Editor’s Note: Joel Turnipseed reviewed Aaron Glantz’s book The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veteransin our Summer 2009 issue.
TURNIPSEED: One of the struggles I had while reading your book was in processing some of the disasters recorded there: they often seemed like fateful but honest planning errors or learning curve issues for a nation going back to war in some extended fashion—but every time that notion built itself up in the narrative, it was followed by some devastating example of cynicism or incompetence: what is the ultimate story here? What’s the mix of human fallibility and shameless cynicism?
GLANTZ: When I first started writing this book it was just going to be called “The War Comes Home,” and there wasn’t going to be a subtitle: “Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.” It was only after I started to do the reporting that I realized what a battle the government has fought for generations against people coming home—and especially the Bush Administration. I think one of the things that was going on with the Bush Administration was that they wanted to minimize the public sense of casualties in order to build public support for the war.
So people who spoke up early on and said that we should prepare for the wounded were dismissed, and once the wounded actually began to come home they did everything they could to keep the public from engaging with that. I think it was very purposeful. I don’t think that anyone sat down and said, “We want to screw the veterans.” But I think that it was very purposeful to hide from the public what was actually going to be involved in this war. A lot of that came down in the way they’ve treated the vets.
TURNIPSEED: One of the things I kept thinking as I was reading is that Jonathan Shay, whom we both know and admire, is regularly invited by the Pentagon and the Army and Marine Corps War Colleges to give talks and papers: so you know there’s an audience there . . . even when I was trained as an NCO twenty years ago we were taught to do basic counseling in things like stress, drug abuse, and so on. What happened to those voices? The institutional knowledge within the military about what war does to the young men and women who fight them? Was there an internal battle inside the service—one that we just never witnessed?
GLANTZ: I think that with a bureaucracy as big as the Pentagon there are bound to be people who are trying to do a good job as well as people who don’t really care. I think the Bush Administration promoted people who wanted to sweep this stuff under the rug. That impulse crashed down around them after the Washington Post reported what was going on at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was only then that they were forced to take on this sort of thing publicly.
If you look at this from the Army’s perspective—and the Army is the most involved in this war—they have deployed over 40,000 soldiers who are deemed medically unfit for deployment in this war, including those who have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and should be in treatment, to serve additional tours. Look at the Time magazine story that came out in 2008: something like 20% of the soldiers currently deployed to Iraq are on a prescription for some kind of anti-depressant. Why is the Army doing this? Because the war has gone on for six years in Iraq, eight years in Afghanistan, and there’s no draft—so they’re reaching back into the same pool of people over and over again. There has been no leadership from the politicians who are managing this war to do anything about this.
As a consequence, a lot of that institutional knowledge was ignored. I think all of this is a byproduct of the Bush administration’s specific decisions—and I think I quote Donald Rumsfeld’s remark in my book: “I don’t know if it will be six days, six weeks, but it certainly won’t take longer than six months.’ Here we are six years later and we can all speculate about all that was going on in the heads of Rumsfeld and Cheney when they were starting this war, but if they had wanted this to be a war that was over quickly . . . they could have done it. It only took us three weeks to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
I was in Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003, the Iraqi army had been defeated, and we had won. That was the kind of war they were talking about—something along the lines of the first Gulf War: just defeating another army. But they were always planning to stay. They were always planning to have some kind of long-term project in Iraq . . . and yet they lied to the American people about it and they created the conditions in which the military was forced to go through these multiple deployments. This includes the extended use of the National Guard and Reserves, deploying the medically unfit, all of these things are an outgrowth of the way the war was started.
The (perplexing?) thing now about President Obama is that he has this plan for gradual withdrawal from Iraq and a surge in Afghanistan. What that means is that a year into his presidency we will have more American soldiers fighting in these wars than we did in the last year of President Bush. The military is even more burned out than it was a year ago. So all the problems that I’ve written about in the book, even though Obama is coming at this with a set of fresh eyes, he’s talking about all the right issues, he’s appointed General Shinseki to head the V.A., he’s promised to stop Stop-Loss… all these things sound really good, but how much is actually going to happen on the ground when he has to balance that with these other goals that conflict with those?
TURNIPSEED: Right. In the first Gulf War we went in with something like 650,000 troops (as compared to 150,000 or something in Iraq) . . . and it seemed like Shinseki was right on when he said that we needed 250,000 for this invasion. That was much closer to a kind of maneuver warfare doctrine force, at least by comparison, but it was twice as large as our invading force. Did the fact that we overran a country but couldn’t control it contribute to the kinds of psychological and traumatic brain injuries we’re seeing? I shouldn’t joke, but it seems like we invaded, then threw up our arms and said, “What the fuck should we do now?”
GLANTZ: If you want my opinion on the war and the way it was managed, having been there over the course of the first three years of the war and watched the support for the Americans erode during that time, I don’t know that additional troops would have helped. The Iraqis were grateful for anyone that would get rid of Saddam. And the nice thing about the fact that there were not that many troops was that you could walk down the street in Baghdad in 2003 and not run into any Americans—and feel like you had been liberated. So if there had been three times as many American soldiers on the streets at that time, I don’t know that that would have been helpful. There would have been some benefits—the looting would have been less, for instance—but on the other hand, some of the darker sides of the occupation that began to emerge would have emerged more quickly.
