Book Review (longer version): “They Were Soldiers” by Ann Jones – posted 12/15/2013
I wanted to follow up on my earlier post about “They Were Soldiers”, written by Ann Jones. Due to space limitations in the Concord Monitor, I had to make my original piece very brief. I did have more to say about this book.
“They Were Soldiers” tries to do something I have not seen before in war books. Dispensing with the heroic narrative, the book tries to capture the cumulative effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on American soldiers. Most war books tell the story of battles or focus on the heroic details of soldiers’ war-time experience. Jones is up to something very different.
The end of the war for the soldiers is the beginning of the story for Jones. She looks at outcomes for the individual veterans. Not that it should come as a big surprise but what she finds is horrifying. The accumulation of damage done to soldiers has been minimized by the mainstream media.
Jones appropriately starts with those who died in the wars or as they are called “the fallen”. She debunks this polite euphemism. She describes the process for how the specialists of Mortuary Affairs do their job. The job is often ghastly. “The remains” are often that: bodies blown apart where the specialists are searching to identify which pieces belong to which soldier. Contrary to the idea that a battle death will be heroic, she describes a different reality.
“Most will simply put a foot down in the wrong place, or drive over a bomb that leaves only an upper torso wedged behind the steering wheel, or fall into a lake in the dark wearing full body armor.”
Jones quotes a Mortuary Affairs specialist Jessica Goodell who summed up her view of the war:
“War is disgusting and horrific. It never leaves the people who were involved in it. The damage is far greater than the list of casualties or cost in dollars. It permeates lifestyles. It infects cultures and people and worldviews. The war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war.”
Jones then moves to an extensive discussion of the wounded. She argues that American counterinsurgency tactics especially in dismounted patrols have caused many casualties. The military command has forced soldiers to get out of their vehicles and walk in areas strewn with old landmines left by the Russians as well as newly designed improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Jones says many American casualties have occurred as a result. Because of its history. Afghanistan has more buried landmines than probably any country and it has never been de-mined.
She says IEDs have grown bigger and the injuries they cause are worse. Soldiers have been losing more of their bodies in these blasts. Jones says that more than half the soldiers hit by IEDs lose both legs and often fingers, a hand or an arm. She also describes the frequency of smashed genitals.
Jones says the number of the these injuries have not been presented straight up. By early 2012, 3000 soldiers had been killed by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan and 31,394 wounded. Among the wounded were more than 1,800 with severe injuries to their genitals. When Jones asked for an update on these numbers in July 2013, the Department of Defense would not answer. They told her she would have to file a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. It is wrong to speculate about the number but they did not want to give it up. As Jones says, it is hard to think the number is small.
An ER nurse stationed at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan tells Jones that catastrophic cases pass through the ER four days out of seven and she sees quadruple amputees “often”. When asked to describe a typical case she sees in the ER, she replies: “Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry.”
The other side of the severity of the injuries is the impressive effort made by the military to provide emergency care for the grievously wounded. More soldiers survive horrific injuries and return home as single, double, triple or quadruple amputees. Jones writes about the formidable challenges facing these veterans. As noted, many are in their early 20’s and their lives are just starting.
Jones highlights the signature injuries of these conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). TBI is controversial and the military wants to get invisibly wounded soldiers back to work. Jones raises difficult questions about how TBI has been handled. After an explosion, it is not clear how many soldiers even report a blast to their head. If their comrades have been killed or seriously wounded by an IED, the soldier may just suck it up. They may feel like their injury is nothing compared to the dead or seriously wounded person. The long-term consequences may not be apparent.
This is a bit analogous to the problem NFL players who have suffered concussions have later in life. The scope of TBI is hard to quantify initially.
As for PTSD, Jones looks at the special circumstances of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers and notes the more profound suffering of veterans who experience not a single catastrophic event but repeated traumatic events over an extended period of time. Multiple deployments have been a common feature of this prolonged military conflict. The traumatized soldiers then ultimately return home to traumatize their partners and children.
Jones mentions the matter of veterans’ suicides. Before a 2008 CBS news investigation, the VA was not even collecting data on the incidence of soldier suicides. In 2012, a Texas paper, the Austin American-Statesman, investigated Texas Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ health issues. It found suicide was the fourth leading cause of death behind illness, accidents, and drug-related deaths. No one knows how much war experience impacted the soldiers who were dying in all these categories.
Along with the suicides are acts of violence committed by former Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers. A large number return as disturbed, violent and destructive men who struggle with reintegration into civilian society. Jones tells some of these stories.
Jones suggests googling “veterans homicides” or “veteran crimes” in your area. She says the stories are not collected anywhere. Many soldiers are from small isolated towns in rural areas, She says that murders and violent incidents are not well-covered and the Iraq and Afghanistan link is typically missed in connection with these cases. To the extent they are covered, it is usually in small local papers.
After reading this book, it is impossible to see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same lens as previously. The accumulated harm done to American soldiers has been staggering but it has been insufficiently acknowledged. In numbed out fashion, we move on to the next war and the next without critical assessment.
For anyone thinking about whether it was worth it, that is an excellent question that is not asked enough. This book forces the question. I hope it obtains a wide readership. It exposes how glorification of war is such a sham. War should be obsolete but as Jones shows, there is no evidence that is happening.