The following piece is drawn from a forthcoming book written by Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz with the assistance of Betsy Brinson and Jose Vasquez entitled War Epiphanies. This group of researchers interviewed dozens of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have become vocal opponents of those wars. The book traces the lives of five men and one woman who enlisted like millions of other young people—to get money for college, to seek adventure, to serve their country, and hoping to find a way to do good in the world—and the conclusions they have drawn from their military work and their return to civilian life.
Many U.S. soldiers who return home from Iraq have or will develop crippling psychological problems—by one estimate, fully 40 percent of combat veterans. Among the most common diagnoses given them is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an affliction resulting from exposure to traumatic events that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, have “involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.” The cause here, of course, is exposure to combat itself, more universal among the troops in this than any previous U.S. war. Factors that exacerbate PTSD include frustration and anger because of insufficient preparations, equipment, and training; the feeling that there is no end in sight; discomfort and deprivations of life in a war zone; worries about careers and families back home; racism and sexual harassment within the military; and extended tours of duty.
Over the years, the military has called soldiers’ traumatic response to war shell shock, combat neurosis, battle fatigue, or war-zone stress reaction. In addition, officers have often refused the diagnosis claiming it is an excuse for malingering, or in more contemporary language, “anger dysregulation.” Nonetheless, and despite the continuing stigma of mental illness, many accept and even welcome a diagnosis of PTSD as part of the process of recovery from the mental wounds of the Iraq war. Why then would a group of veterans declare that in fact PTSD is normal and, in some sense, good?
For a growing number of anti-war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD is not an unhealthy or abnormal condition but a reasonable and normal human reaction to what they saw and did while serving in the United States military. While many returning vets reject treatment because of the stigma attached to it or find it inaccessible, some anti-war vets accept treatment and medications but reject how the Veterans Administration (VA) understands their diagnosis. Some refuse standard treatment and argue that other methods will help them move beyond their suffering. These anti-war vets all agree with VA doctors that they have received a traumatic injury to the self, but they see the injury as an assault not simply on their mind but on their whole person. What the medical establishment calls a disorder, they call a form of dehumanization. In coming to this conclusion, these dissenting soldiers focus on the fate of Iraqi civilians at the hands of the U.S. military. In fact, what makes the lives of these troops distinct from the rest of the armed forces sent to Iraq and Afghanistan is not so much their experiences of such civilian harm, which is ubiquitous, but rather the conclusions they have drawn. It turns out that how soldiers react to civilian war injuries and death is decisive for their emerging critique of the war and to understanding the injuries of war to themselves and others. Ultimately veterans who reject the diagnosis of PTSD as being a disorder are making a political statement more than a medical or personal psychological diagnosis. The point for both anti-war veterans who seek counseling and medication for post-traumatic stress, as well as those who prefer to avoid such treatment even though they may suffer from the same symptoms, is that, regardless of medicalized analysis, the fundamental cause of their affliction is that they have witnessed and participated in dehumanizing crimes against people in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Navy medic Charlie Anderson, originally from Rossford, Ohio, crossed into Iraq in March 2003 with the Marines. Like most everyone around him in uniform, he was full of fear and curiosity, anger and resignation, excitement and ambivalence about the mission. Trained as a medic, he especially relished the idea of helping his buddies if they got hit. Looking back later, though, he said, “I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.” The learning curve would soon rise steeply in front of him.
On an early convoy operation in 2003, his unit began taking casualties on the outskirts of Sadr City. Someone radioed that they were looking for a young Arab male wearing black pants, white shirt, and sandals, and carrying an AK-47—in other words, almost anybody. From the back of the column came machine gun fire. One of Anderson’s sergeants had been telling the younger men a story. Suddenly he opened fire with his weapon, apparently aiming at nothing and no one in particular. Then he went back to telling his story right where he left it mid-sentence only seconds before, pausing now and then to sip his coffee. “A lot of people would think that was cool,” says Anderson. “I thought it was scary.” This was the first of a set of political and moral epiphanies Charlie Anderson underwent in combat and after.
Later that same day, Anderson relates, orders came through to load up and drive into Sadr City. They had high hopes for what was to come. Given the standard American diet of World War II movies, he and his comrades expected to find “a kind of air of liberation parades in Holland and France.” They believed that they would be rewarded for protecting the population from further depredations by Saddam Hussein and his “bad guys,” but the civilian reception was quite different from what they expected. The thousands of civilians out in the streets of Sadr City didn’t seem excited to see them— except the kids. “There are kids running up and down the sides of streets begging for food.” The Marines were still looking for the young Arab male carrying an assault rifle. And there were people everywhere. “You’re looking at the kids, at the doorways, at the windows, and the rooftops. You’re trying to scan the alleys, looking for a guy [who wants to kill you] in this crowd of 5,000.” Anderson was riding on the passenger side of a Humvee with his weapon in his left hand, safety off, finger on the trigger, pointed at the vehicle’s door. With his right hand he was throwing food out and waving at the kids. After rounding a corner, the crowd seemed to thin. Then all hell broke loose and Marines began shooting in all directions. “We’re trying to figure out what one guy is firing at, and he yells, ‘Don’t ask me what I’m shooting. I’m shooting at fucking people!’” Anderson pulled the trigger on his gun until someone said he could stop. “There’s all this pandemonium. Women. Children. Mostly women and children. And it seems so cliché. But that’s really what was happening. Mostly women and children. And a few old men running every which direction screaming and yelling.… My thoughts were the black and white photograph of the little girl running down the street in Viet Nam. She’d been napalmed. All her skin’s falling off.”
