Thursday, March 02, 2006

On moral "absolutism": Aw, don't feel bad. Don't feel bad! I said stop!

Okay, so a couple of months ago, I was a passenger in a car that was in an accident on the highway. I didn't even see much of it; I was reading in the back seat, I heard a loud bang, felt a hard jolt and looked up to see our car swinging into oncoming traffic. Not fun stuff, but the driver was skilled and level-headed and no one came out of it with anything more than a little bit of whiplash (me).

The thing is, after that, I was shaky. Seriously shaky. When I was driving and another car would change lanes into the one next to mine, I'd find myself white-knuckled and sweating, waiting for impact. I stuck to the right hand lane and became that annoying person who always drives the speed limit. And one memorable evening, as I shopped for bathroom fixtures, someone banged their shopping cart into the corner of the metal shelves and I. Hit. The floor. I found myself crouched on the floor of the Buckhead Target, waiting for it to all happen again. And this was from a car accident.

Now imagine that you've just spent two tours in a row in Iraq, or even in Vietnam all those years ago, and you saw things far worse than a car accident. Imagine that you've seen people blown up, seen people shot, maybe been shot or blown up yourself. You've probably seen dead women, children, the taxi driver who just parked in front of the wrong hotel at the wrong time. No matter how much infrastructure has been repaired and how many schools have been repainted, our men and women in Iraq are dealing with things every day that we in our comfy little air-conditioned personal bubbles can't begin to imagine.

Now imagine that you're back in the States, you're trying to get on with your life, but your brain is still in Iraq. According to the VA inspector general, the VA is paying out compensation for PTSD to nearly twice as many veterans as it was six years ago, many from Vietnam veterans who are only now coming to grips with the psychological scars of their service.

Now imagine that, with all that you're going through and all that your family is dealing with, some idiot on the New York Times op-ed page and another one on the Internet are questioning whether vets actually need such treatment for PTSD, or if maybe they're just looking for a little bit of financial security.

Amanda at Pandagon takes them on quite nicely, and a lot of her commenters make a lot of good points. For anyone to question (a) that our returning troops have seen some really horrible things and (b) that seeing horrible things can mess a person up if s/he doesn't have access to appropriate mental health support is ridiculous. And to claim to support the troops and then deny them the support they really do need - and question whether they might be faking it anyway - is reprehensible.

Charlotte Hays goes so far as to blame the comparatively high rate of PTSD for Iraq war veterans on... well, you. And me. And the evil liberal media:
The profession of arms is an honorable one—but down deep, most of American society no longer believes this. Could this be an added reason for soldiers’ needing psychiatric help? This is not to downplay the very real ordeal of war, but you’ll note that the Iraq war, shunned by the nation’s elite media, has generated “more psychic stress” than Kosovo.

Now, the relatively low rate of PTSD in veterans of the war in Kosovo might have something to with the fact that it was fought largely as an air conflict without a single American casualty. And the number of yellow ribbons shining patriotically from the back of SUVs seems to indicate that Americans do find the profession of arms to be an honorable one - if you believe that yellow ribbons = troop support, which I don't.

I'm far from a licensed therapist, but I daresay that a lot of the emotional stress that Iraq war vets are going through is, in fact, a result of America's insistence that everything is hunky-freaking-dory. People like Charlotte Hays think that if we can all just declare a military career honorable, and tell these folks that they did a super-duper job, and maybe throw them a parade or two, they'll feel great about the whole thing and not have to worry at all or tax our government with their wussy little medical concerns. They did a good thing in Iraq, and if they can't find satisfaction in a job well done, what can the government do for them?

The catch, of course, comes down to the common confusion of what's good and what's right. The Bush administration made a point early on to characterize our enemies not just as bad or wrong, but as evil; that turned our war efforts from a military act toward homeland security into a crusade against the forces of darkness. The problem, though, is that our men and women in uniform aren't fighting against the forces of darkness; they're fighting against human beings, and sometimes they're fighting against the people they're simultaneously trying to protect, and that will mess a person up.

I posted earlier about how people get around "thou shalt not kill" by defining "murder" down to pinpoint specificity. What that overshadows, however, is the fact that killing is always bad. Killing never comes because of good things. Murder is bad, of course, but killing in self-defense is bad, because it means that you were put in a situation where the only right thing to do was to take the life of a person who was alive. Execution is bad because it means that a life (or several) has been taken through horrible acts and that the only suitable punishment that society could muster was to take the life of a person who was alive. Whether the victim is a good person or a bad person, deserves it or doesn't, killing takes a life, and there are usually people left behind to be upset about it. Killing is never good.

But good isn't the same thing as wrong. Killing in self-defense, for instance, isn't wrong. Much of society feels that execution isn't wrong. A Marine in Iraq who sees an eight-year-old running at him in a suicide vest is likely to shoot him, to protect himself, his fellow Marines and everyone else around them. What he did wasn't wrong; it was right. So why does he come home feeling bad about it? Because killing is always bad.

And that's what we're doing to our returning veterans. We're sending them into combat to see and do things that are often right but not always good. Things happen to them, and they see things happen to others, that can't be erased by a painted school or a repaired sewer line or a happy Iraqi kid. And then, when they come home, we say, "Why the long face? You did great over there! You should be proud of the things you did!"

Well, screw us. Of course they've done plenty of good, and most of what they've done is right. But by telling them to buck up and be proud of themselves, we're basically telling them that what they know in their hearts, that they've seen bad things and done some of them, is wrong. We're saddling them with the biggest mental disconnect since A Clockwork Orange and then acting surprised when they "just aren't themselves anymore." It's like bringing a person back from a foreign country and telling him that the US has gone black-and-white in their absence; people keep telling him the world is shades of gray, but he knows he's seeing color.

What our troops is recognition of what is actually going on over there. They don't need platitudes, they don't need empty comforts. What they need is respect, and gratitude, and recognition that war is just as much hell as it was back when Sherman first said it. And they don't need some 101st Fighting Keyboarder telling them that they're not feeling what they're feeling, they don't need the help they need, and it'll all be better after a cup of milk and a nice nap.

No comments: