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War, PTSD, and Atrocities

June 28th, 2006 | by Liberal Jarhead |

By now we’ve all heard something about the incident last November 19 at an Iraqi village called Haditha. What we know so far is that Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, known as 3/1 (pronounced “three-one”) in USMC shorthand, were on patrol near Haditha. 3/1 is an infantry unit with a long, proud tradition. A roadside bomb went off and killed a 3/1 Marine, and surviving Marines from 3/1 then went into Haditha and killed 24 Iraqis. Although the Marine Corps initially reported that the Iraqis were killed by the roadside bomb, the investigation has established from forensic evidence and the testimony of survivors that they were executed, shot at close range over a period of hours, with those killed including small children, very elderly people, and disabled people.

The reactions have ranged from unthinking knee-jerks on the far left and right, either calling for instant punishment and to hell with investigation and due process, or announcing that traitors are slandering our innocent troops, to more thoughtful and complex responses from good people of all political persuasions who are disturbed by whatever happened.

One reason this story bothers so many people so much is that it offers only three possible explanations. The first is that it didn’t happen, but there’s too much evidence that says it did, and the more the investigation turns up the clearer it gets. The second possibility is that somehow an entire unit contained a majority of psychopaths, the kind of people who could murder toddlers and people in wheelchairs. Given the fact that psychopaths are fairly rare in any time and place, and given the psychological screening our troops undergo to enlist, that second explanation is also not likely. To those who would say that Soldiers, or Marines, are by their nature bad, I say go back to the 60s and do some more acid. It just doesn’t wash with anyone who thinks or with anyone who actually knows people in the service.

The third possibility, and this is what is so hard for people to understand or accept, is that a group of normal and healthy young Americans could participate in cold, systematic mass murder. But here we need to turn to the words of Sherlock Holmes: “Once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It’s impossible at this point that it didn’t happen, or that 3/1 was somehow manned by monsters unlike the rest of us. That leaves us to the conclusion that at Haditha, and in countless parallel events in many wars, young people like our own sons and brothers, like us and our friends in high school and college, did monstrous things, and that logically, you or I might do similar things under some circumstances.

At this point I have to recommend a book – if anyone has the time and he or she can go and read the book right now, you can skip the rest of this essay. The book is Achilles in Vietnam, by Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who based it on his experience as a V.A. doctor working with traumatized veterans. There are a lot of other books, also excellent, that address this subject, but Achilles may do the best job of any I’ve found. The subtitle of the book is Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character; that captures what probably happened to set the stage for Haditha.

In his book, Shay draws on both veterans’ own stories and on others’ observations of them to describe and illustrate a process. He talks about PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the ways PTSD separates its sufferers from the larger human community, and he goes on to describe complex PTSD, which is what happens when a person suffers overwhelming trauma (experiences involving death, serious injury, or great danger to the sufferer or someone close to him or her, which cause feelings in the sufferer of intense fear, helplessness, and horror), and that trauma is caused by the incompetence or betrayal of people on whom he depends for his life and safety. The examples of this betrayal and incompetence Shay describes in Vietnam included sending troops into combat with inadequate or defective equipment (the early versions of the M16 rifle, mainly), leaders putting them at risk needlessly, leaders lying to them, and leaders failing to share their risks and hardships, and supporting troops failing to do their jobs competently.

In this war, we’re seeing similar betrayals and incompetence – instead of defective rifles, this administration sent our young men and women into combat with inadequate vehicle and body armor. Putting them at risk needlessly? To a Soldier, Marine, Sailor, or Airman who has yet to hear a reasonable explanation for why he or she is in combat at all, this is very relevant. It also applies to situations where the administration ignores the advice of military experts on how to do things, such as disregarding the Marine Corps’ plan for taking Fallujah by quietly slipping into the town from all sides with minimal fanfare and none of the preliminary shelling and bombing that turned it into something that looked like Stalingrad, and forcing them to wage a bloody frontal assault.