Five years later, in January 2008, as we sat in his home in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina, Charlie Anderson still looked shell-shocked in recounting those operations around Sadr City. Whether he shivered from the cold outside that winter day, or from the still painful memory of having been a part of the military force that caused terrified civilians to flee through the streets of an Iraqi city, he didn’t say. In either case, even in 2008, Anderson was continually trying to come to grips with his early tour of duty in Iraq. Regardless of what the ground troops were ordered to do in the war, he remained convinced their motivations were noble. “Most of us thought that we were there to do something good. I don’t think anybody joins an army or goes off to war thinking they are going to do evil.” Like thousands of other veterans, Anderson sought counseling from time to time after he returned. “I did go through one support group meeting at the VA, and I didn’t find any support. I spent most of the night talking about why it was okay for me to be a veteran against the war, and listening to some of the other members of this group talk about how we should just have a policy of genocide because if we don’t kill everybody in Iraq, then they’re going to come over here and kill our kids. It didn’t even make sense.” Beyond feeling like an alien in this group of vets, he nonetheless shared much in common with them. Like the others, Anderson, too, had to cope with the traumas of war including what he called “survivor’s guilt,” and the feeling that he was personally responsible for helping other returning vets with their own cycles of depression. Eventually, after return to the United States, Charlie Anderson was given an honorable discharge from the Navy after being diagnosed with PTSD.
Like thousands of other soldiers, Garett Reppenhagen put in time at checkpoints. Trained as a sniper and born to a military father in Fort Hood, Texas, Reppenhagen found himself one day flagging down a quickly approaching vehicle, and trying to get its Iraqi driver to leave his vehicle. As this car, like many before it, had approached, Reppenhagen recalled, “You’re thinking there could be a car bomb. And you got your heart pumping and your adrenaline flowing because you think you’re just going to get bombed. And the car screeches to a stop. And you go over and you’re yelling at the guy in the car. Only he doesn’t speak English, so he’s not getting out of his car, you know? You’re trying to open the door, but the door’s jammed because his car sucks. It’s junk. And you’re frustrated because you can’t open the door. You’re embarrassed that you’re trying to open a door that doesn’t open. So you just grab the guy and pull him out the window and you throw him on the ground and you zip-strip him [with plastic ties used by U.S. forces]. And then you realize, out of the corner of your eye, that his wife and kids are staring at you with this intense hatred in their eye. You just realize you are part of the problem. And you don’t mean to be, and you don’t want to be, but you’re there, you know? And that’s the crime. The crime is that you’re there.”
Many soldiers, says Reppenhagen, “started to loathe themselves. But instead of changing to make it better, some changed for the worse. They just dove into it and became monsters.”
Like those of other dissident U.S. veterans who have come out against the war, Reppenhagen’s stories focus on the hubris of this war, how the war destroyed some part of him and violated the trust that he, as a citizen soldier, once had in the U.S. military. As Garett Reppenhagen says, “I always saw myself as doing the right thing, taking the proper course of action, as thinking about ethics and morality. And here I was, the one with my hands on this dude, feeling justified to rip him out of his car and throw him on the ground and put him in handcuffs. It made me feel like an asshole. I’m the guy acting like a Nazi.” Although some troops and veterans have sought relief from their post-traumatic nightmares by popping what medics in Iraq sarcastically call “happy pills,” Reppenhagen is staunchly opposed.
I’m certainly not going to take any medication. I am flat against that. Personally, I don’t want to separate myself from my war experience. I think my war experience is part of who I am now, and I’ve got to learn to carry that. My healing comes through helping other veterans, being part of the movement. IVAW [Iraq Veterans Against the War] is redeeming me. Garett Reppenhagen was the first active- duty soldier to join IVAW while still in Iraq.
Men experience trauma, he knows, when their buddy is blown up in front of them, when someone is shot and no one can get to him. Or, as he puts it, “When innocent people get waxed.” But, Reppenhagen insists, for the most part, the average American soldier is not the victim.
“He’s the victimizer. And I think he feels like a criminal, honestly. He feels like the killer and the rapist and the thief, and he comes back to America and it’s, “Thank you for your service.” But we’re, like, “You have no idea what you’re thanking me for. You don’t know what I did.”
If men did the same things in the streets of the United States they did with no repercussions in the cities and villages of Iraq, they would be imprisoned or even executed, Reppenhagen believes. But since they are not punished by others, they punish themselves. “They start drinking themselves to death and doing drugs and being abusive to their family—and committing suicide, because they can’t find redemption.”
