Nothing seems to make me feel worse than when I reflect on my earlier life and what would have become of it had I resisted the urge to enlist in the Army after September 11th. Would things have turned out worse? Instead of the towering shame and sense of betrayal that overwhelms me today, would I have just found replacement feelings of ignominy and victim-hood? Either way I lie awake at night hoping to erase the shame and wake up with the fear born of my nightmarish anger. So I do my best to occupy my brain with the drone of the never ending internet or the fiction within the screen; anything to dam the current that flows from another life and the future impossible to replace. Death comes, it seems, the moment that barrier gives way, opening up the closure our fiction has hidden.
There is no justice for the self-righteous among us. I say that in the context of modern day truth tellers, those who do what they believe to be honorable only to be treated like the villain. The story is familiar. I can relate. The idiom, I believe, is: “no good deed goes unpunished.” My entire concept of right and wrong was challenged, and defeated the day I was discharged from Army service administratively, essentially, for doing “the next right thing.” “The war is bigger than this young man,” I was lectured just days before I was unceremoniously shipped home with two fellow “troublemakers.” “We are in the middle of a war, son.” “Why are you doing this to yourself?” My answer, in the moment was as honest as it was naive and simple. My answer, paraphrased, was something like “I signed up to fight for the good guys. I enlisted….” The meeting was over.
Even in my initial shock, there was an ember of dignity deep within. That I could somehow hang my hat on that simple truth. That my war was over, yet my humanity carried on. In a rational mind, this could have been logical. Instead what settled under my atmosphere were the competing forces of embarrassment and shame. Embarrassed that I came home physically unharmed, yet profoundly hurt by what felt like being abandoned and shameful for trusting the forces of power to begin with. My self-righteousness encumbered my ability to prosecute the immorality of war. I should have known as much. I did this to myself and that’s ultimately what today hurts the most.
You might be wondering: “what could have been so terrible that it forced me/us to press the issue to the “event horizon,” if you will? In not so many words, I am ready to let it go. The only person outside of my unit and command that I told was my now deceased Grandfather; a Veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam Wars. It was unexpected that he expressed his lack of shock. In fact, he thought it lucky to have an honorable discharge in the face of such deliberate malfeasance.
After 8 months deployed to Afghanistan in late 2002 early 2003, our unit was quickly turned around and refitted for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. During the final 4 weeks prior to the invasion we were stationed outside of the Middle East with several additional coalition forces. It came to my attention that soldiers were visiting a brothel regularly, then sharing video captured during the sexual escapades. It wasn’t the idea of a brothel that bothered me, nor the childish passing around of amateur porn. What seemed quite disturbing then -revolting today even- was the open knowledge that many of these girls were underage and that several of the homemade tapes included violence. My first reaction was disbelief. Just sailor stories, I thought? Pretty sick shit, but almost certainly untrue. The more I heard however, the more it became evident that the rumors were, in fact, true.
The second thing that killed me was few seemed to give a shit? Is this really what we are all about? Supposedly traveling halfway around the world to liberate oppressed peoples only to victimize some along the way? So we took it to the PL. Long story short; four months later, following a capture mission in Iraq and three separate meetings since first reporting the incident, one final chance was given to drop the issue. Six hours later I was extricated from Iraq; ten hours after that, from the Army itself.
About five years ago I stumbled upon an article that caught my attention. Some private contractor for the US Military had been accused of shielding individuals caught up in a scandal involving underage prostitution very near the post I had visited years before. A corporate whistle blower had come forward with evidence of the myriad crimes only to be fired and returned to the States ingloriously. According to the piece, the corporation settled with a moderate fine and no admission of wrongdoing in the matter. The article went on to reveal that the crimes continued for another year at least. No charges or further investigation was ever instigated, according to the piece.