Leaders lying to their people – the troops heard all the same rationales as the rest of us about WMDs, then about Saddam Hussein threatening his neighbors, then about our goal of creating peace and democracy, and they’ve seen that none of those held water. The troops have also repeatedly experienced involuntary extensions and multiple combat tours; they’ve learned that they can’t trust the system’s word about when they’ll be able to come home, or that they won’t be abruptly sent back sooner than promised.

Given the complete power of life and death the military system holds over the troops, the best analogy is that of a small child who suddenly realizes that he or she can’t trust Mom and Dad to tell the truth or to protect him or her, and that they may even put the kid in lethal danger for no good reason. Anyone out there who experienced severe abuse and neglect as a small child? You may recall that cold, lonely feeling inside the day you knew you couldn’t count on the grownups to look out for you or even not to hurt or kill you. I know I remember it like it was yesterday, and that epiphany was over 40 years ago for me. That’s what our troops face. That’s what Dr. Jonathan Shay describes as complex PTSD, as compared to a simpler form.

The effects of complex PTSD are shattering and profound. It alters the personality, sometimes for a while, sometimes permanently. One of the changes seen is a shrinking of the social horizon – the number of people who matter, about whom the person cares – from the human race in general to a small circle of friends living in the same nightmare, or sometimes even one friend. In the perception of the traumatized trooper, no one else understands what he/she is going through, no else cares, no one else can be trusted, no one else can or will help him/her stay alive, and in the last analysis, no one else matters or is worth being concerned about. A person in this state can kill others, or watch their deaths, with no empathy. Along with the ability to empathize with strangers, the very capacity to trust is destroyed – it isn’t only trust in the betrayers that goes, but the ability to trust anyone under any circumstances. This is why the classic portrait of the traumatized vet includes a fair degree of paranoia. So anyone who isn’t part of that tiny circle becomes the enemy, or potentially so.

Living in an environment filled with improved explosive devices, with mines and boobytraps, where nothing is guaranteed to be what it appears to be and innocent-seeming objects and people can suddenly erupt into cataclysmic violence and death, goes even further, destroying the person’s ability to trust even his/her own perceptions and senses and heightening the paranoia.

Another effect of complex PTSD is the phenomenon of berserking. A complex PTSD sufferer develops the capacity to go berserk, to suddenly snap and engage in impulsive and savage acts of violence without regard for danger to self or others and without regard for any moral, legal, or ethical standards he/she would normally follow. Berserking is characterized by a cold rage and a seemingly insatiable bloodlust.

There are a number of other ways that PTSD, and especially complex PTSD, twist people into forms their own mothers wouldn’t recognize. But the ones I’ve described above are enough to explain Haditha, as they explained My Lai and an infinite number of other slaughters carried out by “good guys” since prehistory. If you take good, healthy, ordinary young American men and women and subject them to the traumas that produce complex PTSD, most of them will become more than capable of doing things they would never have believed and may have trouble believing of themselves in the years afterward. That’s one of the scars it leaves, the fact that a person sees a monster in the mirror for the rest of his/her life. It’s a big factor in the high suicide rate among Vietnam vets, and now among Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

People resist this, because it scares us. It’s much more comfortable to tell ourselves that we would never, could never, do things like that, and anyone who could must be insane or evil. That way we’re safe. It happened to them because there was something wrong with them, not because they just happened to be in a situation that broke them and could break us too. The truth is, though, that it’s statistically almost impossible for that group of Marines to have been collectively any sicker than any similarly sized group of the rest of us, and it’s very likely that if you or I had gone through what those young Marines have gone through, we might have started kicking open doors and shooting whoever was inside too.

Ordinarily, the thing that prevents this in wartime – when it is prevented – is leadership. Good leaders are able to keep their own balance, and act as the conscience of their troops, because they haven’t gone through complex PTSD themselves and because their troops respect and trust them. But when you create a situation where the chain of command itself may be the enemy, this function of leadership breaks down. At the lower levels, the officers and staff noncommissioned officers may be just as badly broken as their Soldiers and Marines. And for any leader not part of the immediate circle of survival, not sharing the risks, the destruction of the capacity to trust takes with it respect and willingness to obey.

