The Silence of War Veterans.

11 November 2012

Two things struck me during the past eleven days of November. First of all, I was struck by the realization that what is known as Remembrance Day here in Canada, and Poppy Day, Armistice Day, or Veterans’ Day elsewhere, has, during the recent years of the Global War on/of Terror, been stretched into eleven days of remembrance.

Throughout these eleven days of seemingly endless radio and television documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and personal tributes to veterans posted on social media sites, a common theme stood out to me – the silence of veterans.

I was struck by the large number of close relatives of veterans who express mystification at the reticence of their loved ones to talk about their war experiences. Most of these relatives of veterans surmise their husband, son, brother, father, or grandfather (I haven’t seen any comments in this context about female combat veterans) is a stoic and taciturn hero.

But let’s also consider how difficult it is to honestly talk about war.

First of all, it’s impossible to adequately describe the sights, the sounds, the smells of warfare. How can one describe the sensation of a large explosive impact, or a tiny projectile flying past one’s head to someone who has never experienced these sensations? Physical pain cannot be described! It is an impossibility to translate the sensory experiences of war let alone the emotional feelings of having to kill while fearing being killed.

I have observed war zones up close as a non-combatant observer in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and most recently in Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I have never felt I possess the capacity to adequately describe my experiences – and I’m a writer. I also never had to kill a person or watch helplessly as a friend died a horrific death. Many veterans, I suppose, feel as I have, that they do not have the capacity to describe their experiences.

Do we really want to hear true war stories, or just the ones about heroes?

Do most people really want to hear what all veterans have to say? Listening to the truth can be painful. We prefer to hear stories of heroes vanquishing evildoers. Are we prepared to listen even when a veteran does not have a heroic story to tell?

I frequently spoke at public events after my trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan and I have written numerous articles regarding the Global War on/of Terror. A few veterans of this war have sought me out to relate their experiences to me – perhaps because I seem like someone who would listen and have some empathetic understanding of their experiences.

A young man, who I’ll call Johnny, told one of the more notable stories I can recount. Johnny joined the Canadian Forces because it was the best job, really the only job, he could hope for – he was a victim of the “economic draft” that compels so many women and men to join the military.

The army assigned Johnny a job as a truck-driver. Johnny was happy with his assignment, because even though he had to carry a gun and had been trained well in how to use it, he fervently hoped he would never actually have to kill someone.

Unfortunately, although Johnny never did have to fire his gun in battle, he thinks he probably did kill several Afghan children – he doesn’t know for sure.

On not just one, but two occasions, Johnny struck children on the road while he drove his truck at high speed. The rules of engagement dictated that Johnny had to always drive at high speed and not stop under any circumstances. Both times he hit children on the road, Johnny was forced to leave the scene of the accident – a serious crime here in Canada, but a crime he was ordered to commit to fulfil his duty as a soldier. All he could do, as he sped away, was to stare helplessly in his rear-view mirror hoping the lifeless bodies of children he had just hit would somehow miraculously spring back to life.

Everyday, Johnny has wished that he had disobeyed his orders and stopped to see if those children were still alive and done something to help them if he could have.

Most of us really don’t want to hear Johnny’s story and he sensed that. Besides, he had been advised to never talk about what happened.

As any sentient human might imagine, this young man is broken, but few people really care about the non-heroes like Johnny. This is not a story Johnny is likely to tell his children and grandchildren – that is if he survives depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts long enough to maintain a relationship and start a family. This is not a story Johnny was ever able to bring himself to tell his parents or his now ex-girlfriend.

War is purposefully traumatic, which is why state leaders purposefully use it. Yet we unquestionably accept that the reaction to this trauma is a “disorder” rather than a natural human reaction. Court-jester George Carlin points out the government’s use of euphemisms to hide this truth is getting worse in every generation: during WWI, the natural reaction to war was called “shell shock”; during WWII, “battle fatigue”; during the Korean War, “operational exhaustion”; and since the war in Vietnam, “post-traumatic stress disorder”, or just PTSD.

Do we really want to hear the stories of veterans destroyed by war? John Bell is one of the few relatives of veterans who can honestly tell the story of how his father’s experiences during WWII “tore at [his] father’s soul”.

I have listened to the war stories from Canadian Forces artillery officers who were ordered to lob shells from their huge Howitzer field guns into Afghan villages they couldn’t even see 20 kilometres away. I have listened to the war stories of Afghans who lived in those villages and watched helplessly as their homes were destroyed and family and friends killed.

These are not the stories most Canadians want to hear, so why would we expect those veterans would want to tell them.

Do we really want to hear the true story of why we fight?

What about those war veterans who too late realize they were duped by their government to fight futile wars, illegal wars, immoral wars, wars of imperial conquest? Do we really want to listen to their stories?

What about war veterans who want to talk about how to avoid war in future – war veterans who want to remind us of the legal imperative that war must be an absolute last resort after all other means of self-defence have been exhausted?

Do we really want to hear the stories of war veterans who do not ever want to see another war again? How un-heroic is that?

What about the war veterans who want to tell stories about war crimes they have seen committed, or that their military and political leaders have forced them to commit?  Do we really want to hear what they have to say? It’s most likely they will be labelled traitors.

Do we really want to hear the stories of the brave veterans who at great risk to themselves and their families refuse to fight an illegal/immoral war any longer?

The Canadian government did not listen to Kimberly Rivera, the first female US soldier known to have fled to Canada to avoid fighting in Iraq. The Canadian government recently deported Kimberly to face detention in a US military prison.

I certainly can’t speak for veterans, but I do know a few who don’t want to talk about their war experiences, because they know full well, we really don’t want to listen to what they have to say.  We prefer to hear mythic stories of heroism rather than hear the painful truths of war.

© Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.