There’s a small collection I like to keep beside the bed, things to dip into when the news of the world depresses me. One of the items is My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir (2014); a depressing yet brave collection. These are stories about a soldier from a family of soldiering trying to hold onto his humanity. Brian Turner has written a lot about his PTSD without really addressing it directly. I’m very pleased that we have his signature on the copy beside me.
‘There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.
Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai—
and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.’
What Every Soldier Should Know
by Brian Turner in Here, Bullet (2005).
The same man wrote about the other side of the war in Iraq:
‘… among all these people, she’d have said
To have your heart broken one last time
before dying, to kiss a child given sight
of a life he could never live? It’s impossible,
this isn’t the way we die.‘
by Brian Turner in Here, Bullet (2005)
This is the poet who provided not the story but the title for Hurt Locker. I’ve always thought that was somehow unfair. Irrational on my part but there’s a niggle about not thanking him properly for his service.
It’s arguable that in 360° warfare, it is the home hospitals that have become the front lines. It has long been a warfare tactic to attack and destroy the support lines of the enemy. Is the modern concept of war changing and designed to destroy minds and put these broken soldiers into home hospitals for years to come?
‘The line between disorder and order lies in logistics…’ advised Sun Tzu in The Art of War.
The theory is that if you interrupt logistics, you can impede the opposing force. The inverse is also an advantage, a dark advantage that only makes sense in war. If the procurement of materiel of war is one supply line, the removal of the victims of war uses the same roads and supply paths though in reverse. It can be a very effective psychological torment for defenders to have to care for the injured, the maimed and the dead at the front lines. It is also hard to retreat and leave your colleagues behind.
So maybe 360° warfare has a tactical advantage. Perhaps it is engaging home hospitals in the war, bringing the war from the safe and distant theatres to the uncomfortable proximity of cities and towns with military-type hospitals.
In those hospitals, the betrayals by the state are harder to hide. Life changing injuries are easy to see in the community but damaged minds are just as real yet not so much in the purview of the generals.
And so, the mandarins of war let technology kick-in and drones become a satisfactory way to deploy and deliver force. Training, experience, morale, motivation, strategy, innovative tactics and deception are well known force multipliers but terror is better than them all. And drones are weapons of terror. No more, no less. Bombers are, of course, also weapons of terror. Inter-continental missiles are weapons of terror. Bullets are weapons of terror. Any war or weapon that that involves civilians is terror.
There are approximately 500,000 traumatically brain injured soldiers circulating in the United States. I haven’t found out how many TBI soldiers wander the streets of Europe or Russia or China or elsewhere. It must be hundreds of thousands who are also bringing misery to their families and friends. The American number may be disproportionately high because more than two million served the aims of their politicians in overseas action in the last two decades of conflicts.
I don’t know how to count the collateral casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many hundreds of thousands for sure. We hate that term collateral damage.
I used to think the best book I ever read was The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk. This book was strongly recommended to me by another Beirut Bob, a former colleague who also spent time in Lebanon and remains incredulous at the injustices. Fisk wrote that ‘… war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.’
I still think that Fisk’s is a phenomenal book but I can’t rank it higher than David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service (2013) or several more on the subject of inhumanity and betrayal. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Dispatches by Michael Herr. My Life as a Foreign Country. Read them all and more. And weep not just for the limbless who might be suspended in baskets hung like lighting from the ceiling. Worry for the traumatically brain injured whose PTSD is so rarely treated. And spare a thought for the enemy of cousins and brothers and fathers and sons and wives and mothers and husbands and daughters who bleed and suffer TBI just like us.
Authoritarianism is on the rise and another series of armed conflicts may be inevitable. I don’t think our hospitals are up to it. I don’t think our societies can cope with PTSD any more than the individuals who live in misery with it.
The pandemic has shown that preparedness can be undermined by weak and incompetent leadership. The pandemic has shown that unpreparedness can be exaggerated by vain and authoritarian leadership. And the price may well be us, our families and friends. And you, your families and friends.
Now the workers in the healthcare system are exposed to PTSD and we have clapped and clapped and clapped each night for weeks while they too died in far greater numbers than if the preparedness plans had been implemented.
’49. The soldiers entered the house, the soldiers entered the house.
Soldiers, determined and bored and searing with adrenaline, enter the house with shouting and curses and muzzle flash, det cord and 5.56mm ball ammunition. The soldiers enter the house with pixelated camouflage … The soldiers enter the house with ghillie suits … The soldiers enter the house one fire team after another … The soldiers enter the house with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of our uniforms.’
My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)
by Brian Turner.