Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day-Remember the Soldiers

The horrors of war are catching up with us:

A May 10 article in The Washington Post, for example, discovered that "nearly four in five service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who were found to be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were never referred by government clinicians for further help."

Meanwhile, The San Diego Union-Tribune disclosed in March that mentally ill servicemen were being returned to combat, often with little more treatment than prescriptions for anti-depressants and anxiety medications. The Union-Tribune also reported in April that despite increased need for treatment due to the war in Iraq, the Veteran's Administration mental-health budget has barely increased from $2.2 billion in 2005 to $2.3 billion this year.
I used to think PTSD had something to do with the culture; with how we have sanitized death, and removed it from our lives except as a source of cartoonish entertainment with live 'action heroes.' Jessica Mitford recounts that, at one time in America, a family member sat with the undertaker as the dearly departed was embalmed. It was an act of witness, a way of honoring the beloved, of not leaving them alone with strangers for a final violation. Our first thought now is how repulsive and disgusting that would be. But to a people used to farm life, who knew where the beef and chicken and pork sausage came from, because they made it themselves, it was nothing of the kind. And so I thought we were just squeamish, having sanitized death until it was simply a waxy body in a casket, or a row of numbers on TV.

But consider modern warfare, and re-read the Iliad; or even Beowulf. Warfare, for centuries, was personal. It became more and more impersonal early on. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it was a nightmare of error and cannonade and mistaken charges. Read Hugo's account of a charge at Waterloo, where calvary raced over a hill, only to find a ditch just beyond the rise their horses stumbled on. There was no way to stop the charge, no way to prevent fresh horses from piling up, rider and all, on the first wave, lying in the ditch. It was a slaughter of almost modern proportions, and all without a shot being fired, but then the shooting began in furious fusillade. And still, it wasn't like warfare today.

Today, your enemy can kill you and you cannot hope to protect yourself. A scene from Jarhead sticks in my memory. Finally called up to do his job as a sniper, the protagonist gets an Iraqi soldier in his sights, a man about to die at the hands of another man he doesn't even know exists. But an airstrike is called in, and the entire area bombed into rubble. Death from the skies, in an instant, without warning, without hope of escape or protection. What training can protect you from that? Today, it is IED's in Baghdad. What training, what armor, what planning, can protect you from an enemy who could be in the crowd watching you bleed to death? There, may lie the roots of Haditha.

In Homer's day, death was personal. The soldiers on either side of the line at Troy knew each other, were relatives, even. They fought for hours. Their training, their courage, their bravery, their stamina, their skill, all carried the day, or made every effort for them. Today the best trained soldier can die in death rained from the sky, in a thousand anonymous ways. No wonder PTSD is so prevalent. No wonder so many of them, are so broken.

Pray for them today. Remember the soldiers, and offer up your prayers on their behalf. Pray for a world that thinks war and violence offer solutions, offer more than more war and more violence. Pray for peace, both in the world, and in your soul; and in the souls of the soldiers.

God's peace be with them. God's peace with you all.

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