A Book the Military Won’t Want You To Read
Ann Jones on They Were Soldiers
I am reading Ann Jones’s new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story and I am crying, again. I am thinking how military recruiters would like to destroy copies of this book the way the Pentagon did to Tony Shaffer’s memoir three years ago – and this is so much more devastating. If you want to see the military’s carefully orchestrated memes of service and glory melt away like Nazi Arnold Toht’s eyeballs in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ann Jones, who I’m calling the Miss Marple of war correspondents (her description, not mine) does this several times over. Her graphic examination of what really happens behind all those sterile casualty figures issued by the DoD press office, is like getting coldcocked in the face. But at this stage, battered and bruised is better than asleep, which is what most of America has been for the last 13 years. If Jones’s nightmares don’t wake us up, I’m not sure at this point what would.
Actor Mark Wahlberg is on a US Navy SEAL admiration tour – at least that is what Vanity Fair is calling it. It is more than that, though. With the dedication of a religious devotee, Wahlberg is promoting his new movie, Lone Survivor, which is, in essence, a multimillion-dollar military recruitment ad disguising as an action-paced tribute to the SEALs killed by Taliban fighters in Operation Red Wings and Operation Red Wings II in Afghanistan in 2005.
Wahlberg is so riddled with (CG) civilian guilt, that he went on a cringe-worthy, f-bomb-laden diatribe when it was suggested at a November screening that he had it "rough" when training with the Seals for the film (he plays the lead character, real-life lone survivor, Petty Officer Marcus Latrell). Wahlberg seemed particularly determined to denigrate himself, even apologize for the whole of Tinseltown at the suggestion that any of them were worthy to even stand on the same stage, much less equate themselves with the soldiers’ burdens. It is a powerful myth he succumbs to – that these men are the most virtuous among us because of their extreme physical prowess and willingness to kill and be killed, "to provide for us the freedom that quite often most of us take advantage of."
Lone Survivor feeds that of course, offering the familiar "war is hell" narrative, which begins and ends with heroic blood sacrifice, the elemental force moving eons of men to war. This, of course, connects all too well with the 14-year-old recruitment fodder that Wahlberg’s movies usually target. But no one follows the surviving Seals home, where one could say the real sacrifices are made – by the veteran, his parents, siblings, girlfriends, wives and children. Gone is the muscle mass and the boots and guns. In their place are pill bottles, court appearances and prosthetics.
No big screen heroics there – unless you count the very act of getting up in the morning and not walking in front of a moving train.
"I was on the way out. I’ve put a gun in my mouth. I’ve felt it in my mouth," Nathan, a 29-year-old surviving SEAL member of Operation Red Wings II, told the San Diego Union Tribune in February. According to the paper, Nathan, who did not want his full name disclosed, fell into a life-spiral of drinking after his time in Afghanistan, where he was forced to gather with his hands the remains of his 11 buddies, now immortalized, and coming to a theater near you.
But Lone Survivor won’t show the Nathans, nor his careful parsing of brain and flesh from the rocks and sand of the Hindu Kush. It won’t show how Mortuary Affairs packed his friends’ bodies away, putting parts together as best they could for the long flight back "home" to Dover. It doesn’t show Nathan, sleeping on the streets, drunk on booze and the guilt over not coming back home in a box, too.
Ann Jones, a 76-year old veteran journalist, human rights advocate, professor and emergency medical technician, sets out to tell the lost part of the story. What she produces is a staggeringly effective brief, not only against war, but in support of the soldier and veteran, who despite all the superficial encomia generated by the American media, is too often left with very little to show for his or her sacrifice.
"My father used to say that wars are made by men who have never been to war, men who don’t know that war, once started, never ends," she wrote of her father, Oscar Trygve Slagsvol, a veteran of World War I, also known as "the war to end all wars."
"…That war never left his memory or his nightmares," she recalled. "The violence of war does not end, even when peace is declared. Often it merely recedes from public to private life."
