This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The recent shootings of soldiers at Fort Hood and other US military bases have once again brought to public attention the challenge of making sure that soldiers returning from war zones find security and support at home. The Washington Post calls the pressures on veterans “the next war.” But whatever war comes next, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their consequences continue.
The exploding rates of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the escalating numbers of soldiers turning their weapons on each other as well as themselves, and the spread of PTSD all are linked to the wars themselves. Wars of aggression and occupation have an enormous, terrible effect on the young women and men ordered to fight them.
And that’s just on the US side. We also have a moral and legal responsibility to respond to the wars’ even more devastating impact on millions of Afghans and Iraqis.
Last March, a hundred or so people filled a Washington, DC, church, reprising a scene more common several years ago—an examination of the impact of the US war in Iraq. That night, the young soldiers of Iraq Veterans Against the War (and some of their parents) joined Iraqi women’s rights and labor leaders, along with US-based lawyers, epidemiologists and activists, to build a campaign demanding what they call the Right to Heal. The veterans’ demands begin with the urgent need to end the military’s practice of sending soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other related wounds back into battle. That need is linked directly to dealing with the suicides, homicides, domestic violence and other problems facing the high numbers of veterans returning from the post-9/11 wars with serious mental injuries.
But IVAW linked its demand for better care for US veterans to the need to respond to the deep destruction left in Iraq and Afghanistan—social, environmental and medical—that continues to plague those violence-riven countries.
American troops were withdrawn from Iraq two and a half years ago. But the nearly decade-long US occupation—which followed not only the 2003 invasion, but also the Pentagon’s 1991 war and twelve years of crippling US-led sanctions—destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, despoiled the country’s environment and shredded its social fabric. The consequences of the US war are embedded in the shattered cities, polluted rivers, carcinogenic military burn pits and the bodies of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iraqis, as well as of tens of thousands of US soldiers.
Meanwhile, in an all-too-rare front-page feature documenting the Afghanistan War’s ongoing impact on Afghans, The Washington Post recently dissected the consequences for the “rising number of children…dying from U.S. explosives littering Afghan land.” The Post set a scene similar to post-occupation Iraq: “As the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan,” it reported, “it is leaving behind a deadly legacy: about 800 square miles of land littered with undetonated grenades, rockets and mortar shells. The military has vacated scores of firing ranges pocked with the explosives. Dozens of children have been killed or wounded as they have stumbled upon the ordnance at the sites, which are often poorly marked.” Ominously, it adds, “Casualties are likely to increase sharply; the U.S. military has removed the munitions from only 3 percent of the territory covered by its sprawling ranges, officials said.”
Back at the Washington church, with film producer and longtime television host Phil Donahue moderating, IVAW members detailed their experiences. The mother of Joshua Casteel, an army interrogator at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison who died of a rare cancer in August 2012, described the toxic nature of the military’s burn pits—which are filled with plastics and other chemical materials—100 yards from where Joshua lived, worked and breathed thick black smoke for seven months in 2004.
American environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani documented the cancers, birth defects and other health crises among Iraqis, particularly in areas where “the Iraqi public has been exposed to toxic compounds, such as lead and mercury.” She noted, “I would like to see large-scale environmental testing in Iraq.”
Iraqi women’s rights advocate Yanar Mohammed called for “reparations for families facing birth defects, areas that have been contaminated. There needs to be cleanup…. The US has to be held to account for this.”
Such accountability—to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and to the US forces returning from years of war and occupation—would go much further to protect US troops and veterans than better gun control at Fort Hood.