Having suffered the trauma and moral distress of participating in war, in my case the American War in Vietnam, I have learned that "coming home," reintegrating, and living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury can be aided or hindered by whether military members and veterans can find meaning and purpose in the experience. More importantly, perhaps, by whether one’s involvement and behavior in war accorded with or transgressed deeply held moral convictions.
Even after some fifty years, I am not at all certain whether healing is a plausible expectation. Sadly, given the plethora of evidence now available establishing the illegality and immorality of both wars and the tragic and ignominious manner in which they concluded, with American troops hastily fleeing Saigon and Kabul, with Vietnamese and Afghan collaborators seeking to escape their homeland by clutching to the bottoms of departing aircraft, it is difficult if not impossible to see either of these wars as anything other than misguided, perhaps even criminal, waste of lives and treasure, and as benefiting no one other than certainly the weapons manufacturers and war profiteers.
Yet, numerous military and political pundits, many of whom bear personal responsibility for initiating, promoting, overseeing, and misrepresenting these wars, crimes for which they will never be held accountable, brazenly continue to promulgate lies and misinformation as "expert" commentators and analysts. At the behest of members of the media, themselves culpable for failing to fulfill their responsibility as the people’s watchdogs – members of the 4th estate – these pundits, such as disgraced General David Petraeus, who shared classified information for sex, are provided a platform from which to further confuscate an accounting of what transpired, hoping to influence American foreign policy and public opinion, and perpetuate the mythology of American exceptionalism and global dominance.
Ambassador and Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the former White House czar on Iraq and Afghanistan under Presidents Bush and Obama, despite having previously admitted being "… devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing," now would have us believe that Afghanistan was a success and worth the cost in blood and treasure as it hardened America’s defenses against terrorist attacks on the homeland and established a willingness to wage "global war," newspeak for the propensity of the United States to violate the territorial integrity of sovereign nations to target and kill suspected terrorists.
Rather than acknowledge their own incompetence, mismanagement, and culpability, and that of those who initiated the hostilities and perpetuated a disastrously failed policy, criminals like National Security Advisor John Bolton have coopted the dialogue pointing the finger of blame for America’s defeat on a premature withdrawal ordered by an Administration that lacked "appropriate enthusiasm and stamina for staying the course," choosing rather to "cut and run," abandoning America’s commitment to its allies, and thereby negatively impacting its reputation in the world:
We didn’t lose it; we walked away from it. But it’s still a national humiliation. Our credibility, particularly the Biden administration’s credibility in the capitals we worry about most – Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and Tehran – has been shredded by our actions.
These faux patriots and inept leaders would have us ignore what is clear to most, the evidence of over 20 years of failure, incompetence, and corruption. Instead, they urge us to focus upon what they allege to be significant accomplishments in nation-building, some real but most fabricated – the modicum of schools that were built, the infrastructure improved, civil rights restored, etc. Most troublesome, perhaps, is their contention that this tragic outcome could have been avoided, that continued occupation would have made a difference, hoping to convince the general public but more so, members of the military, veterans, and their families that their efforts and sacrifices were necessary, noble, and heroic. This is done without one iota of concern for the dire effects such obfuscations would have upon their ability to recover from the experience. But then, the well-being of members of the military and veterans were never a concern of those who misled them into war and profited from their sacrifices. There are after all further wars to fight, media outlets to advise, weapons to manufacture, and profits to be made.
Confronted with this conflict between what we know about war from personal experience and what these and other militarists and war apologists would have us believe, many veterans, including myself, have spent many years engaged in profound introspection, an internal struggle in search of truth, seeking to separate fact from fiction, hoping to mitigate profound moral injury, and find peace. Given the fact that ultimately America withdrew in failure, interpreted by many involved as a personal failure to provide what had been promised, freedom and democracy to the Vietnamese and Afghans many veterans were led to ask some very troublesome questions. Was it all for nothing? Did our efforts and sacrifices, particularly of those who never returned from war, have value and purpose? Was the war we fought in, and the way we conducted ourselves, just and moral?
As we struggle to come to grips with the experience many suffer overwhelming shame and guilt for what we believe were serious transgressions of our moral being, our most elemental values, and a violation of trust and betrayal of comrades who fought by our side, many of whom had enabled our survival on the battlefield. As a consequence, many troubled veterans sought solace by embracing the militarists’ mythology of nobility and heroism. Not all were capable of such self-delusion, however, and when all seemed lost and lacking other alternatives for mitigating their pain and suffering, over 30,000 chose to end their own lives – a suicide rate 2.5 times greater than the general population.
Sadly, it may be true that our efforts and sacrifices benefited no one, not our nation, certainly not the Vietnamese or Afghans. That our "service" and "heroism" for which we are so often thanked, lacked purpose, value, and accomplished nothing, despite what the militarists would have us believe, is an important reason so many veterans are made uncomfortable by such expressions of gratitude. Admitting this, rejecting the lies and mythology, and accepting the truth is difficult, but by shifting our focus from what we did on the battlefield to what we will do now, allows us to take a necessary first step toward restoring self-respect, mitigating moral injury (pervasive guilt and shame), and achieving some semblance of normalcy in our lives post bellum.
Having experienced the horrors of war, members of the military and veterans must become the voice of sanity and reason. We must make it our mission to ensure that this time America learns the lessons it failed to learn from Vietnam. That no nation is exceptional, no political and military leader beyond reproach and that freedom must be won by the oppressed not imposed by invaders or occupiers. We must educate the misinformed and the indifferent and make clear that patriotism and fidelity to comrades require not blind, unquestioning obedience, or collusion by silence with the crimes of the war-makers and profiteers.
Rather, we who truly know war must speak out and demand that all our troops return home immediately, and that their injuries be adequately cared for upon their return. And the next time, and there will be a next time after the "Afghanistan Syndrome" has dissipated, when the militarists and war profiteers will again beat the drums of war and advocate another invasion or occupation, we must raise our voice in unison, and express our outrage and opposition. "No more Vietnams! No more Afghanistans!" By speaking out, educating the public about the truth of war, accepting personal responsibility for our actions, exposing militarists’ lies and holding them accountable – by becoming activists – many veterans can, and have found the renewal, absolution, and penance we so desperately need to forgive ourselves, and to rejoin the moral community of humankind once again. And most importantly, though war will always be with us, by making this our mission, by making clear that all war is profane and unnecessary sacrilege, we will, at last, "find peace with our unpeacefulness."
Camillo “Mac” Bica, Ph.D., is an author, activist, and Professor of Philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His focus is in Social and Political Philosophy and Ethics particularly as it applies to war. Mac is former Marine Corps Officer, Vietnam Veteran, long time activist for peace and social justice and coordinator of Veterans For Peace Long Island. He can be contacted through his website at http://www.camillobica.com.