So in the case of Haditha, the reaction of some of us is not, “How could they?” but “Of course - what did you expect?” It’s sadness for the victims of the massacre and their surviving family members, but also for the broken men who committed the crime. It is a crime, and if the investigation concludes the way it looks as if it will, we will have to charge the men who pulled the triggers and try them via court-martial. It’s shameful, though, that those who created the situation will suffer no consequences.

When I was on active duty, I served in two infantry battalions, and one of them was 3/1, that same battalion. I was a lance corporal and then a corporal in 3/1, from the time I was 19 until I was almost 21; I was a mortar gunner and squad leader, and I cross-trained as a machine gunner and radio operator. I remember a lot of things about that time, from field exercises to barracks clean-ups and platoon parties to long philosophical discussions at night and an impromptu chess tournament we got going once. I remember the guys I served with, a very ordinary group of young American men from all over. When I visualize those guys I remember and what these Marines and Soldiers today are going through, it makes my chest ache.

When people talk airily about sending in the troops, about kicking ass and taking names, about “taking out” somebody or other, this is what they’re talking about. When it’s a justified and necessary war like World War II, it’s bad enough. In World War II, we knew why we were at war, and it made sense. In World War II, the leadership at all levels shared risks in a way that would be astonishing today – there was a member of the Roosevelt family on the beach in France on D-Day. Several members of FDR’s cabinet had young relatives in uniform. In this war, where we haven’t been given a good reason for being there yet, where the people making the decisions share no risks, where the chain of command is as much the enemy to the troops on the line as any insurgent or terrorist, it’s far worse. There is no possible justification for an unnecessary war or for one in which leadership is not moral. People will argue that our troops are adults who volunteered, and so somehow, it’s supposed to be okay for them to be misused, abused and traumatized. Well, it’s not okay. They volunteered to fight if it was necessary to defend our national security; this war isn’t doing that. They volunteered in return for the promise that the government and the military would deal squarely with them. That hasn’t happened. They entered into a contract with the government, and the government is welshing on its end.

Elections are coming up. If we allow this to continue in our names and don’t do whatever we can to stop it, we take on responsibility for it as well. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” When we look at what happened at Haditha and what led up to it, we are staring naked evil in the face. All of us are vulnerable to doing evil if circumstances conspire to break our capacity for virtue – what some philosophers call catastrophic moral luck – and all of us should see ourselves in those Marines and in the people they killed. The answer is not to turn the dead into martyrs or the killers into demons, but to stop creating situations that destroy souls.

Please write to your members of Congress and let them know what you think and what you want to see them do. Please campaign for anti-war candidates between now and November, and please vote for them. Sometimes the patriotic thing to do is to say, “Stop. We’ve done wrong, and we need to stop it.” I love my country, I love our people in uniform, and I love humanity too much to sit here and not try to do something to change this.

  1. 9 Responses to “War, PTSD, and Atrocities”

  2. By chicago dyke on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    It’s shameful, though, that those who created the situation will suffer no consequences.

    this is our Duty. we must hold them accountable, for the sake of the Marines you describe as well as the iraqi dead. i take it as a sacred duty, one as important as the oaths i swore when i joined up.

    you’re spot on to talk about PTSD, it was clear to me as soon as the details started coming out that this is what happened. and like you, i thought “well, it’s not unexpected if you know anything about combat.” what makes me the most angry is that many of the people in uniform signed up to protect our boarders, not go off on some adventure, and the prancing cowboy is too cowardly to enact a draft for his little war.

    i have great worry for our troops. it seems to me that the combination of the factors you describe will create more victims of PTSD than all of vietnam- there wasn’t a stop loss situation like we have now. i would think that more than anything else, the knowledge that they will never go home contributes to stress in our troops. the republicans have decided to make this election all about “staying the course” and i fear they may get their way, thanks to our lapdog media and some spineless dems. i fear that when our troops finally do come home, a very large number of them will be tremendously messed up.

    thank you for the stimulation this morning. it’s time to put that to work.

  3. By ann on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    Excellent, thought provoking stuff, as usual, LJ.

    Incidentally, I watched this last night and, for the first time in a long time, went to sleep with a sense that there is some hope after all.




