Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Unknown Cost

Yesterday I sat down for an interview with a local news station airing a short segment for the upcoming 6th anniversary for the Iraq War. Before being placed on camera, I asked what, specifically, was the “take” of this piece. The Iraq War, after all, is a big subject.

The reporter explained that she recently interviewed a woman whose son is a veteran of the Iraq War, and this mother lamented several things. First, that her son was now irrevocably changed, that he suffered from alcoholism, and also exhibited suicidal tendencies. Second, she expressed great disdain for the war itself and what it does to the nation’s young people. Thirdly, she felt it was a foolish and costly waste of time and that we should withdraw immediately before any more veterans suffer as her son clearly has.

Based upon what the reporter had read online about my scattered interviews over the years, as well as what she had read on my blog and web page, she believed that I served as a good “pro” to this mother’s “con.” But in all truth, only moderately.

Foremost, my opinion on the Iraq War is not so polarized and oversimplified. I will speak neither in overwhelming favor nor in rabid opposition of it. I don’t like the war, to be honest, and I would sincerely question the moral virtue of any man who said he DID like war. Such a pronouncement approaches the realm of psychopathy, not the responsible citizen or political leader who understands the complexity, inherent tragedy, and imperfection of war itself.

Of similar import is that I am not thoroughly satisfied with the conduct, tempo, and overall prosecution of the Iraq War. Any who suggest they are have not closely examined its high cost (under ANY circumstance). Once again, I don’t like war.

I do not wish my statements (on air or online) to ever appear callus or insensitive to the high cost of war. In fact, I have always made an effort to increase awareness to such issues. Thus, I wish to submit, in addendum to yesterday’s interview, that I am extremely sympathetic to this mother’s situation, her son’s condition, and fully aware (including personally) that war, victory, and the defense of this nation demands a much higher cost than typically acknowledged. For every one man or woman that falls in combat, there are perhaps dozens or even hundreds that are injured or somehow maimed. An even higher number will return to the United States and struggle with more intangible, but every bit as real, wounds – namely PTSD and all its periphery disorders. I have been blessed to return in one piece physically, yet I, too, have confronted my fair share of emotional difficulty as a consequence of my combat service. What her son struggles with now is, though to a differing degree, are the very same issues I have encountered myself.

Though I have written about it already at length, I still only understand in part the level of sacrifice involved with war. It is definitely high, to state the obvious, and there are a number of casualties that are often ignored in final (or running) tallies. Naturally, those killed in action command the greatest attention, and rightfully so, but this must NEVER come at the expense of the those that live daily with the cost of war. This doesn’t simply include physically and psychologically injured veterans, but their families as well.

While no man or woman can truly understand the full extent of sacrifice that may be demanded of them in military service, when confronted with its gravity, the vast majority conduct themselves bravely, nobly, and with total disregard to self preservation. They serve with honor, and continue to do so until their time of service has ended. And many reenlist, not only sufficient numbers to maintain the goals of the military, but enough to drastically swell their ranks (as has happened over the past two years).

In reality, I know of no man that, while in the throes of combat itself, ruminates about patriotism, service to country and other lofty ideologies. He, more likely than not, is concerned with three things: killing the enemy, protecting this brothers (and sisters) to either side, and the far lesser consideration of staying alive. The first two take total primacy to the latter. There is immense honor in this. Yet should he survive – and most do – there is a continual cost for one’s willing service to country.

Drastically distilled, the fundamental tenet of our country is the ability to speak, think, worship and live without fear of persecution. No citizen should live in fear of leaders, authority figures, or foreign invaders. The purpose of the military, at its very core, is to ensure that final point: fear from foreign invaders. But it is far more complicated than simply dispatching the enemy. In truth, it requires the shouldering of fear on behalf of the nation.

This fear manifests as concern. The servicemember is concerned for the safety of his or her family, friends, and fellow countrymen. Yet rather than allow them all to live with a feeling of terror and impotence in the face of threats, the servicemember will fear for them. He will fear for his life and the lives of his comrades; he will fear he may never see his family again, and he will fear returning to the states missing limbs or otherwise maimed. But duty and obligation, love for family, country and freedom are a stronger sentiment still. THEIR peace of mind and their safety are of greater import. Such a calling is among the noblest acts of selflessness.

Emotionally, there are a number of other sacrifices that aren’t frequently mentioned – perhaps in part because they are poorly understood. For us, there is a total ceding of peace. A veteran will forever battle his own emotions. He will always question if a decision he made was a wrong one. He will question if certain deaths were preventable had he issued different orders or thought more creatively. He will suffer survivor’s guilt that he made it home and some of his friends did not. He will question his humanity, since the act of killing grew from a distant idea to a very gruesome reality and split-second decision. He will question his performance, the nobility of his service, and even the merit of the war itself. He will have nightmares.

For the veteran, the idea of deadly force and killing was initially restricted to the imagination, to movies, and books. They are a far cry from the act itself. To overcome the innate disinclination to kill requires the awakening of a second self – a violent one that is capable of accomplishing terrible things in the name of a greater good (and defense of one’s peers). It is ugly, grotesque, frequently frightening even to us, but necessary for the prosecution of war. It is also perhaps the biggest source of struggle for the veteran.