TURNIPSEED: That’s a good lead into my next question, which is one I’ve never gotten my head around I don’t know how to say it, but there were a lot of mixed feelings and even more “WTF?!” remarks penciled in the margins of your book as you told stories about guys who suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or TBI (traumatic brain injury), then got busted for drug or alcohol problems, criminal violence, or other issues: that Marine, for instance, who went from Marine Corps to substance abuse then back to Marine Corps and into treatment. It’s screwed up . . . but it’s not a trivial separation of concerns, right? How generous should we be with regard to treatment and diagnoses versus judgment and conviction for guys who are clearly out of control?
GLANTZ: Yeah, I think one of the things that both the military and the Veteran’s Administration (you know, we haven’t really gotten into the VA yet, and that’s even more true with the VA) is the first thing that we need to do is believe people when they come forward and report their problems. It’s really hard for military people to come forward and talk about post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury—because both of them are cognitive; both of them are like saying “I can’t think anymore.” Which is tough to say. And then there’s the stigma around it and it’s a whole other issue that I don’t really get to in the book.
The military a lot of times will say “We need people to come forward and report, and it’s not our fault if people are behaving badly,” which is what you’re alluding to now: but what they don’t tell you is that when people do come forward, when they overcome the stigma, they still have trouble getting it recognized. That’s why I concentrated what I was looking at around the problem, “What do we do when the veteran is acting correctly?” If the bureaucracy is not responding to them in that case, then we really have to turn our attention to the bureaucracy.
I do think that when you have people who have been through a war, it’s appropriate to give them a little bit of a break. Just in general, but what that means to me is simply believing people when they come forward: checking on their issues. You’re going to have to check up on all this anyway: why don’t you do it after you got them into the system and you’re providing some level of care, and then go check out the particulars? Why do that first if someone desperately needs care?
TURNIPSEED: Right. That goes to a lot of PTSD work revolving around this idea of trust: that there’s a strong element in PTSD involving the separation of a person and the social basis of their trust. This is really cleaving that, right? That raises the question of the American public: do they get off the hook here? Your book is a gruesome tally of the ways we’ve mistreated veterans of this war, but you mention two interesting amplifiers that used to help raise the voice of the veterans in their suffering: the press and the veterans organizations. Those are strong public voices that have gone missing, right?
GLANTZ: I think that in the case of the media, it’s just getting worse: the absence of the media is a problem that gets worse as the war gets longer and longer. I feel that, as a person who writes stories—as a journalist who has to convince editors to assign me stories. I’m running into more and more people who say, “Great idea: but you already wrote that for us six months ago.” Or “Another reporter already did that.” What I say to them is, “Yeah, you did do a story—but the story is continuing. It didn’t just end after you ran that report.” You would never run a report about a toxic waste dump that was leeching slowly into playgrounds and then pretend you were done with the story even if the toxic waste continued to flow.
How many stories have we seen about the Wall Street bailout? A lot—because it’s important. The war, and the care of the veterans, is important, too . . . but we don’t have that kind of coverage of people coming home. We have the Memorial Day stories, of course, but then it will taper off . . .
TURNIPSEED: Which relates to the next question I have: one of the sensational books (in terms of its success, not its tone—though it had that, too!) was Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It’s a great book. You yourself have a complicated relationship to the story in your book, right? You experienced the same war as they guys in many of the same horrible ways—but often at the other end of the gun. You talk about that in the book: any elaborations on that?
GLANTZ: First of all, the reason I wrote about that aspect of the experience is that I imagined that a lot of readers of this book would be military veterans, or their families, and I just felt like they deserved to know who was talking to them for 300 pages. What my perspective was . . . where I was coming from. My perspective is that I was an un-embedded journalist in Iraq, on and off for the first three years of this war, and I interviewed a lot of people who were on the receiving end of American weapons. In my stories, the American soldiers were usually the ones who had raided the house and taken all the men off to Abu Ghraib. Maybe I was interviewing a torture victim or a family whose house had been destroyed. I was an un-embedded journalist during the Siege of Fallujah in 2004, during which there were so many civilians killed that the municipal football stadium had to be turned into a graveyard for the dead.
When I was writing this book, I was coming face to face with the people who pulled those triggers, and for the first time. I wasn’t able to have conversations with these soldiers in Iraq, because they had guns and they were pointed in my vague, general direction and one of the things about war is that either you’re going to embed with the U.S. military OR you’re going be un-embedded and get another side—but it’s very hard to get both sides of the story at the same time just from a logistical perspective.
That was a very long process for me, in terms of coming to terms fully with the things that everyone does in war. But I’m really glad that I did it and the reason why I wrote about veterans in the first place was that after I wrote about the Iraqi side of the story in How America Lost Iraq, I had a hard time relating to other people in America: the only people I talked to about the war, and with whom I would be talking about the same war, whether we agreed on any given point or not, were military veterans. That’s why I started writing about vets: It just seemed to make great sense to write about the war as it was lived by people.