“We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.” So intoned W.E.B. Du Bois at the close of World War I, capturing the struggle of soldiers who had fought “for America and her highest ideals,” only to return to “lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult.” Du Bois’s enduring lines testified to the profound racial violence met by African-American veterans in the age of Jim Crow. But his words resonate with a more universal aspect of the veteran experience: the war does not end when a tour of duty or the conflict itself ends. It lives on in the minds and bodies of veterans whose fight to overcome war’s trauma can last for years, decades, a lifetime.
More than 2.3 million members of the US Armed Forces have served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. About one-fifth of these “war on terror” veterans have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or serious depression. The actual incidence of PTSD among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans is almost certainly far greater. Wary of being branded as mentally damaged—a stigma that can lead to discrimination in the workplace and beyond—many returning soldiers are reluctant to seek diagnosis for psychological injury. The fear of social ostracism is especially pronounced in veterans suffering from military sexual trauma: an estimated 30 percent of women and 4 percent of men are raped or sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier while on active duty, but less than half of them pursue treatment. And despite recent attempts by the underfunded Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to remove existing barriers to the diagnosis of PTSD—until 2010, patients were required to document the specific events, or “stressors,” that provoked their symptoms—veteran psychiatric care remains beset by neglect. Studies have shown that the military has saved $12.5 billion since 2001 by discharging soldiers diagnosed with personality disorder (PD), a “pre-existing condition” (one that all recruits are screened for, it bears noting) that is ineligible for disability benefits. These statistics don’t tell the full story, but they do highlight the multitude of cases that are being denied a hearing.
Post-traumatic stress has likely always accompanied the human experience of violence; in different historical periods, “soldier’s heart,” “railway spine,” “shell shock,” “war neurosis” and “combat fatigue” have named cognate symptoms. It was during the Vietnam War, though, that the now-familiar acronym “PTSD” first appeared. In the early 1970s, psychologists working with veterans’ advocacy groups created the antecedent term “post-Vietnam syndrome,” and in 1980 “posttraumatic stress disorder” was added to the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). In the latter half of the ’70s, films such as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, and novels such as Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, gave cultural expression to the emerging popular awareness of PTSD. In the decades since, the corpus of cinematic and literary representations has evolved alongside “trauma studies,” an amorphous academic field that integrates the disciplines of psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and history. By the 2001 advent of the “war on terror,” the terms “trauma” in general and “PTSD” in particular were well established as keywords of contemporary culture.
The “war on terror” has witnessed a new phenomenon: representations of post-traumatic stress that appear and reach a wide audience during the war itself. In recent years, artists in a variety of media—films (Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah), comic strips (Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury), even an opera (Heather Raffo and Christian Ellis’s Fallujah)— have chronicled the trials of PTSD-afflicted veterans. And now, more than a decade later, our bookshelves, too, are burgeoning with stories that bring the war home, summoning a tragedy we have learned to forget.
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Brian Castner is a bomb-disposal technician who served two tours in Iraq, in Balad and Kirkuk, in 2005 and 2006. His affecting war memoir, The Long Walk, contains vivid depictions of “The Crazy” he has battled since coming home: the imaginary rifle he finds himself clutching at all times—at the breakfast table with his kids, in bed with his wife, sitting at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night; the gaps in his memory of home; the lucid recall he has of the war—each IED-destroying mission and the taut tedium in between; the constant, painful tightness in his chest. “I died in Iraq,” Castner writes. “If I didn’t die, I don’t know what else to call it.”
A Freudian might reply that this identification with death is one way of expressing the impossible burden of living. At the end of his narrative, Castner seems to be improving—coming back to himself, and to his family—though “The Crazy” still follows him like a shadow. We leave The Long Walk trusting that the shadow will one day leave him—but also understanding why, for a disquieting number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the fight against the war’s after-effects is ending in suicide.
One active-duty member of the US military takes his or her own life nearly every day, a rate that this year surpassed combat deaths. Every day, the VA estimates, eighteen veterans commit suicide. Veterans account for 10 percent of the country’s adult population and 20 percent of its suicides. All of these numbers have increased significantly since the beginning of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Kevin Powers—a former machine-gunner deployed to Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005—has written a novel that reflects with intelligence and care upon the psychological forces that might compel one veteran to declare “I died in Iraq” and another to kill herself. A story, like Castner’s, of the fight for survival over there and over here, The Yellow Birds renders in sensual prose war’s dehumanizing consequence: the denial of the enemy’s humanity and the diminishment of one’s own.
Not long in Iraq, narrator Bartle and his close comrade Murph are struggling to understand the violence they’ve been immersed in. “The war had killed thousands by September,” Bartle recalls. “Their bodies lined the pocked avenues at irregular intervals. They were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green.” There is no counting the Iraqi dead, but US casualties (killed and wounded) are meticulously recorded. Bartle and Murph watch as the numbers tick up and soon grow resigned to their own insignificance. The bullet or mortar that kills them, Bartle muses, will be addressed “To whom it may concern.” Even to the public back home, they are not individuals but “our troops,” that vapid signifier, uttered as a pious command (“support our troops”) or self-reassurance (“I support our troops”).
Murph labors to carve out some space, however narrow, in which his sense of self can survive beyond the realm of subordination and chance: “He wanted to choose. He wanted to want…. He wanted to have one memory he’d made of his own volition to balance out the shattered remnants of everything he hadn’t asked for.” His final willful act is to wander off the base naked, into the hostile city nearby. The following day, his body is found, dismembered and pale, now a “part of the landscape.”
For Bartle, who does make it home, the possibility of suicide is not bound up with the possibility of freedom, of self-reclamation, but is instead a “passive wish”:
not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women be killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes.