Jones had spent the better part of the last decade traveling throughout Afghanistan as an independent journalist concentrating on human rights, mostly of women and children, incorporating her earlier research on abuse against women. She worked as an English teacher in Kabul, and wrote about her experiences in Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, in 2006.
She tells Antiwar in a recent interview that she had opposed the war and hadn’t thought much of the military. It wasn’t until she officially "embedded" for the first time to do a story about women soldiers, and saw a young male soldier "just break down" on a forward operating base, that she "realized that everybody is very close to cracking."
"I saw many others start to crumble before my eyes," she recalled. "I knew there was another story there."
She acknowledges that her age, and likely her gender, too, allowed her to zoom in on this dark side of military life and write about it through a clinical yet compassionate lens. She’s never preachy, but like a grandmother who doesn’t have a lot of time to mince words, she gets right to the point – a sharp, sharp, shock to the senses.
"So many of the male reporters who go into the field with these guys, they’re just wannabe soldiers, and all this military porn is going on … they never get their story. It’s all glamorous and strategic to them and they ‘turn off.’ Maybe not intentionally, but it’s like they can’t respond (emotionally)," she tells Antiwar.
"If you really lose touch with your normal human emotions in that process, then you are in trouble and what you are reporting is false."
Jones talked to enough soldiers after that to convince her that while she had been using her pen to tell the story of civilian war victims, the soldiers, doctors, nurses and civilians servicing the war policy were in their way very much victims of another kind of abuse: war trauma. And they suffer many of the same symptoms as those battered women and rape victims she had been studying for years.
Often, says Jones, they have to heal in the same way, but the military culture – buck up, medicate – has been slow to recognize it’s creating a generation of damaged souls. "When I started seeing them as individual people and seeing them as what was happening to them in this machine they were involved in, I thought of course, they were as much victims as the Afghan civilians I had been writing about," Jones said.
She spent a year getting her clearances and was able to travel with the military on a C-5 cargo plane to Bagram Air Field, the largest US base in Afghanistan, in 2011. There, she spent time at Craig Joint Theater Hospital (CJTH) and watched doctors perform miracles on soldiers’ bodies torn apart by IEDs, mostly when they were on foot patrols.
To this day, the total number of amputations in Afghanistan is elusive – though this report indicates no more than 724 as of a year ago. After talking to the doctors at Bagram and seeing how amputations might be recorded differently (patients can move through at least three different surgical stations from Afghanistan to Walter Reed from the time they are injured), Jones believes the actual numbers are higher than anyone has suspected.
She painstakenly describes how the most advanced medical equipment in the world was mobilized by the surgeons at CJTH to keep the critically wounded alive and ready for transfer to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany within a matter of hours.
From They Were Soldiers:
In the first three months of 2011, Craig Hospital’s 340-person staff received 3,100 patients in that emergency room, including 500 who had suffered severe traumatic injuries. They did 140,000 lab tests and wrote 60,000 prescriptions. They performed 1,000 major surgeries—that’s at least eleven surgeries every day— and witnessed the awarding of 91 Purple Hearts.
The medical staff Jones spoke with at Bagram were on their third or fourth tour, and bone tired, their faith terribly shaken from seeing what came to be known as "dismounted complex blast injuries" which we know increased in 2010 and 2011, tearing into soldiers’ extremities and leaving them unable to have children, much less sex, for their rest of their lives.
"It’s not a huge number of people," the urological surgeon says, speaking of the surgeries he has performed himself, "but the severity of the injuries, and the possibility of complications down the road – that weighs heavily. The kind of injuries – you don’t have any idea of the devastation until you see it up close."
Jones has an incredible ability to draw these usually guarded and resolute military people into her confidence. "I think people would say just about anything to an old woman," she said, half-joking.
"I ask how (the emergency room nurse) would describe the typical case she sees in the ER. She replies, "Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry."
"I was startled myself by the response of the medical caregivers in these emergency situations who were so close to the breaking point and almost everyone in the field hospital just wept when I was talking to them, they were just falling apart," she told Antiwar. "I am an EMT myself so I’ve worked in emergency situations, and I was surprised to what was happening to the doctors."
