During war and its aftermath, there is always a need for healing, both physically and emotionally, for individuals, their communities and nations. One essential step is to look honestly at all the repercussions of violence, no matter how troubling or sensitive the issue. While the calls to “Support Our Troops” were repeated regularly at rallies and in editorials, it is not clear what the implications are for this kind of appeal when “our troops” are involved in violations of the Geneva Convention or violence back home, for example. In the photograph below, a Korean woman sits in the rubble that had been her community before the war.
Emphasize that sophisticated communication skills and high levels of emotional intelligence can help in processing information like what appears in this article for The New York Times on January 13, 2008. According to Sontag and Alvarez there were 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment—along with a range of other problems including alcohol abuse and family troubles—contributed to these tragedies. Volatile emotions then mix with violence and self-destructive tendencies to produce an explosive, deadly concoction. Three-quarters of these veterans were still in the military at the time of the killing. More than half the killings involved guns, and the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bathtub drownings. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving. Imagine the stress on Korean civilians having to escape the war’s violence.
According to Sontag and Alvarez, about a third of the victims were spouses, girlfriends, children or other relatives, among them 2-year-old Krisiauna Calaira Lewis, whose 20-year-old father slammed her against a wall when he was recuperating in Texas from a bombing near Falluja that blew off his foot and shook up his brain. A quarter of the victims were fellow service members, including Specialist Richard Davis of the Army, who was stabbed repeatedly and then set ablaze, his body hidden in the woods by fellow soldiers a day after they all returned from Iraq. And the rest were acquaintances or strangers, among them Noah P. Gamez, 21, who was breaking into a car at a Tucson motel when an Iraq combat veteran, also 21, caught him, shot him dead and then killed himself outside San Diego with one of several guns found in his car.
Add to this the alarming number of suicides among enlisted and returning veterans. According to the Times On-Line for October 3, 2008, “More American military veterans have been committing suicide than US soldiers have been dying in Iraq. . . At least 6,256 US veterans took their lives in 2005, at an average of 17 a day, according to figures broadcast last night. Former servicemen are more than twice as likely than the rest of the population to commit suicide. Such statistics compare to the total of 3,863 American military deaths in Iraq since the invasion in 2003 — an average of 2.4 a day, according to the website ICasualties.org. The rate of suicides among veterans prompted claims that the US was suffering from a “mental health epidemic” — often linked to post-traumatic stress.” Imagine the level of trauma on the civilian population having to flee the fighting.
Note how troubling it is to read the graphic details about the human stories that underlie the statistics. It is no surprise that the proponents of a particular war do not like to see these kinds of statistics or details made public. Yet it is in the public arena that democracy must play out. Take time to prepare an audience, to set ground rules for discussion, and to debrief the process when completed. Think about the full costs of war and violence, of the resulting trauma and hunger. As Paul Kennedy asks in his 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (New York: Vintage), with 800 bases overseas, will our “military overstretch” erode our own national infrastructure and safety net provisions as has happened to every other empire in the last 500 years?