In the PBS documentary The War about World War II, the narrator cites a statistic about the effects of war on the human mind. In paraphrase: “The military discovered that soldiers could sustain 240 days of combat before suffering severe emotional trauma. Of course, before most soldiers reached that level most were either wounded or dead.”
Attrition is a big part of war. That is why we honor veterans for their service, to recognize both what they have done and what they continue to experience in context with the events of the past. They might be survivors, but they also might not always be the lucky ones.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can show up years after war. A November 2013 Chicago Tribune story relates the difficulties of one Vietnam Veteran who has begun experiencing profound PTSD 40 years after the war. “Regardless of whatever I start dreaming about, the dream always mutates into some Vietnam incident,” said Bill Simon of Arlington Heights, Illinois. “They’ve gotten progressively worse. Right now, I barely sleep.”
Apparently Simon’s experience is not uncommon. Veterans have long been known to have difficulty reconciling what they’ve seen in war.
So that statistic keeps trudging through the mind. 240 days. That’s what the human mind can apparently take. Beyond that, battle fatigue or shock takes over the mind.
The War documentary shows a recording of one painfully disturbed soldier rocking in his chair as a physician asks him questions about why he is in emotional shock. “I don’t like dead people,” the soldier winces, dropping his head.
Those of us who never fought in wars or even served in the military walk around in a world where fears like these are largely invisible.
But that does not mean we are immune to the effects of war. All of our truths are formed around the sacrifices of others. Religions know that. Nations know that. Yet we consistently fail to appreciate those sacrifices, and that has consequences.
Vouching for war
If war is a voucher cashed in each time a nation is challenged, and the conservative approach is to pre-emptively strike against those who would threaten our freedoms, then we are chartered to throw our might around like frightened bullies.
But if the liberal approach on war is caution at the start, and not getting involved unless one is forced to do so, then we enter the conflict on moral grounds and with a clear definition of the goal.
That was America’s approach going into World War II. We held back until the threat was too great to ignore. Japan, Italy and Germany all threatened. So America went all-in and the liberal response was to effectively nationalize our defense program. That approach had the side effect of building our economy as well as delivering a post-war boom. Liberal policies continued with nation-building abroad while the GI Bill educated millions of soldiers back home.
At this point in time, America is essentially stuck in a conservative cycle of pre-emptive defense. The conservative war in Afghanistan, funded through borrowing, has accomplished nothing and cost trillions of dollars. The conservative war in Iraq, also an unbudgeted and ill-defined war, was supposed to stabilize the Middle East and all sorts of other claims. It did nothing of the sort. We exacerbated the problem even more by privatizing our military efforts, turning our wars into mercenary conflicts without accountability.
We have been fighting wars for all the wrong reasons, and the people who are paying the price are our veterans.
Even as these wars gut the American Empire, their real costs cannot be measured. Consider the conflagrant abuses of the soldiers who were forced to fight them, and how multiple tours of duty, much longer than 240 days, were so common. Who knows what percentage of those who entered battles with poorly designed missions will now have to wrestle with a very personal self-definition that lacks an end purpose?
On Veteran’s Day the least we can tell these soldiers and veterans is that we will be liberal with our support even if we were conservative in implementation of our intelligence, which meant hiding the true purposes of our intent going in.