Are we the country we proclaim to be? Am I insensitive to the bigger picture, or, am I simply unwilling to take accountability for my own behavior, projecting my anger to deflect the truth? I remember that flight home so many years ago and the slightest ember of confidence that remained deep within. That someday, if I pressed on, someday my actions would be rewarded. Yet, like so many other high and mighty idiots, that redeemable moment never comes. Instead, we just add to the long list of victims assaulted by the “big picture.”
Why write this today? The truth is, my slow fall from normality has inflicted emotional harm, not only upon the self, but upon those who knew me so long ago. This guilt is yet another scar. I wanted to at least try to explain in a way that’s to not explain away the forces that interrupted my trajectory and shifted its orbit. I am sorry. My stubborn reluctance to talk and my inability to cope is on me, period. Be assured, the end will come despite your genuine concern, not in spite of it. I’m sorry you couldn’t help me. I am gratified. The truth is, it’s unclear if anything will prevent my ceding to the fear and noise?
I wrote this for anyone who cares enough to read it.. It’s the single thing I’m capable of doing. Hopefully these words will offer a modicum of reason and eventual closure. Remember me for the man I once aspired to be, not the coward that ran away.
I’ll post this tonight for good measure. If possible, another time soon, more will follow? It’s impossible to say everything. All life must one day pass through the seasons of creation to be born once more, cleaner somehow.
Reading this made me wonder if you’ve read about Phil Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment”. If not, it was a simulation of a prison done in the basement of a classroom building, where students were cast as either prisoners or guards. In a very short time, without being instructed to do it, the “guards” engaged in trying to break the “prisoners” down both physically and psychologically, and mistreat them to exercise control. Zimbardo terminated the experiment immediately, to protect students from permanent harm. One of his conclusions was that the assigned roles people accept, especially in organizations emphasizing control and conformity, directs individual behavior more than individual intentions. This applies to areas of government, the military, police, religious hierarchies, even social and political voluntary organizations. Folks have been arguing over the implications of the experiment for decades, but we keep seeing the dynamic replayed in situations that are real, not experimental.
Only extraordinary individuals are able to stand in opposition to this sort of group pressure, and the demand to perform within the confines of assigned roles. I have no blanket solution for the dilemma – that what makes people better fighters can also make them less compassionate, functional humans. But I don’t see your attempt to draw a minimum boundary of decency (beyond this is too far) as any kind of cowardice, even if it turned out to be tactically unwise in context.
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Good point. For me, I have come to believe much of the inner turmoil reflects my inability to follow through, even after leaving the Army, pushing the issue instead of simply giving up. Instead, I seem to have folded, creating another victim. Turns out I was a terrible martyr.
I read an article about the prison simulation. I believe it was in context of the Abu Ghraib incident in 2004-05? Very interesting. Seems like I recall it coming to an end a bit differently, but could be mistaken? What I recall is the Professor’s wife or girlfriend intervened to talk him into ending the whole thing? That even the Prof was sort-of sucked in and unable to clearly realize the extent of the ordeal? Either way, it does say so much about human nature…little of which seems positive.
There’s much to despair about humanity’s flaws, but we do keep trying to learn about things, and we also make. It seems to be an evolutionary adaptation, the big cerebrum that demands feeding, whether the information is fact or fantasy. Equal mechanical potential for good or bad purpose and application.
I think the concerned girlfriend was a plot device in one of the two movie versions produced about the experiment. Zimbardo writes at the time (1971) of his own shock and concern. His long career seems to support his veracity, but who can tell? We all re-write our own life stories to varying degrees according to our own biases, desires, needs and experiences.
Zimbardo, who’s still plugging away at it in his 80s, wrote a significant book called The Lucifer Effect, about how often and easily “good” people can “turn bad” if placed in contexts that direct their behavior in opposition to their values. It’s well over 500 pages, but I found a more digestible TED talk version. It includes more of his reminiscences about the Stanford experiment, and reflections on Abu Ghraib, which was a principal inspiration toward writing the book.
oops…lost a half sentence intended to say “we also make tools and art” in that first paragraph.
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