Canaries in a Coal Mine
Cristina G runs a really fine book blog at http://www.alaskanbookcafe.com/
She wrote me months ago (link here) about her son who returned from Iraq ten years ago and the PTSD he shares with Greg, the character who tells the story in ‘Mindbenders’. We’ve been writing back and forth since and she asked me recently to write something about our vets for the 9/11 anniversary. This post and her comments appear today on her site. I’m crossposting and I’ll ask all of you reading this here to please visit her site as well–there are some great book reviews, interviews with authors, pictures of Alaska and other content.
That said, here is my article for 9/11, followed by Cristi’s comments:
Canaries in a coal mine, that’s what I keep thinking.
Miners would carry a canary in a cage down the shaft with them to detect gas leaks. If the canary stopped chirping, that was the alarm to clear out, the early warning of something very wrong.
As I sit here, with the 9/11 anniversary approaching, thinking about the people most directly affected by that day—the veterans of our foreign wars—that’s what keeps coming back to me: canaries in a coal mine.
Because what could be more telling than the way we treat the people who risk their lives for us?
What does our treatment of them tell us about ourselves?
From the beginning, the Bush Administration ruled no photographs of military funerals or even flag-draped caskets on transport planes. The Obama Administration reversed that embargo but if there’s been an uptick in coverage, I’ve missed it. It’s as though the dead embarrass us—or we’re simply pretending they don’t exist at all.
And what about the living?
While Iraq and Afghanistan were fought with far more electronic aids than ever before (nightvision, drones, satellite imaging, all sold to the government at huge profit margins), America tried to squeak through these wars with far fewer soldiers than military theory called for (until the Surge of 2007) because Donald Rumsfeld decided to test his pet theory of modern warfare with live troops.
The soldiers were trained for a strategic war against Sadaam’s Army and left to improvise for years once that Army melted away and left them in the middle of guerilla fighting and civil war.
They were sent into battle in Humvees with no armor. Remember families buying armor plate with their own credit cards for their soldier children? That scandal broke in 2004; the Pentagon was still scrambling to finish the job in 2007.
They were used as guinea pigs for Big Pharma. Soldiers in combat in 2004 were given a malaria drug that carried a suicide warning back at home. In Iraq and Afghanistan, no warnings—and when the suicide rate in those units spiked, the Pentagon said it couldn’t find any connection and tried to discharge affected vets over their ‘mental problems,’ as though the defect was theirs.
When their tours ended, they were forced to return for another and another, riding a vicious turnstile in places where every cardboard box or cellphone might be a bomb, where shoulder-mounted rocket launchers and ethnic infighting meant non-stop terror. I read a quote from a senior officer recently saying that, even in Vietnam, there were places to go to get away from the war temporarily; in these recent wars, there is no place to go.
Meanwhile, the justifications kept changing. We were there to destroy Bin Laden and the Taliban who supported him. Oh no, we were going to destroy Sadaam Hussein instead, because of his weapons of mass destruction…uh oops, no weapons, never mind, we were destroying him because he was a bad guy, like there were no other bad guys in power in the world. Then we were going to create a democracy in the Muslim Middle East, as a beacon for other countries. Uh no, well, maybe not democracies as we know them…We were trying to win the hearts and minds of the local populations. And finally, inevitably, now we’re hoping to erect just enough government to hold on a year or two after we pull out.
If the reasons for our involvement were forever unclear, the results weren’t. Our oil companies got the contracts to pump Iraqi wells; Halliburton and its corrupt brethren got the contracts to repair Iraqi and Afghani infrastructure. They botched those jobs completely, of course, but at tremendous profit margins. And the United States—just by coincidence—managed to encircle Iran.
And, then, finally, the soldiers began to come home.
To a country indifferent to them. Not as openly hostile as we were to our Vietnam vets—not quite as disgraceful as that—just embarrassed, uncomfortable, the reception once accorded to epileptics or maybe lepers.
The media couldn’t cover honorable soldier’s funerals but it offered flurries of hand-wringing every time a disturbed vet killed him or herself, destroyed their families or their own lives. When twice as many soldiers committed suicide as died in combat in 2009 and 2010, there were few headlines and no national debate.
The VA announced two years free health care without asking vets to qualify, like this was doing them a favor, like two years was going to be anything but an aspirin in a cancer ward. And if vets got fed up waiting for help and went outside the system, the government tried to make them pay for it themselves (http://www.offe.org/public_html/news76.htm).
What’s brought this all home to me personally is that I’ve tried for months to get vets to come on my blog and tell their stories—even anonymously—their experiences of two wars and coming home. No one will take me up on it—because they’re scared. Soldiers who were willing to risk their lives for us are now afraid to tell the truth as they see it, afraid they’ll lose what little help they’re getting from the government that threw them over and over again in harm’s way.
So let’s tick down the list here:
Sent into a long-term disaster with only short-term plans: Check!
Treated as inventory by people and organizations that were supposed to support them: Check!
Endless resources made available for (profitable) gadgets, (politically lucrative) contractors and Big Pharma field testing but as little as possible—and then only grudgingly—for the people whose lives were actually on the line: Check!
Nickled-and-dimed for every tiny bit of help, as though they should be ashamed for being anything other than robotic chess pieces: Check!
It turns out that our veterans really are a perfect example of the society that made them.
Maybe that’s why they make us uncomfortable; when we look at them, we see ourselves—and it’s not a pretty sight.
Pericles gave a eulogy somewhere around 400 BC at a mass funeral outside Athens, praising the city’s dead soldiers as the proof of the wonders of Athenian democracy.
“For the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her…none of these allowed…wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit…they joyfully determined to accept the risk…and to let their wishes wait…they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they…met danger face to face…so died these men as became Athenians…For it is only the love of honor that never grows old; and honor it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.”
It’s hard to read those words today without cringing. We’re so skeptical of heroism, selflessness and honor these days, even of reaching imperfectly for those virtues. Maybe because we see so few examples in our own world.
The canary’s gone silent. Are we listening?