So what’s a medical practitioner going to do for a veteran in this situation? “If you’re a clinical doctor, you cannot fix a problem that’s social and political. Let’s say you sit down with a counselor and say, “I’ve been betrayed by my government and I’m fucking pissed off, and this is debilitating. I am unable to fit into society. And it’s directly because of the war.” Well, they’re gonna be like, “Here’s a pill. Don’t be so pissed off.” They try to make it your problem. And it’s not your problem. It’s society’s problem. You don’t have to readjust to society; society’s going to have to readjust to you.”
When Ricky Clousing deployed to Iraq in December 2004 at age 22, he didn’t rely on the media to understand the situation in Iraq: “I kind of wanted to formulate my own idea about what was going on.” He had high expectations that his military intelligence training would help identify people who were threats to Iraqi freedom. Years before, Clousing had become a born-again Christian and done missionary work in Latin America and Thailand. He was eager to find a way to help the Iraqis as he had helped farmers in Mexico on several earlier trips. Soon after arrival in Iraq, Clousing saw civilians killed and harassed with impunity by U.S. soldiers. He began to mistrust the mission that used such methods, and went to his command with serious questions about whether to continue to participate in the war or even in the Army itself. It was recommended he speak with counselors and chaplains, and he did so. He told them “about the spiritual basis for my conflict of conscience [but] they came back with all these cliché statements, and even Bible verses taken out of context, justifying war and saying God is favoring us, and that I should just trust in his plan. Just surface-y, watered down statements that didn’t answer anything that I was really feeling.” His commanders asked Clousing if he was trying to get out of the Army. “There’s ways to do that, such as saying you’re gay or saying you have mental problems. I was insulted, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t trying to play that card to get a ticket out of the military.” Clousing tattooed the word “Veritas” on his arm to signify his quest, and started reading books about the run-up to the war in Iraq and on U.S. foreign policy in general. In addition, he read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience. After returning to the United States, Ricky continued to be tormented by his time in Iraq. He talked to more counselors and chaplains and commanders.
All to no avail. He went AWOL and after a year he turned himself in. Following his military trial, he served three months in the Camp Lejeune brig in North Carolina. During the entire period after his tour in Iraq, Army officers proposed various options to Clousing such as filing for conscientious objector status or a diagnosis of PTSD, any one of which would have allowed him to serve out his remaining time in non-combat assignments—and the military would have avoided further embarrassment (Clousing’s case had become international news). He refused conscientious objector status because he does not oppose all wars. He rejected the PTSD diagnosis because he considers post-traumatic stress not a disorder but, as he called it, “a patch” that conceals deeper problems: “I mean, it’s a natural reaction of culture shock, of being in a combat zone, and the realities and the expectations of fighting, and being expected to kill people, and then coming back home to what we have here.” Far from representing an abnormal adaptation to civilian life, he adds, traumatized soldiers are the norm: “They’re actually tapped into their human and spiritual and emotional side enough to feel the effects of [the war]. They’re not numb enough to just blow it off like it doesn’t matter.”
Anti-war vets like Ricky Clousing, Garett Reppenhagen, and Charlie Anderson may be no more or less traumatized by what they saw and did than other service members. However, their distinctive understanding of the problem and of the remedies available to them—particularly political action and helping other vets—allows them to reshape their sense of self in crucial ways. Each has been an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and has worked in a variety of ways, including recruiting for IVAW from within the active duty military and others, lobbying Congress, and long public marches and talks to educate the public. They are working to advance the goals of the organization, which includes campaigning for an immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq; reparations to the Iraqi people that they, rather than corporate profiteers, would administer; and lobbying for full benefits and adequate healthcare for returning vets. They have also forged strong bonds of advice and help with dissident Vietnam War era vets and organizations and are helping with counter-recruitment efforts in high schools around the country.
Each is also trying to reestablish himself in work and/or school: in winter 2008, Charlie Anderson was attending Appalachian State University in Boone and working with the VA nearby, Garett Reppenhagen was studying at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs and working as a parttime organizer and consultant for Veterans for America, and Ricky Clousing was working in a gift shop and learning to be a dealer in Las Vegas.
As another anti-war veteran said about his emerging recovery-through-activism from the war, “I am no longer the monster I once was.” These vets are convinced they have found a kind of redemption and balm by breaking ranks and speaking out against the war, by forging a new kind of comradeship with their fellow dissenters, and by beginning to make amends with the Iraqi and Afghani peoples. Some might say that these veterans were dehumanized from the moment they began basic training, and that by turning against the war in Iraq and what they saw and did there, they are simply reclaiming their humanity. But that conclusion would be too easy. Because if anything these anti-war veterans were among the most idealistic of soldiers, committed to the idea of armed service in defense of the nation and indeed serving humankind through their participation in military operations in Iraq.
As contradictory as it might seem, and despite all the questions they had from the beginning about military service and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, these men at the same time believed that they would be doing good for others through their participation in the war. In the end, however, they do not want their post-traumatic stress to be neatly boxed off by a medicalized diagnosis that separates their condition from the total experience of the war in Iraq and from a moral and political critique of its impact on the people of that country.