shock and horror, an awful cement-like despair, which you cannot shed. And I know how after a few nights like this you are left numb and exhausted, unable to connect with anyone around you, even those you love the most. I know how you drink or medicate yourself into a coma so you do not have to remember your dreams. And I know that great divide that opens between you and the rest of the world, especially the civilian world, which cannot imagine your pain and your hatred. I know how easily this hatred is directed toward those in that world.


Those who cannot cope, even by using Zoloft or Paxil, blow their brains out with drugs, alcohol or a gun. More Vietnam veterans died from suicide in the years after the war than during the conflict itself. But it would be a mistake to blame this on Vietnam. War does this to you. It destroys part of you. You live maimed. If you are not able to live maimed, you check out.

But what happens in a society where everything conspires to check you out even when you make the herculean effort to integrate into the world of malls, celebrity gossip and too many brands of cereal on a supermarket shelf? What happens when the corporate state says that you can die in its wars but at home you are human refuse, that there is no job, no way to pay your medical bills or your mortgage, no hope? Then you retreat into your private hell of rage, terror and alienation. You do not return from the world of war…There is a yawning indifference at home about what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hollow language of heroism and glory, used by the war makers and often aped by those in the media, allows the nation to feel good about war, about “service.” But it is also a way of muzzling the voices that attempt to tell us the truth about war. And when these men and women do find the moral courage to speak, they often find that many fellow Americans turn away in disgust or attack them for shattering the myth. The myth of war is too enjoyable, and too profitable, to be punctured by reality. And so these veterans nurse their fantasies of power. They begin to hate those who sent them as much as they hate those they fought. Some cannot distinguish one from the other.

It is we who are guilty, guilty for sending these young men and women to wars that did not have to be fought. It is we who are guilty for turning away from the truth of war to wallow in a self-aggrandizing myth, guilty because we create and decorate killers and when they come home maimed and broken we discard them. It is we who are guilty for failing to defy a Democratic Party that since 1994 has betrayed the working class by destroying our manufacturing base, slashing funds to assist the poor and cravenly doing the bidding of corporations. It is we who are guilty for refusing to mass on Washington and demand single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans. It is we who are guilty for supporting Democrats while they funnel billions in taxpayer dollars to sustain speculative Wall Street interests. The rage of the confused and angry right-wing marchers, the ones fired up by trash-talking talk show hosts, the ones liberals belittle and maybe even laugh at, should be our rage. And if it is not our rage soon, if we continue to humiliate and debase ourselves by begging Obama to be Obama, we will see our open society dismantled not because of the shrewdness of the far right, but because of our moral cowardice.


I’ve waded into these waters a handful of times over the past year, offering my thoughts here, here and here. Mostly, I’m content to pass the proverbial mic to those who know, and get out of the way. Tim O’Brien has spent most of his life reflecting on his time spent in Vietnam. Miraculously, he has been able to grapple with the demons and despair and somehow managed to turn his pain into profoundly beautiful fiction. Fiction that, in a phrase he is fond of repeating, is truer than truth. I consider The Things They Carried to be one of the five best books written by an American in the second half of the 20th Century. Let me put it this way: it is impossible for me to take anyone seriously who wishes to speak about war (and veterans, and the homeless) if they are not at least acquainted with the work of Chris Hedges and Tim O’Brien (not to mention Senator Jim Webb, who wrote one of the enduring masterpieces of the Vietnam experience, Fields of Fire). It’s true that some of the better fiction writers are able to imagine other realities and some successfully write about things with which they are not intimately aware. That said, no one who has not been to war could write The Things They Carried. And even most people who have been to war could never compose something as shattering as the short, deceptively simple “How To Tell A True War Story”. Here is an excerpt:

We crossed that river and marched west into the mountains. On the third day, my friend Curt Lemon stepped on a boobytrapped artillery round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead. The trees were thick; it took nearly an hour to cut an LZ for the dustoff.

Later, higher in the mountains, we came across a baby VC water buffalo. What it was doing there I don’t know – no farms, no paddies – but we chased it down and, got a rope around it and led it along to a deserted village where we set up for the night. After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose.

He opened up a can of C rations, pork and beans, but the baby buffalo wasn’t interested.

Rat shrugged.

He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee.

The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Curt Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. Later in the week Rat would write a long personal letter to the guy’s sister, who would not write back, but for now, it was simply a question of pain. He shot off the tail. He shot away -chunks of meat below the ribs. All around us there was the smell of smoke and filth and greenery, and the evening was humid and very hot. Rat went to automatic. He shot randomly, almost casually, quick little spurts in the belly. Then he reloaded, squatted down, and shot it in the left front knee. Again the animal fell hard and tried to get up, but this time it couldn’t quite make it. It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose. He bent forward and whispered something, as if talking to a pet, then he shot it in the throat. All the while the baby water buffalo was silent, or almost silent, just a little bubbling sound where the nose had been. It lay very still. Nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous, the pupils shiny black and dumb.

Rat Kiley was crying. He tried to say something, but them cradled his rifle and went off by himself.

The rest of us stood in a ragged circle around the baby buffalo. For a long time no one spoke. We had witnessed something essential, something brand new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a word for it.

This is a story that is truer than the truth. If we hope to see change we can believe in, more of us start need to believing –and confronting– the types of truths witnesses like Hedges and O’Brien are describing.


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