What war does to soldiers: An inside view

By Nick Turse

Why did I listen to the most recent Republican debate? I can’t bear the contenders’ rants and bluster, their eagerness to get right to war. 'Our military force is how we project our word in the world,’ says one [Jeb!]. None of these men served in the military. I’ll bet that none of them ever visited a military hospital or talked with a single one of the thousands of American veterans who oppose war. Ignorance inspires these commander-in-chief wannabes to boast of their plans to dispatch ground troops [Jeb! Marco!], loosen the rules of engagement [Ted!], rain ‘saturation carpet bombing’ [Ted!] upon an already desperate land, search out and ‘utterly and completely destroy ISIS’ [Ted!] in all 12 countries where it now operates [Marco!], throw more enemies into Guantanamo [Marco!] for torture ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’ [The Donald!], and assert American supremacy worldwide with ‘preemptive strikes’ [Jeb!].  If we don’t threaten the world, after all, ‘no one fears us’ [Jeb!].  The fact that we’ve already been-there, done-that -- in fact, done nothing much but that, again and again -- merely goads the group of them to have another go.

“For these candidates so intent on dominating the world, veterans are barely an afterthought. Some want to privatize their care, giving them cards to present to any doctor or hospital [Jeb! Marco!], as if anyone could refit a prosthetic leg or repair a battered brain. [John!] insists that ‘the veteran is a leader. The veteran is strong. The veteran is drug free.’ Well, some certainly are.

Between 2002 and March 2013, the last time Pentagon released casualty figures, it quoted a million wounded. It may not have included 2.6 million who have filed disability claims (tongue firmly in cheek). No less than 270,000 claimed brain damaged, 1500 amputees or over a thousand who suffered burns. Unknown numbers deprived of their genitals. Many thought or committed suicide or relied on painkillers.  

In 2010, I arrived at Harvard University with a mess of a manuscript -- 10 years' worth of research on American war crimes in Vietnam patch-worked together in such a way that it was comprehensible to only one person on the planet: me. But I was lucky. I had a year to do something about it, and by something, I mean write the book again. From scratch. It was a daunting task, but the alternative was to declare the project a lost cause -- and I wasn’t ready to do that.

At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I was given an office, financial support, access to one of the world’s great libraries, and everything else that comes with a fellowship at an elite institution like Harvard. I couldn’t have asked for more, but as it happened, I needed more. I needed help, direction, advice. I needed a sounding board. I needed the counsel of someone with an intimate knowledge of war, of violence, of atrocity. Presumably, there was someone at Harvard with such credentials. But where among the brick and ivy could I find such a person?

It turned out that she was indeed at Harvard -- and conveniently located in an office about three feet distant from mine. Radcliffe, in its infinite wisdom, had made Ann Jones my neighbor for the year and her guidance helped transform that mess of a manuscript into my book Kill Anything That MovesThe Real American War in Vietnam.

Day after day, I would flop into a chair in her office and we would talk through various quandaries I faced: how to write up a particular incident, where to locate a key chapter, how to convey the horror I’d uncovered without traumatizing the reader.  In the midst of this, she began to share snippets of her latest interviews with damaged war veterans, their family members, and the American military personnel tasked with mitigating their physical injuries and psychological issues. In the midst of our mutual fellowship stays, Ann borrowed some body armor and jetted off to Afghanistan to bear witness to the wounded and the work of the men and women who attempted to save them. From there, she flew to Germany with the grievously injured and finally back to the U.S., where she began to keep tabs on their recovery and what has become of them.

As I listened to Ann, as I watched her office fill up with articles on combat, killing, and post-traumatic stress, as I saw her bookshelves strain under the weight of innumerable volumes on war, military training, and veterans’ issues, as I began to grasp just where her interviews and research were taking her, as we talked about all of this in detail, I became ever more certain that hers would be a special, even unprecedented volume, an “untold story” in the recent annals of American war. I knew that, as she was helping me, she was also writing a book which anyone interested in understanding the cost of war for soldiers and veterans, as well as their families and those who treat them, would need to read. I knew that her book would change the way we understand America’s recent wars.

I had no idea, at the time, however, that I would eventually have the opportunity to play a role in bringing They Were SoldiersHow the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story into being. It’s a beautifully written, devastatingly poignant piece of reportage, and an instant classic on the hidden reverberations of our distant wars -- from triage that goes on unseen behind hospital doors to the long, private struggles that occur anonymously in suburban neighborhoods and rehabilitation centers across the U.S. As with so many works that are ahead of their time, They Were Soldiers had difficulty finding a home. I was delighted then that Tom Engelhardt and I had a fledgling imprint, with Haymarket Books behind us, that made Ann’s book a reality. 

My role in They Were Soldiers has been modest. Ann did the heavy lifting and it was, indeed, heavy. At 73, she strapped on body armor and headed to war so you didn’t have to. She watched the sort of “meatball surgery” that would have left you doubled over and retching.  She asked the hard questions of soldiers, veterans, and their family members that you never could. And she wrote it all up with passion, eloquence, and unsparing clarity.

I spent the last 10 years interviewing veterans and intensely studying war and I still find They Were Soldiers to be revelatory. Just as our conversations did at Harvard, now her book has altered my outlook on American war and its aftermath. Today, she’s offering to do the same for you. If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to pick up a copy of They Were Soldiers. It’s the next best thing to having Ann as your neighbor.