Coming Home From Killing

By Michael Nagler 8-23-2011

The recent British film In Our Name is a returning-soldier drama featuring a married woman, Suzy, who leaves her husband and little girl to fight in Iraq. Because she's involved in the killing of a little girl during her tour-this part is based on a true story, but it happened to a man -- she returns home only to steadily fall apart under the stress of soul-destroying anxieties.

In real life, Ethan McCord was involved in a now-infamous episode that took a strangely similar turn. It became one of the most shocking (and hopefully awakening) revelations by Wikileaks: the video now dubbed "Collateral Murder" that was taken from an Apache helicopter as its gunners massacred a group of civilians in a Baghdad suburb in 2007. Addressing a Southern California audience about his role in the episode this past June, McCord described how he saw two small children mangled by gunfire from the helicopter and thought of his own two children at home.

McCord, though he is understandably tense, does not seem to be completely unnerved by the trauma. Instead, it forced him to wake up from the lies that had put him in a uniform to kill other people's children halfway across the globe, and he took it upon himself to try waking up others. Among people who have lost loved ones to gun violence -- like, for example, Azim Khamisa, who now works to dissuade school children from joining gangs after his son was mindlessly killed by one -- some have discovered that turning grief and guilt to reconstructive work can be psychologically restorative. But their number is not legion. Many, many more have gone, and are now going, the way of Suzy from In Our Name. According to a covered-up story that is about to be released by Project Censored, a Northern California-based media watchdog service, the number of active-duty soldiers or veterans who have committed suicide has just surpassed the number of those killed in combat.

We are facing a social problem of massive proportions, as our already-grim experience with returning veterans from Vietnam should have warned us. Psychologist Rachel McNair developed the concept of Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS) to bring home to us the fact -- now dramatically supported by neuroscientists -- that you cannot send people out to kill and maim without expecting them to suffer enduring torments themselves, no matter how thoroughly you try to desensitize them beforehand. Thank God! Where would we be if this capacity to respond to the joys and sufferings of others could really be squelched?

There have been admirable attempts to get needed help to these spiritually wounded men and women; but the real answer, the only sane and compassionate answer, is prevention. And that means only one thing: to stop glorifying violence in our social culture and national policy -- in other words, renounce war. It won't be easy. Colonel Harry Holloway, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, told journalist Dan Baum recently, "As soon as we ask the question of how killing affects soldiers, we acknowledge we're causing harm, and that raises the question of whether the good we're accomplishing is worth the harm we're causing

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