  4. By Paul Merda on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    Essentially this post is what Rep Murtha said right after the news broke this story…no??  Great post and great points LJ, thanks for a more-or-less first hand account…

  5. By Tammara on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    as soon as i heard of the haditha incident, i knew what it was.  i too am a ptsd victim, from over 40 years ago, and your description of the situation is exactly right on.

    i also watched my uncles home from vietnam, 2 of which experienced horrors like this, one who did nothing but drive officers around safely in saigon, and one a medic.  three of them suffered from various levels of ptsd, guess which ones?  the medic has healed on some level, 1 of the pair that was in the tet offensive has died of agent orange cancer and never healed his mind, the other struggles still.  the driver… he understands that the others saw what he did not, he feels guilty, but the path of his life looks nothing like the other 3.  

    one could lay the difference down to natural attitudes/personalities or something similar, but, the facts are that ptsd derailed the process of their lives, and they had to live with this.

    i hear the sounds of this in my husbands voice as he talks to me.  i heard it from him just the other day, when he spoke to me and a mortar came over the wall of his compound, blasting something close enough to interfere the internet/phone connection for a second.  he asked me to hold, went to look out the door of hs trailor and came back to say something i never thought i would hear from him.  i will not post it here, i think it unfair to the young man i used to know, and may perhaps know again someday, god willing.  

    you are correct in saying that  haditha is not an isolated incident, no more than ma lai was.  i will expect we hear more about other incidents… such as the marines who are charged with dragging a man from his  home, killing him and planting evidence on him to justify that killing.  i’ve held another young vet as he cried and told me that this is what he was taught to do in the first week he was in iraq, the unit leaving taught him and his buddies that this was s.o.p. in the area they were in.  they were told that it was better to kill the “ragheads” or “hajis” when they found them, rather than wait and have to face them when they were armed. 

    is this what we the people meant to do to our young ones when we sent them to iraq to “protect our freedoms here at home”?  i don’t think so, and if not, it is absolutely our job, our responsibility to get them home, and do it right now.   

    as usual lj- i thank you for your contribution- i hope it opens the eyes of some who do not understand the nature of ptsd.  i unfortunately, understand it all too well. 

  6. By ken grandlund on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    Thanks LJ for a valuable post and primer for those of us who have never experienced the trauma of PTSD. And you are right about the American people needing to take responsibility for the actions of our leaders. We empower them through the vote, and while half the country may not have voted for Bush, odds are that their representatives are walking the Bush line. It is those folks we need to hold even more responsible than the president. they are his front line enablers.


  7. By Laura on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    Wonderful job, LJ.  Ever since I heard about Haditha this is what I thought had happened.  The people fighting for us are men and women who are facing gunfire, explosions, and death and mutilating injuries of their fellow soldiers on a daily basis and whose tours have been extended or who have been sent on multiple tours.  The fact that we have Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are homeless shows that the leadership of this country is failing these people horribly at home.  The leadership’s failure in this countries is even worse.  

    Unfortunately, any investigation into this or any other incident will not look into the leadership of these troops.  

    I just hope that these people get the help that they need.   


  8. By Liberal Army Wife on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    LJ, I have to echo what the others have said. Beserking, “losing it”. I talked to my son and daughter in law, both of whom got back from the Sand a couple of years ago. Neither of them were surprised at Haditha. They are surprised that there aren’t more Hadithas.

    Heaven help us all when this all hits the fan. What pisses me off the most… the cuts in VA funding/counseling. How short sighted can we get? Let’s just ask this administration..

    YO, Emmet, got anything to say here? C’mon… nothing pithy? tos? slinking out from under the rock??


  9. By 4Truth on Jun 28, 2006 | Reply

    Republican Congress got a Raise & CUT VA Benefits to pay for it.

  10. By madfrit on Jul 17, 2006 | Reply

    Hyper-vigilance bordering on incessant. Constantly on alert, constantly assessing the area, surveying, watching intently, it becomes impossible to hold a conversation as the hyper analysis starts. It is like all my senses become enhanced, hearing, sense of smell and feeling any shift in the air.

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