Casualties of War

By the official count, 3,972 of our troops have been killed in Iraq and another 483 in Afghanistan. More than 29,000 have been wounded (more than 1,800 in Afghanistan). But even these grim numbers may not tell us the full human cost of the war. We are using the same troops over and over again because we have an army that was simply not prepared for such a protracted struggle. It is not uncommon for a soldier to serve three, four, or even five tours. These soldiers have been in combat for a longer period of time than any soldier in World War II. It should not be surprising if such repeated duty took a heavy mental and psychological toll on our troops. I say “it should not be surprising,” but the Bush Administration seems very surprised indeed. The VA doesn't even have statistics on suicides among the returning vets; they can only tell you about those killed while on active duty.

CBS News did it own survey of 45 states, and the results are grim. In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year. Veterans in these 45 states commit suicide at twice the rate of other Americans (18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000, compared to other Americans, who did so at the rate of 8.9 per 100,000.) But one group in particular stands out: those veterans aged 20 to 24 who have served in the so-called “war on terror.” They commit suicide at a rate of between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000, as compared to 8.3 per 100,000. But once again, even this understates the problem, since for every soldier who commits suicide, there is likely to be some number who deal with their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in other ways. And finally, since we use a high number of reserves, many of the casualties are among older men, which leaves a larger proportion of widows and orphans than in most wars.

Everybody likes to say that they support the war; few actually do. I recall my own service in Vietnam. In the popular myth, the public turned against both the war and the soldiers who fought it, but I had no experience like that. Rather, I was not only welcomed home, but the VA system and the VA benefits were excellent. But then the whole country was actually involved in the war. Every mother's son carried a draft card and could be called at any moment. Further, we were asked to actually pay for the war with a surcharge on our income taxes. Further, the news was relatively uncontrolled, and the war was broadcast into homes on a nightly basis, in a way that simply is not permitted today. This war, on the other hand, is an abstraction to most of us; we do not have any personal contact with it. It is largely a political issue, for those interested in politics, and for only a very few a personal issue. It is fought by a “professional army” while the rest of the country absents itself. Even the name, “The War on Terror,” is more of a marketing device than a real description. And we are not even asked to pay for it; rather, we have placed the burden for fighting it on the young (and the unlucky reserves) and debt for it on our children and grandchildren. We are asked to “support” this war, but not to inconvenience ourselves in any way over it.

All of this serves as introduction to the film, In the Valley of Elah, which was released this week on DVD. The movie is loosely based on a true story, that of Specialist Richard Davis, who after returning from Iraq was killed by his own comrades after a night on the town. He was stabbed 33 times and his body burned. The army did not even open an inquiry into his case until 60 days after he was reported AWOL, and even that took badgers from Davis's father, a retired career Military Policeman who went to Fort Benning to investigate his son's disappearance for himself.

In the fictionalized account, Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired military policeman whose son has just returned from Iraq. He gets a call from the Army that his son is AWOL and asking him to call the army if his son shows up. Instead, Deerfield drives two days to his son's base in New Mexico to investigate for himself. Deerfield is a strict military man; you can take Hank out of the army, but you can't take the army out of Hank. Even when staying in a cheap motel, he makes his own bed each morning with tight military corners. Yet from both the army and the local police, he gets only indifference; no one is much interested in the missing veteran. And when his body turns up, burned and in pieces, there is a jurisdictional dispute between the civilian and military police.

Deerfield finally gets some help from Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a single mom and an outsider in the police squad room. The story proceeds as a murder mystery, but while the story is compelling enough by itself, it mostly serves as a framework to examine the meaning of war and its aftermath. Hank thinks he knows what this means, having been through it himself in Vietnam. When early in the investigation, Sanders wants to treat the murdered man's comrades as suspects, Hank tells her that she is wasting her time; men who have shared the dangers of combat together do not turn on each other in murder. Military comradeship is the fixed point in Hank's life, and the idea that it could have devoured his son is such a gruesome way is incomprehensible to him. Is seems that the institutions he has trusted all of his life have turned on him. Hank is connected to his son by only some grainy JPEGs taken in Iraq on his cell phone. It is in slowly deciphering the meaning of these images that the truth of Mike's war comes out.

Susan Serandon plays Hank's wife, Joan. It is practically a cameo role in this film, but in a short space she gives a glimpse of the ocean of grief of a military wife who has lost her son not to battle, but to battle's terrible aftermath. The tension between the old soldier and the grieving mother is palpable. Tommy Lee Jones gives an understated performance, very similar to the one he gave in No Country for Old Men.

This film is moving and entertaining on its own terms, but it is clear that the director wants to direct us towards the whole issue of the American public's relationship to this war. In Vietnam, there were likely any number of people who let their dislike of the war spill over into dislike of those who fought it. Or so I am told; I never actually met any. But in this war, everybody “supports our troops” with yellow ribbons and political rhetoric, but won't accept being inconvenienced in any way. We will not pay for it, and we will not pay for the “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” The returning troops meet with official indifference to wounds that cannot be seen, but are certainly present. Occasionally, public outrage will force a little reform, such as that at the Walter Reed Hospital. And for the visible wounds, the authorities do their best. But when we send so many of our children so many times to the gates of hell, we must expect that they will have some difficulties when they return. And we cannot be indifferent to that.


Athanasius Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 2:57:00 AM CST  

What this brings to mind is a scene in the movie Gladiator, in spite of its absurd plot viz-a-viz restoring the republic, where the Emperor Commodus asks his sister why the people were so excited about the campaign in Germania. No one saw the battles, no one took part in the victory, yet they gave praise and laud to the war, even though it had nothing to do with them. It was for an idea, the glory of Rome.

Comparisons to ancient Rome are tired, overused and often false analogy. Nevertheless I find it interesting that Americans don't have any relation to these battles, they don't know what is really going on, they don't even see much footage of what is going on there. Why do we care? When we cruise the usual suspects of so-called conservative radio, Limbaugh or heretic Hannity, or others we hear endless serenades of how our troops are the best, they can do anything, we still have the best military in the world, etc. etc., yet when do they address the issues brought up in this article? When do they seriously examine the casualties of the war on transitive verbs or the "Bush Doctrine"? It sounds as though the only important thing to them and their listeners is the gloria Americanae.

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