Bloody Hell: The Price Soldiers Pay
By Dan Hallock (Plough Publishing House, 1999)
Paperback/368pp/£5.50/ISBN 0 87486 969 2
Published by radical Christians the Bruderhof Foundation, and with an introduction by the British 1982 Falklands War veteran Simon Weston, this little book is a collection of first hand experiences of war told by men and women from the armed forces of various countries.
Taking a broad look at the whole spectrum of brutal wars (and so called 'low intensity conflicts') that the world experienced up until the end of the last century this book mainly comprises highly personal stories from people involved in both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars (which is often referred to as the American War in this book) as well as covering the 1991 Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq. These are interspersed with other pieces from people actively involved in peace and anti-militarism struggles, and commentary is given throughout by the editor and retired US serviceman Dan Hallock.
As well as these personal accounts of war, the book also takes a look at the wider context of the militarisation of society, and the politics around the recruitment of military personnel. This is of particular relevance here in Britain, where young people (often with little education and already partly traumatised by broken homes or abusive parents) are lured out of 'economically depressed' areas with adverts full of the promise of physical fitness, adventure and travel. Carol Picou, seduced by these images, and now suffering from Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) would like the chance to make her own advert firstly showing people, "...in basic training, firing our weapons, climbing mountains, rappelling, doing all these wonderful things the army teaches you to do, and then showing us now, with our crippled bones, our incontinence. Take all of us in our wheelchairs, missing our arms and legs, and dying of cancer and brain tumours. Take our graves, and put that on a commercial." (p. 83)
When asked how he would respond to someone who was contemplating a career in the military, Retired Navy Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll responds, "First, I'd disabuse him of the notion that the military makes anything better. The military exists to kill and destroy." (p. 86) Vietnam veteran Gerald McCarthy says that war is not even the only thing to be afraid of. Referring to the damaging aspects of military training, he takes it further, "...forget going to war... I wouldn't even go back to boot camp... I think it can change you psychologically forever." (p. 83)
The brutalising effect that this military training has on people is referred to over and over again throughout the book, and the extent of the brainwashing that soldiers are subjected to seems immense. More optimistically, however, it is clear that given half a chance people are quite quick to jettison the inflicted structure and mindset of the military. Veteran Vince Bramley had this revelation during the Falklands War when he realised he wasn't "the rough, tough [soldier] that the programme of training had made you out to be. You realise you're still human, and you have human feelings, and that the men beside you are no different. The one thing that united all of us bundled together up on that mountain - both Brits and Argentines - was that we were all very upset about the whole fucking mess we were in." (p. 65)
The other lesson emphasised is the complete and callous disregard that the state and military have for people who have been injured in its wars. Denzil Connick, a soldier in the Falklands War who lost his leg, is blunt; "I'm not angry with the Argentinian soldiers. But I get very angry when I think of how the British Army left me high and dry after they had their worth out of me." (p. 308). From the homeless British ex-servicemen and women of both World Wars, through to people suffering from GWS there are whole sections of ex-service personnel that have been betrayed by the establishment. People like Anne Selby, who having been exposed to unknown chemical contamination and untested medical drugs during the first Gulf War, now suffers from chronic rasping and wheezing that has left her specialists baffled as to how to treat it, and the military denying that her illness even exists.
Recruited with lies and false promises, brutalised by training, losing your health in wars fought for a rich elite - and then deserted as an embarrassment and economic liability when it's all over. That's how the state treats you when it's used you for its acts of murder and terror.
Of course this book contains more than enough statistics and horrifying accounts of the reality of these wars to make even the hardest stomach turn, but for me some of the most important and interesting pieces of writing in here are those that deal with the psychological aftermath of conflicts.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other similar conditions are a common theme mentioned throughout the whole book. Many contributors recount suffering the extreme anxiety, depression, emotional constriction and self-destructive behaviour patterns that are some of the symptoms associated with PTSD. One extract notes that more American Vietnam War veterans have committed suicide than were actually killed by 'enemy' action during the whole conflict. Official figures have been constantly disputed, but a 1990 study by the US Congress concluded that over half of Vietnam combat veterans suffered from significant psychological problems, with estimates of those who have killed themselves as a result ranging from 10,000 through to as high as 120,000.
PTSD is not something unique to having been involved in war - it is a condition that we should be aware of, as well as making efforts to learn possible ways of helping friends from within our communities who may suffer from it in the future. And in case this sounds over dramatic, even leaving aside the potential of traumatic incidents in everyday life (accidents, rape, attacks etc.) we must remember that as political radicals we purposefully seek out confrontational and dangerous situations where the likelihood of suffering mental and physical trauma is increased many times over.
Especially, for example, with the solidarity work undertaken by internationals in places like Palestine and Chiapas. Basic first aid and some herb and massage knowledge are useful for the physical effects; but are any of us thinking about how to deal with the huge mental dislocation that radical social change may well entail - especially if we fail and are subject to increased and brutal repression?
This is a terrifying and moving book, and I certainly recommend it. For people who have been in the military (of which there are quite a few in our scene) it can help towards the essential process of healing the psychological and physical traumas that they have suffered. For everybody else it provides rare human insights into the minds of young (mainly) men who serve, or have served, as hired killers for the state.
Those reasons are enough to read the book, but if that is all it provides it will have been a missed opportunity. Far more important is the possibility that these writings will help to extend the understanding that war is not a moral issue, but one that has a more systemic cause. Like all of the struggles we are engaged in, war and militarism as we know them are a result of a particular system. Smedley Butler (a retired US Major General, and winner of 2 Congressional Medals of Honour) sums it up well; "I spent 33 years and 4 months in active military service as a member of the Marine Corps. I served in all the commissioned ranks, from second lieutenant to major general. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism." (p. 205) The only truly effective and radical anti-war activist must also stand in opposition to this whole system that sees the earth, animals and people as resources to be seized, managed, exploited - and if needed - eliminated. Anything else only perpetuates the system and its wars..
Resist the War Machine!
The Peace Pledge Union is an organisation of individuals from all walks of life. Their shared belief is that war and violent conflict are neither necessary nor inevitable, and their aim is to work towards creating a just world free from war. They can offer advice and help for serving soldiers wishing to leave - especially conscientious objector cases.
Contact them at: Peace Pledge Union, 41b Brecknock Road, London N7 0BT, UK.
Also worth getting in touch with is the organisation At Ease, a free advice service for members of the UK Armed Forces. It is completely confidential.
Contact them: At Ease, 28 Commercial Street, London E1 6LS, UK.