Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Book review: Soldiers of 'Untold War' bear the awful moral burden alone

By Bill Williams

Most civilians are unaware of the physical and psychic horrors endured by soldiers,‭ ‬according to this timely new book by Nancy Sherman,‭ ‬a professor at Georgetown University.

Sherman says up front that‭ ‬The Untold War‭ “‬is not a political tract for or against a war.‭” ‬Rather,‭ ‬it is about‭ “‬the inner battles‭ … ‬the moral weight of war that individual soldiers carry on their shoulders and don’t usually talk about.‭”

Sherman interviewed numerous soldiers and officers who described their conflicted emotions on and off the battlefield.‭ “‬They feel pride and patriotism tinged with shame,‭ ‬complicity,‭ ‬betrayal,‭ ‬and guilt,‭” ‬she writes.‭ ‬Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,‭ ‬with symptoms that can last for decades.

Soldiers should‭ “‬not have to bear the moral burdens of war on their own,‭” ‬Sherman writes.‭ “‬We need to begin to cultivate the kind of empathy that will allow us to support our soldiers properly when they return home to our communities.‭”

One can’t help but feel sadness and anger when reading about the brutality and ugliness of war,‭ ‬the occasional resort to torture,‭ ‬the killing of civilians referred to as‭ “‬collateral damage‭” ‬and the heavy toll of smashed bodies and minds.

Sherman describes the work of one expert who tries‭ “‬to turn reluctant-to-kill soldiers into ready-to-kill soldiers‭” ‬who know the difference between‭ “‬murder and justified,‭ ‬lawful killing in war.‭” ‬One challenge,‭ ‬she says,‭ ‬is making sure that soldiers‭ “‬preserve their humanity‭” ‬in the midst of killing.

Soldiers must be encouraged to get in touch with their emotions,‭ ‬rather than bottle them up and pretend that everything is fine,‭ ‬the author says.

Because Sherman is a professor,‭ ‬philosopher and psychoanalyst,‭ ‬her writing sometimes has an off-putting academic tone.‭ ‬She calls this book a‭ “‬philosophical ethnography‭” ‬and quotes liberally from Plato,‭ ‬Aristotle,‭ ‬Cicero,‭ ‬Kant,‭ ‬Nietzsche,‭ ‬Freud and others to make her points about war and ethics,‭ ‬which sometimes leads to dry prose.

Sherman is more compelling when she offers case histories based on her interviews.‭ ‬One poignant story involves Maj.‭ ‬Tony DeStefano,‭ ‬a married man in his‭ ‬50s who was diagnosed with severe post-combat trauma and mild traumatic brain injury related to the war in Iraq,‭ ‬and is racked with guilt and shame about not being able to support his family because of his injuries.‭ ‬One of DeStefano’s teenage daughters told Sherman,‭ “‬The second time he came home he was totally different.‭ ‬He wasn’t the dad I knew.‭ ‬He snapped a lot‭; ‬he’d go‭ ‬100‭ ‬miles per hour in the car.‭ ‬It’s so scary.‭”

When DeStefano suffered a massive panic attack,‭ ‬his doctor suggested inpatient treatment at a Veterans Administration hospital.‭ ‬DeStefano balked,‭ ‬saying that if he sought such help,‭ ‬it would be‭ “‬a disgrace to the officer class,‭” ‬explaining later that‭ “‬we’re taught to suck it up and truck on.‭”

Unfortunately,‭ ‬many of the profiles are too short and superficial to leave lasting impressions.‭ ‬Sherman talks in general terms,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬about returning soldiers who engage in‭ “‬risky and aggressive behavior:‭ ‬motorcycle accidents on bases,‭ ‬bar-room brawls,‭ ‬and domestic violence.‭”

Some officers and soldiers,‭ ‬according to Sherman,‭ ‬feel profound shame‭ “‬that we have become a country that has morally and legally justified the use of torture.‭ … ‬The fact of torture has opened disturbing questions of identity‭ – ‬just what does the uniform stand for and what are the ideals that they have signed up to defend‭?”

Sherman also describes the moral ambiguity of various interrogation techniques that involve stress and deception,‭ ‬but fall short of torture,‭ ‬and she faults health professionals for their role in the mistreatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Detention Center.

An estimated‭ ‬30‭ ‬percent of soldiers return from Iraq with emotional problems.‭ ‬The number of those who need treatment for brain injuries,‭ ‬lost limbs and post-traumatic stress symptoms is growing.

Soldiers struggle with ambiguity.‭ ‬One soldier thought that his killing an enemy soldier was fine,‭ ‬until he approached the body and took out the wallet,‭ ‬which contained family pictures.

‭“‬The pictures were like those he carries in his wallet,‭” ‬Sherman writes.‭ “‬That empathic moment unleashed a torrent of guilt.‭”

Many people do not realize the extent of limb injuries and disfigurement in Iraq and Afghanistan.‭ “‬We don’t see the wheelchairs,‭ ‬the canes,‭ ‬the stumps,‭ ‬the prosthetics,‭ ‬the burns,‭ ‬the empty eye sockets.‭” ‬Soldiers often are scarred by the memory of collecting the body parts of comrades killed in roadside bombings,‭ ‬sometimes having to retrieve limbs from tree branches.

Although this book has weaknesses,‭ ‬it nevertheless sheds light on an important topic that has received too little attention from the general public‭ – ‬the crushing burden carried by soldiers who return home broken by the terrors they have experienced or witnessed.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The Untold War:‭ ‬Inside the Hearts,‭ ‬Minds,‭ ‬and Souls of Our Soldiers,‭ ‬by Nancy Sherman‭; ‬Norton‭; ‬338‭ ‬pp.‭;‬ $27.95

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