At the end of his tour, Bartle fills out a form designed to evaluate his psychological health. The second question asks him to rate his emotional state after a “murder-death-kill.” The two options given are “A: Delighted” or “B: Malaise.” Bartle chooses A, and we are left to ponder which response, to the military, is evidence of mental disorder.
Like Castner, Bartle continues to grip “a rifle that was not there.” Like Castner, Bartle continues to scan his surroundings for optimal escape routes or places of cover. An epigraph to The Long Walk cites Emerson: “Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.” Powers’s Bartle agrees: “All I fucking do is think.” When a veteran’s thoughts are occupied by the people he’s killed, the friends he’s lost, the self or home he no longer recognizes, the mind’s din is a ceaseless pain.
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Too often, this din that so many ex-soldiers can’t turn down—war’s piercing reverberation—is a noise we comfortably ignore. Our inability, or refusal, to hear veterans’ suffering prevents the bridging of what Ben Fountain aptly calls—in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, his pointed and poignant debut novel—the “abyss [that] separates the war over here from the war over there.” America’s wars, as W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Returning Soldiers” essay recognized, have long revealed the distance between America as an ideal and America as a lived reality—a yawning gap, Fountain’s book affirms, into which veterans possess special insight.
When we meet 19-year-old Billy Lynn, he and the other hung-over soldiers of Bravo Company are in a white Hummer limousine, en route to Texas Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day contest between the hometown Cowboys—“America’s Team”—and the visiting Chicago Bears. Though he grew up just eighty miles west of Dallas, Billy has never set eyes on Texas Stadium, “save through the expurgating medium of TV.” When the structure finally looms into view through the Hummer’s tinted windows, he is struck by the distance between the televisual image of the place and its underwhelming, even depressing, actuality: “There’s a slumpiness, a middle-aged sag to the thing that suggests soft paunches and mushy prostates, gravity-slugged masses of beached whaleness.” The stadium as metaphor, then, performs double duty: symbolizing the gulf between reality and its mediated appearance, and symbolizing a nation—and an empire—in decline, exposed by its fading artifice.
The soldiers of Bravo Company, we learn, became national heroes after an intense firefight with Iraqi insurgents—subsequently dubbed “the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal”—was caught on video by an embedded Fox News crew and beamed into living rooms back home. With higher-ups in the chain of command keen to capitalize on Bravo’s popularity, Billy and his surviving comrades are dispatched on a two-week PR tour, of which this visit to Texas Stadium, on the day the novel unfolds, is the grand culmination.
Bravo has been accompanied on its agitprop jaunt by a Hollywood player who has claimed the rights to their story and is struggling to sign up some A-list stars (Hilary Swank has hinted her interest in playing Billy) and secure studio financing before the company redeploys to Iraq. Alas for Bravo, the war plays better in Dallas—where “our troops” are met with eager affection—than it does in Hollywood.
Billy Lynn is fundamentally concerned with how war is manufactured for consumption in the homeland, how the “war on terror” in particular is constructed and naturalized through pop-culture spectacle and the declension of language. (Fountain possesses a wonderful ear for the rhetoric of that early “war on terror” moment, inflected here with a Texas drawl: terrRr, Eye-rack, nina leven, dih-mock-cruh-see, double y’im dees, currj). At halftime of the football game, Bravo Company is thrown onstage with Destiny’s Child and made to march around in some approximation of a military exercise as Beyoncé, leading with her hips, swerves and thrusts through the hit single “Soldier”: “Need me a soldjah, soldjah boy/Where dey at, where dey at.”
This decadent and depraved halftime performance is a dizzying admixture of vulgar nationalism, PG-13 pornography and authentic American excess. Billy is annoyed by the abjectness of it all, but after two weeks of playing hero in someone else’s production, he is also resigned: “This huge floating hologram of context and cue” may grate, but “what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?” And besides, Billy has more pressing matters on his mind: the Cowboys cheerleader with whom he enjoyed a fleeting, shattering make-out session prior to kickoff; Bravo’s imminent return to the war.
Throughout this most exhausting of days, Billy is confronted by earnest assertions of untroubled—and thus troubling—faith. His hometown pastor sends him Bible verses via text message; a Cowboys executive outlines for Billy the simple maxims that guide a life lived in pursuit of nondiminishing profit margins; and legions of Texas Stadium patrons, fans of the Cowboys and “our troops,” greet Billy with declarations of their unwavering support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. But Billy isn’t sure. He’s not sure about all this Christianity stuff. He’s not sure about that other American religion, capitalism. And he’s not sure what Bravo is doing over there in the first place. An abyss separates the war over here from the war over there.
In 2012, that abyss is less a consequence of the war’s mediated image and more a consequence of its invisibility. Today, even with US forces remaining on the ground in Afghanistan and Obama’s drones patroling the skies above Waziristan, Somalia and Yemen—who remembers that we are at war at all? Though 2004 may seem like a time apart, the moment Fountain describes is one from which we have yet to emerge. This is acutely true for veterans, even more so for veterans living with PTSD.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk may or may not be the “war on terror” novel people will read in fifty years. But it is a book, like Powers’s and Castner’s, that demands to be read now. These stories remind us that we are at war, and that the effects of war will be with us long after the final soldier returns home. They begin to make audible the too-silent struggles of the people who wage it, over there and over here. And in awakening our empathy, they can perhaps inspire that most urgent and rarest of leaps: toward a reckoning with how the war is lived and relived by the people—Iraqi and Afghan, Pakistani and Yemeni—upon whom it is waged.
Nan Levinson recently wrote (originally on TomDispatch.com) about “What Has Really Happened to America’s Soldiers.”