Individual Honor versus Unpleasant History
The Battle Still Rages Over What Vietnam Means
"The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie -- the truth lies rather outside, in what we do."
Soldiers and veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and other wars are killing themselves, according to Sixty Minutes, at a rate of 22-a-day. For any fair-minded person whose mind is not locked into a dehumanized state of war-justifying numbness, that is both incredible and unacceptable.
The Sixty Minutes story focused on Clay Hunt, an otherwise strong and attractive 26-year-old Iraq/Afghan Marine veteran who shot himself. His devastated parents and his closest war-buddy were interviewed, each revealing great pain and the deepest of human bonds with the man. Agonizing self-blame was expressed along with the tears.
The question hovering over the story was: Why did he do it? He had undertaken important humanitarian work in Haiti following the earthquake there; he was smart, physically healthy and beloved by women; he seemed a guy ready to grab the world by the tail and accomplish important things.
To everyone from the reporter to the relatives and friends it was a perplexing mystery. Why did he do it? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was appropriately mentioned; survival guilt was discussed. Video of Hunt in Haiti showed him saying that as a Marine he felt he had done a lot of good in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he added that he had seen and done “horrible” things.
“But that’s war,” he told the person filming him on a truck in Haiti. In Haiti, he said, he felt he could do good without being shot at or having to kill anyone.
The elephant in the room no one seemed willing to recognize was the idea of moral damage. Asking bright, strong young men like Hunt to fight wars like Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Vietnam before that -- can be like luring an unsuspecting animal into a trap. The bait is the powerful call to do something good for your country, to sacrifice for a larger purpose. The trap, of course, is the fact wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam are never what the drumbeat of homefront-oriented propaganda says they are.
For the Claude Rains character in Casablanca an expression of shock that there is gambling going on at Rick’s nightclub is an ironic joke on the French officer's corruption. But for some young Americans, the discovery that there is dissimulation in the corridors of power in Washington -- that the war he or she has been sent to sacrifice in is not what it was billed to be -- is a true shock to the moral system they may be unable to accommodate or escape.