by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - June 16, 2008) Some years back, before coverage of the Iraq war had become routinized and redundant, I wrote a column in which I suggested that one of the most painful legacies of that war would be the moral corruption that would seep into American society due to the traumas suffered by returning servicemen. These young men, many of them just out of school and at the threshold of their maturity, would return to civilian life psychologically disturbed and morally confused; that we would be creating a league of men and women who, coarsened by their wartime experiences, would return to America with a criminal consciousness.
It gives me no satisfaction to discover that prophecy has been fulfilled. The Rand Corporation study recently concluded that one in five troops with service in Iraq or Afghanistan reveal symptoms of major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans by the score have returned to civilian life broken, guilt-ridden, disorientated, and socially marginalized. Over 400,000 of returning vets are in a VA queue waiting to be treated by a dwindling number of psychiatrists. Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, are unable to reconcile their former selves with the warped and troubled young men they have become due to their battle experience. These are the men who, in irrepressible fits of rage, shoot their wives, abuse their children, hit the bottle, sleep in cardboard boxes under bridges, and often wind up taking their own lives.
You can't be brought up on American pie, David Letterman and Jay Leno, the moral dictates of baseball, football, locker-room jollity and conventional domesticity and calmly assimilate the ravages to which servicemen are regularly exposed in the Middle East. It is like Jekyll, no longer seeing his own face reflected in the mirror, shuddering at the bestiality of Hyde staring back at him.
The corruption of hundreds of thousands of American youths, exposed to the daily strain of wanton murder and mayhem, cannot return to their mundane hometowns and simply flush away the atrocities they have witnessed or committed. The turbulent effect of this moral dichotomy seeps into every part of American life. It changes attitudes to sickness, death, families, and friendship. It breeds young men and women who come to believe that life is not priceless and full of promise, but treacherous and full of landmines. It cheapens the very notion of goodness and permits cynicism to destroy hope. It shakes people's faith in God and whittles away any sense of empathy they might have had before their spirits were shattered by warfare. It silently argues that life is cheap, torture commonplace, and murder mundane.
A few weeks back at a hearing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a number of Iraq Vets Against The War were offered an opportunity to describe the atrocities they had witnessed and participated in; young men whose lives were radically changed by the bloody-minded immorality of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld punishment of duty in Iraq. It was a riveting piece of C-SPAN coverage more frightening than a horror film and, at the same time, more uplifting than the Sermon on the Mount. The testimonials of these returning-vets described how military superiors ordered them to distort facts about the annihilation of innocent Iraqi citizens, how a warped sense of "brotherhood" enabled cold-blooded murder to be tucked away in false military reports so that no one back home would shudder at the wanton murder of civilians, women, children, and the elderly. They described the freedom from prosecution that non-commissioned officers and officers provided to protect them against indictment or disgrace; the conscious cultivation of rationalizations which sanctified the murder of non-combatants and the willful destruction of private property. In almost every case, the veterans testifying before the caucus declared that more innocent civilians were wantonly killed by US troops than Americans felled by insurgents.
Centuries will have to pass before the common people of Iraq will be able to forgive America for its crimes. But even if they do, how will we ever manage to reconcile the entire population of the Middle East that will have turned these atrocities into a kind of harrowing folk legend which will be passed from father to son, from one generation to the next?
This coarsening of the body politic is perhaps best exemplified by the Terrible Threesome -- Bush, Cheney, & Rumsfeld -- who were the chief architects of this Middle East tragedy. The belligerence commingled with paranoia that instigated the war was immune to the human cost of the conflict. Even when it was apparent to most observers that a fatal blunder had been made, the lurid spectacle of over 4000 deaths never inspired a reassessment or a change of policy. (How "surge" led to "scourge" and inevitably to "dirge.") The dead were somehow like pawns who were to be sacrificed so that more valuable chess figures could be preserved. While the president was sacrificing his beloved pursuit of golf, the vice president was taking potshots at old friends on shooting-parties, and Donald Rumsfeld was systematizing the brutality that simultaneously corrupted American servicemen and attracted more and more recruits into the armies of insurrection. It became "natural" not to prey on the number of the dead, to ignore "enemy combatants" divested of all rights, who were imprisoned or, via "rendition," transported into other countries where torture was commonplace. All of these actions added to the coarsening of the American psyche. Allowances were regularly made for the perpetration of evil deeds camouflaged with patriotic slogans and solemnly-folded American flags. When historians review the sorry history of the last eight years, what will capture their attention is the apathy of the American people to transgressions committed by the executive branch and the timidity of the media in confronting those glaring abuses of power. One of the sorriest chapters in American history whose dire after-effects we will be living with well into the next century.
If it is a question of victory or defeat, the results are already in. When democratically-bred Americans can create a My Lai-styled slaughter amongst hundreds of thousands of noncombatants and force millions into exile, America has already been defeated. Of course, the victors will write the history books, but the shame will be passed by word of mouth (like the Turks' genocide of the Armenians) from one generation to the next memorializing these horrific truths. Forget about the guilt of slavery, the atrocities of the Civil War, the disgrace of Vietnam, or the injustices of McCarthyism, the slaughter of the innocent in a war that should never have been fought will haunt the national consciousness for centuries and the scars of that misadventure will darken the souls of average Americans forever after. A new and fashionable coarseness will have infected the population; a tacit tolerance towards brutality will adhere to Americans who will always remember this conflict, not in the way that the fraternal "Greatest Generation" remember World War II, but like the concentration camp survivors remember the Holocaust.
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