From there she went on to Landstuhl, where teams of surgeons perform more miracles and families arrive (they are called over whenever their soldier isn’t expected to make it). She described in detail one mother whose son rallies unexpectedly. A "darkly handsome boy," he lost one leg below the knee and another too high up to ever wear a prosthetic leg. According to the doctor, he lost one testicle, too, and part of the penis and urethra. The mother accompanies his elaborate gurney to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC, on a C-17 plane, and is gripping the rails of her son’s bed, tight.
Riding on the flight, too, Jones is beckoned over by an "older Army officer" who tells her he is going home for "psych reasons" after 26-years in the service and multiple tours of duty. He has two sons, 21 and 23, in college.
"They won’t have to serve," he says. "Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself." I ask if he has any particular reason to dislike the military so intensely. "War is absurd," he says. "Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars – it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd."
His words must linger in her mind – "absurd" and "trapped" most of all – as she continues her horrifying trek to Walter Reed, where she watches the armless and legless torsos work the only muscles they have left on gymnasium mats. She observes the pale stoicism of the visiting families, the fearful but determined faces of the wounded.
"Newspapers carry stories of soldiers cycling and skiing on brand new, state-of-the-art prosthetic devices, leaving the impression that getting new legs is as easy as buying a pair of boots" Jones writes. "It’s not."
From there, she travels with a Pentagon colonel, a war veteran, who serves as a goodwill ambassador of sorts, drumming up support for veterans care organizations in towns and cities across the country. But like Woody Harrelson in The Messenger, he is as emotionally broken as any of them. When confronted with the sad, bloated remnants of a once healthy soldier living in his mother’s house, nearly paralyzed by medical problems and PTSD, the colonel cannot cope. It’s as if his own insides are now outside, and are being reflected back to him. The mother’s claim that the VA has yet to respond to her family’s pleas for help for "Charlie" doesn’t seem to register. The colonel’s jaw clenches and he defaults absurdly to his regulation talking points:
"Charlie," he said, "I came here to tell you that none of this has any impact on your capacity for greatness."…
Then he was on his feet and very quickly out the door… The colonel raced through the snow toward the vehicle, anxious now to get back in the driver’s seat. "Jesus," he said. "Jee-zuz!"
They Were Soldiers visits a number of Charlies, some healed, some dead by their own hands. Once these soldiers become veterans, the cocoon of the military establishment seems to fall away like their own keen sense of being "warriors" and "heroes." Now they become cogs in a machine, marching in and out of VA hospitals, picking up prescriptions, waiting for the next appointment. Some lash out – Jones is unsparing in her account of the violent crimes committed by combat veterans – but mostly, they are languishing in some purgatory state. Wives and mothers, who were told endlessly that they were tending to America’s best, are now trying to cope with the worst.
Mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch this (They Were Soldiers is published by Haymarket Books), but that’s not surprising. It exposes too much for the mainstream, always a dutiful minder of the sanctioned war narrative, to embrace.
But the Internet is a great equalizer and there is a good chance that Jones’s book will get play, and likely through the veterans’ networks, which have become highly charged with anger and determination to set things right.
"I tell my friends they shouldn’t read this book, it’s too depressing," she said, again, only half-joking. "I am surprised with the positive reaction the book is getting. A lot of the comments are coming from soldiers and men. Which just amazes me. I think I am telling their story."
Lone Survivor actor Taylor Kitsch says we must all be "pro-soldier" no matter our politics. I think Ann Jones, in her own way, is as "pro-soldier" as it gets.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos
Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos
- The Wailing Cassandras Return – February 27th, 2014
- Afghanistan: It’s the Election, Stupid! – February 19th, 2014
- How a CIA Whistleblower Survives Behind Bars – February 9th, 2014
- Jason Leopold Talks Forensic Journalism – February 2nd, 2014
- War in Afghanistan: The Jig Is Up – January 6th, 2014