|Download PDF of this full issue: v49n2.pdf (31.8 MB)|
Killing From the Inside Out
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Killing From the Inside Out
by Robert Emmet Meager
(Cascade Books, 2014)
Robert Emmet Meager is Professor of Humanities at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and has made a career of addressing the spiritual wounds of war in veterans, their families, and their communities. I approached this book with the hope that I might find some pathway to spiritual peace, or some suggestions of where I might find some prescription for an antidote for moral damage from war. In this age of America's commitment to perpetual war, it is inconceivable to me that my grandsons might someday be destined to carry around the corrosion of mind, morals, and gut that I have lived with since my military experiences.
The first pages of the book feature endorsements from a wide variety of theologians, scholars, writers, veterans, and coworkers in the field. Clearly, this book is viewed as a landmark step toward understanding the history of how powers-that-be over the ages have portrayed wars as "just" and necessary, with campaigns so effective that today we see military recruiting storefront offices in every small town and hamlet.
Our young people join for all the most honorable reasons, to serve our country and battle the forces reported to be threatening democracy and freedom. Yes, many of them are forced to volunteer by an economic system that devalues them and offers few realistic avenues to any appreciable career success. They can flip burgers or sweep floors, or they can join the military. If they can keep their mouths shut and their heads down for a few years, they can graduate from the service with some meager financial help for college, or they can re-up and receive an enticing bonus.
Of course, the longer a recruit remains in uniform, the greater the chance that he or she will be deployed to one of our burgeoning array of combat situations around the world. And, regardless of which option he or she might choose, if they survive, they will rejoin society as veterans. Recruiters don't tell them about the common veteran experiences of PTSD, moral damage, or suicide.
I came to this book expecting it to be a dire warning, and yes, the preface and first chapters contain vivid glimpses of lives damaged or destroyed by the terrible experiences of war. The first chapter tells us of one Noah Pierce, a young man who enlisted in the army at age seventeen, and was deployed as part of America's invasion of Iraq in 2003. Four years later, he sat alone in his pickup truck in Gilbert, Minnesota and scribbled a note to his mother:
Mom, I am so sorry. My life has been hell since March 2003 when I was part of the Iraq invasion...I am freeing myself from the desert once and for all…I am not a good person. I have done bad things. I have taken lives. Now it's time to take mine.
Noah Pierce put a gun to his head and ended his agony.
To this point, I felt a deep appreciation for this book. Surely, the author was going to describe the various torments that lurk in the memories of veterans, and then offer a few suggestions that might make those desperate thoughts evaporate and the sufferer escapes his, or her, cruel fate. I read on, through vast and scholarly explanations of the ancient origins of just war theory, and the evolution of that insidious strategy to modern-day. I read every word: the histories of Dionysus, Sophocles, Heraclitus, Neoptolemus, Achilles, Philoctetes, Plato, Aristotle, and on and on. Yes, war has existed since ancient times, and the Greek wars immortalized by Homer and others exposed many of the truths about human damage from war that we see repeated today.
Previous books by Jonathan Shay and Edward Peck have made this point in unforgettable fashion, and their books have offered suggestions for how the afflicted veteran might find some respite from the universal curse of moral injury, or damage, from the experience of war. Indeed, Jonathan Shay, MD and PhD, has contributed an afterword to this book.
Sadly, the author has offered little remedy to the veteran experiencing a crisis of moral conscience. In his final chapter, titled Conclusion, Meager throws up his hands and declares that making war is a universal and undeniable aspect of the nature of all mankind. Pacifists are "selfish" because they fail to take part in the community's struggles, and the conclusion he reaches is that communities and nations will always require the active participation of their citizens. He quotes a mysterious, unidentified William James, who suggested in his last public utterance over a century ago, that "common service might serve to patch together our torn national fabric, rent by faction, fear, and contempt," and create "the moral equivalent of war."
Indeed, "pacifism offers no viable or persuasive substitute for the unstinting idealism, discipline, courage, self-sacrifice, and fierce, intimate loyalty instilled and exemplified in military training and service." The ultimate answer to the dilemma of moral damage from war is, Meager states, universal service required of all young people! They may be assigned to "address the needs of a peaceful nation," he suggests, "from building roads to hauling away the garbage." I was, to put it mildly, appalled and amazed! There is no mention of the damage modern weapons do to human bodies.
There is no mention of modern American tactics and strategies, from "search and destroy" missions to carpet bombing, drone warfare, napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, land mines, or ultimately, nuclear war. No, Meager seems to suggest that if everyone experiences these disastrous weapons and tactics, and if everyone witnesses the death, destruction, and suffering that they impose upon human beings wherever the powers find it necessary to wage wars, the common experience will eliminate the mental and moral effects and result in a nation of young warriors that will be idealistic, disciplined, courageous, and possessed of a "fierce, intimate loyalty."
VVAW is, basically, an organization of war veterans who oppose the great war machine as we seek to find solace and comfort for all our brothers who have experienced the horrors of modern war. There is nothing in this book to indicate that Mr. Meager has ever experienced war. He has gathered his opinions in a variety of classrooms on America's tree-lined college campuses. How sad that he feels such contempt for the many young students he has encountered throughout his career. I suppose his advice to Noah Pierce's grieving mother would be to urge her surviving children to enlist, even as he urges the re-establishment of local draft boards. Really? As I am composing this review, the stereo is playing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's American Dream album. From a song titled Soldiers of Peace written by Graham Nash, Craig Doerge, and Joe Vitale, I am encouraged to hear:
So come all you warriors who live for the fight,
Come listen to somebody, someone who might
Have been there before you and they have the right,
They've been dying to tell you the score.
The old warriors don't want you to hurt anymore.
Soldiers of peace are not fighting a war.
No more, no more, no more, no more.
Two more Americans were killed in Afghanistan this week. Why? You don't put out a fire by throwing more fuel at the blaze. I am proud to be a member of VVAW and join with a decent and sensible group of fellow vets who deal with horrific memories by standing up and joining the chorus. No more, no more, no more, no more. Not my grandchildren! And, not yours! We are Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW. He is the author of …and a hard rain fell, and a new book, recently published, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.