The War Abroad, the War at Home
Trying to capture even a small fragment of the experience of deploying and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is a daunting task. On the one hand, much of the experience of combat and its aftermath has not changed since the beginning of recorded history: the experiences of Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, and Penelope continue to speak to contemporary warriors and their families. On the other hand, as veterans stressed to us in our earliest interviews, every veteran’s story is different. The range of experiences is well-documented: the wars of the last 13 years have produced a number of first-rate memoirs and reportage, as well as some very good poems, fiction, and yes, plays (both by veterans and civilians).
As David Finkel writes in his recent book Thank You For Your Service, the men and women who fought have become soldiers, Marines, and sailors for a wide range of reasons: “because they were patriotic or starry-eyed or heartbroken or maybe just out of work.” They are male, female, transgendered; straight, gay; high school dropouts and holders of graduate degrees. They come from all ethnicities and the full spectrum of political belief. Their experience returning has had similar diversity. Finkel points out that “two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy. They move forward. Their war recedes. Some are even stronger for the experience.” Many veterans see themselves as part of a new “greatest generation,” and our limited experience has connected us to young people whose devotion to service and community is genuinely awe-inspiring.
“But then,” as Finkel writes, “there are the others, for whom the war endures. Of the two million, studies suggest that 20-30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – a mental health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injury – TBI – which occurs when the brain is jolted so violently that it collides with the inside of the skull and causes psychological damage. Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans.” Anthropologist Kenneth MacLeish notes that “war persists in the lives, bodies, and social worlds it has touched . . . . sitting with you at home in your living room or bed, in the touch of a familiar person, in your bones and muscles and brain, in your feelings and dreams.”
Like combat, the phenomenon now called PTSD has been around as long as war has. The psychologist Jonathan Shay, whose books Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America are classics on the subject, has hypothesized that a function of Athenian tragedy was a form of public therapy. It’s gone by many names – soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, PTSD (or PTS, for some, including former President George W. Bush, who object to the stigma of “Disorder”). The documentary Wartorn, produced by the late James
Gandolfini, shows some of the devastation of PTSD. Many veterans with PTSD/TBI manage their invisible wounds, but the Veterans Administration continues to deal with a large backlog of cases. David Finkel captures a worst-case scenario in the description of Adam, a sergeant who was broken by his own acts of heroism: “Once, long ago, just back from the war and trying to figure out what had happened to him, Adam had said, ‘I was a normal guy who got sent to Iraq and became crazy, so they sent me to America to become sane, and now it’s America that’s driving me crazy.’ ”