Last night five other members of the Interfaith Veterans’ Workgroup and I sat for the film recording of conversation between us about what is was like coming home from war, some stages in our recovery, and what we found most helpful along that journey. I will share the film when Serviam Media, the local production company is ready to make it public.
Meanwhile, today I’ll post some reading notes from Tyler E. Boudreau’s book, Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine. He expresses very well the feelings that we six veterans shared last night, especially concerning moral injury:
From Packing Inferno: the Unmaking of a Marine, by Tyler E. Boudreau:
To believe that there could be psychological injuries sustained from the violence we inflicted would be to acknowledge its inherent immorality. A commander must never go walking into that moral field of fire, for he will surely fall. So I traversed around my own conscience and denied the existence of remorse.
Only through genuine acknowledgment that combat stress is an injury, not a disorder, can we ever give uninhibited affection to our wounded.
We don’t have generals on horseback leading the charge anymore. We don’t have commanders pushing waves of assaulting troops across trenches onto enemy strong points. Everything is decentralized. The method of issuing orders had to change to suit the times. You can’t tell a guy when to zig and when to zag. He’s out there alone, making his own choices. He’s zigging and zagging according to his own interpretations of the events in front of him. So we give him what we call “mission-type orders,” which means we don’t tell him how to do his job. We just tell him how we want things to look when he’s done.
To shoot or not to shoot—that was the question. That was always the question in Iraq. To preemptively fire on a person or a vehicle that looked like a threat was not only a tactical problem, it was the central question of the war.
What was particularly disturbing about the IED was that when it detonated, when it killed someone, it really wasn’t a random or detached instance of violence like a falling shell. It was personal. If a Marine looked out into the darkness, he might not see anyone, but he would know just the same that someone—an Iraqi—was out there watching. He’d know because he understood the tactic. He’d know someone was out there watching at that very moment as he collected up the bloody remains of a mangled friend while his ears were still ringing from the blast.
Embracing the violence was not a choice; it was a necessity. On the battlefield, a soldier must befriend the darker side of his nature to participate in the fight, to survive, to win, to pull that trigger—he must degrade his own humanity.
That is why I use the word disparity. Because we were there to demonstrate our humanity, not stuff it down inside. We were there for a liberation. We were there to do good deeds and to be a friend to the Iraqi people. That’s what we said. But then we got there, and with every casualty we took our humanity was overwhelmed by a yearning to kill. It is surely difficult to help a people who you would prefer to shoot.
Killing is the culture the soldier has entered. But when folks back home want to glorify what he does for a living, that fact is often forgotten. He defends, they say. He sacrifices. He supports. He secures. But he never kills, not in the posters, not in the speeches, not in the news, nowhere. Nowhere back home does the soldier kill. But within the gates of any base or any fort, the notion of killing is mentioned so frequently, and with such nonchalance or even zeal, that it becomes a completely acceptable element of every soldier’s consciousness.