The most overt signs of this second self are a very keen sense of observation, hyperawareness to one’s surroundings, and quick, automatic responses to certain stimuli – often so rapid that they appear to bypass the brain. Military training and conditioning have been fine-tuned to maximize the creation of this character, and we, as veterans, submit to its cultivation because it keeps us alive, accomplishes the mission, and brings many more home safely than would otherwise be possible. It is the creation of a warrior, however, NOT (as some naively say), a monster, or indiscriminate killing machine.

A monster DOES kill indiscriminately, yet warriors do not. Statistically, veterans show NO indication of a greater proclivity to violence or crime than any of their civilian counterparts, which dispels the myth that the military creates hellions for war, unleashes them on the enemy, and then carelessly returns them, ill-adapted, to civilian life.

In truth, the act of killing is still so odious that it remains a reluctant response to even the most powerful and violent of attacks. No matter how just, it is counter to human nature itself. We will have nightmares, and spend the remainder of our lives questioning our actions – down to the minutiae of the situation. This element is easily turned off because it remained, at best, terribly unnatural to turn on. What is NOT easily extinguished, however, is the awareness, the alertness, the quick responses, and the knowledge that we, at one time, took the life of another. We have lost our ability to appreciate peace, because we now know war. We have lost our innocence.

This “carnal knowledge,” so to speak, is the very thing that limits a veteran’s ability to enjoy the normalcy of post-military life. We fought for peace, but now we’re forever looking for the enemy, watching, waiting, and mulling over our past actions. There is no killing machine at all, but an awakened warrior, who, having fought in war, is now no longer able to set down his arms. This knowledge is what so vexes veterans. This vast and fundamental difference between us and civilians is what drives many veterans to isolation, self-destructive habits, and tragically, suicide. Among other substances, they drink to forget the warrior, to numb the alerted senses, and to drown the visions of the past. The adoption of arms was a total relinquishment of peace. The killer was a matter of necessity and remained alive for as long as the fight, but the warrior will always be there, and will always be haunted by the war.

Though veterans WANT to fit in, many cannot. The warrior, the second self that required a wholehearted commitment for the sake of duty, country, and peers, cannot be extinguished. His character shadows the normal self indefinitely. Here is the PTSD. Here are the demons. Here also is the substance abuse. Here are the nightmares, and here is the facet of oneself that forever separates the veteran from the civilian. Poorly understood, often feared (unjustly), and often ignored even by the veteran himself, it drives a deep wedge between being us, and the enjoyment of peaceful, routine, even mundane life – the life most of us crave.

We abuse ourselves with self-doubt so you don’t have to. We are depressed so you needn’t be. We are hyperaware and edgy so you can have the freedom to relax. We watched our brothers die so you were sheltered from it. We killed so you would never experience the need. We sacrificed a clean conscience so you can enjoy one. We irrevocably lost our peace so you could live in it. Our payment to you extends far beyond our short, youthful service. And our loved ones and friends, confronted with a forever-changed man or woman, will tragically forever pay with us.

I am not an apologist for war, since it is an evil intended to defeat a greater evil. We hate it, in fact, and hate what it has done to us. Yet we willingly admit its purpose. For as long as evil men exist and carry out atrocities on others, a similar evil, though curiously girded in selflessness and duty, will be sent against them. It is us. In war, all pay, even the victors. The warrior sacrifices the peace for which he fought.

This veteran’s mother has my fullest sympathy, since her plight is similar to that which my own mother endured from me after each of my three tours in Iraq. The veteran himself also has my sympathy because I have struggled with the same things he now faces. As much as I am able, I will go through this with him, since our wound is a common one. Millions of others, from all wars, have battled this.

In many ways, my sympathy lies more with the loved ones of veterans, since their payment, unlike ours, is involuntary. We, though only somewhat aware of the full measure that would be required of us, took an oath to our country and to our constitution. And in the thick of battle, we learned that it was vast. When we returned, we discovered we still had much to pay. Those who love us, consumed with grief in our suffering, pay with us. As a nation, we all pay in part.

But as for veterans, we are still learning the cost; and it is high. To a large extent, we are unable to even enjoy the fruits of our labor. But our country can, and it is for them that we ceded what we did. And now, we ask that they rally and help us; that they enjoy their peace and help us find some of our own.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Thank you, not only to you Ben, but to everyone who has sacrificed so much... We live in such comfort and naiveness to the world around. Our children do not have to know the pain of war, but those children in Iraq do, our children, even in the midst of recession don't know hunger, but those children in Iraq do. This post invoked so many thoughts for me, thank you for writing so clearly and with an open mind and heart. Thank you for making me realize what I have because of the people who protect my freedom. I have lived in 3rd World countries and seen poverty and the devastating results of war and the inhumane nature of soldiers who are not trained to protect freedom but to massacre humans with no regard for life, I have seen it!! And yet it has been easy to forget to crawl back into my comfort zone and let everyone else do the work.

  2. Awesome, Ben! I wish everyone in the entire world would read your post. You have taught me so much about the war and the results of it. My eyes have been opened. I agree with Anon. above. I am so appreciative of your (and others) sacrifice. We, as a society, just don't get it. Or perhaps, it is that we don't want to.

  3. I wish I had seen the interview.