War zone journalist and humanitarian aid volunteer Ann Jones is the author of eight books on war trauma, violence against women, and Afghanistan. She recently spoke with Salon about her latest, the newly released “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars – The Untold Story” (a Dispatch Books project for Haymarket Books). “The sort of post-deployment crime waves are pretty, pretty frightening,” she said. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
I sort of don’t like those, you know, claims. But I understand that as far as we know, nobody has written in such detail about the step-by-step treatment of soldiers who have been injured in these wars. And it took me a year to get the permission to embed and make these Medevac flights with the wounded and hang out in the hospitals and see what is going on. So that part of witnessing what happens to the patients, and also the tremendous effect this has on the medical staff that is caring for them — that part of the story has not been reported before.
There’s another part of the book, the last chapter, that is about what happens when many of the soldiers come home and fall into, shall we say, risky and dangerous and often deadly behavior. Both a lot of family violence — a lot of them kill their wives or their girlfriends or their children. A lot of them, quite surprisingly to me, kill other soldiers. Many of them kill perfect strangers. And of course a great number of them kill themselves. And then there’s the drinking and drugging and all of that that goes on. And I think that the press has been remiss in putting that all together.
But what I found was that smaller local papers all over the country have been reporting on the things that were happening in their local area. And when those localities are close to military bases there are reporters that start putting this together, and the sort of post-deployment crime waves are pretty, pretty frightening. And the New York Times has put together some of those stories, but I think they got a lot of pushback — you know, “That’s not very complimentary to our veterans who have done so much for our country.” So they kind of seem to have given up on that. But the statistics keep mounting.
And your reporting on what you’re calling a “crime wave” – how much did that come from interviews that you did, or local press reports, or government statistics?
I’ve written about it before, and have done interviews about it before. But when I started looking into it again for this book, there was just too much of it for me to go around the country and report on all of this myself. And so in that particular chapter of the book, I depend very much on these small local papers all over the country who are sending out their reporters to get the facts … It’s very important documentation that we wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for all those local reporters out there.
And what’s the nature of the connection you’re suggesting between violence in war and violence at home?
Well, this is the connection that’s been pretty well established in past wars, but it seems to be even more extreme in these wars. And I think probably part of that has to do with the extent to which these people are doped up with drugs that aren’t doing them any good. But there are several different kinds of connections that have been pretty well established by researchers, psychiatrists and so on working with veterans. One is this inability to fit into their own families again, and the kind of hyper-explosiveness that comes out in family violence. And so there is a great deal of wife-beating, sexual assault of wives and girlfriends, and the murder of wives and girlfriends. Because often both partners in a relationship are in the military, often male soldiers are murdering their partners who are also soldiers. This has something to do with the whole macho ethos of the military, because rates of domestic violence have always been much higher in the military population than among civilians.
And a great deal of effort has gone into trying to get the military to institute effective programs to deal with domestic violence, but they’ve never really done it. They’ve made gestures and they’ve instituted some reforms which civilian experts in domestic violence recommended against. And so the results have not been good.
And then the other typical behavior that results in trouble is that guys who’ve been in combat especially tend to come back and engage in very risky behavior. And I don’t know if this is an adrenaline hangover or what. A great number of returning soldiers are killed in single-car crashes, or even more so in motorcycle accidents at a rate much higher than the civilian population. And then there’s getting into bar fights and attacking other guys and so on, and it goes on and on. And then there is quite a lot of this soldiers murdering other soldiers. And I think there are a lot of them who come back and haven’t gotten out of combat mode, and they just kind of carry on. In fact this is especially associated with certain bases … So the Pentagon is well aware of this but they don’t seem to know what to do about it.
And what is it that you think should be done?
I think they shouldn’t send people to war. Particularly, they shouldn’t send people to absolutely pointless wars. But this is the result of having a so-called “all volunteer army” or a standing army such as those wonderful Founding Fathers warned us against, because as long as you have the military drawn from this very small percentage of the population or generally from the poorest 1 percent of the population, that leaves – and this is something that the Founding Fathers predicted — that leaves the executive branch free to use that military as they please, and they don’t get the pushback that they used to get when we had conscription or a draft
… Much of our military is drawn from a portion of the population that just isn’t able to push back effectively on its own. And the rest of the population seems perfectly happy to just look the other way and let these kids fight the wars for them.
Do you believe then that the U.S. should reinstitute the draft?
You know, I don’t want to go into these issues … My book is simply a witness to the damage that’s done to soldiers that serve in the U.S. military, and the cost of that to the soldiers themselves, to their families, to the communities they come from, and to all the rest of us, because we are all paying the costs of this in many ways. We’re paying for the care of all these damaged people … that of course is money that could be spent at home on things like education and healthcare and all those things that would make life better for people at home. So we pay in that way, we pay in the damage to our reputation abroad. And we certainly pay in really the ruination of our military and not just the soldiers themselves, but the whole medical military system which has been so great about saving lives of even the most damaged veterans, but at great cost to the caregivers because they have a terrible job. And it takes a toll on them.
So when I looked into: OK, here are our soldiers, what happens to them? What does it look like? And followed them around and wrote down what it looks like, it comes out looking pretty horrible. And to me, all those other questions about draft or no draft and all of this — certainly they are important and need to be discussed, but I think these wars are so pointless. We are the last developed country in the world that still is making war, that has troops stationed all over the world just spoiling for a fight. It’s ridiculous. I live in Europe now … when you look at the U.S. from Europe, we look totally gonzo at this point, and nobody wants to see our armies going anywhere at this point.
Your father came back from World War I. What kind of contrast do you see between his experience as a returning veteran and the soldiers and families that you spoke to for this book?
I see the same sort of things. And that is the inability to reintegrate fully into normal family life, because the soldiers all come back in one way or another changed by the terrible experiences that they’ve been through … Some soldiers, particularly combat soldiers, come back with very intense moral injuries, largely caused by being required to perform acts that are contradictory to the moral precepts that have governed their lives beforehand. And some guys can do that, but a great many of them can’t live with that. It’s one of the strong motivations for suicide that we see among veterans.
Were there things [given] your father’s experience, or your time in Afghanistan, your past reporting, that surprised you in your reporting for this book, or that reinforced what you had seen before?
Most of my work before this book has been concerned with women and violence against women, and in fact I had worked in Afghanistan since 2002 with women and children as an aid worker in addition to being a reporter. And I didn’t embed with American troops until 2010, and that was to do a story on American women soldiers. But it was when I was on forward bases doing that story that I saw what was happening to the male soldiers, and then began to look at that.
But what I knew from lifelong experience of writing about women who had been trapped in situations where they were subjected to repeated life-threatening violence — I saw the same thing happening to the soldiers … Researchers who have worked with battered women and rape victims have previously identified there’s a remarkable resemblance between the after-effects, the traumatic effects and symptoms that are suffered by soldiers and battered women — particularly those who have also been subjected to repeated rape … Of course the military doesn’t like to talk about that at all because it is still such a macho organization, and to think that they’re suffering from some of the same effects of trauma that women have been suffering for many, many centuries probably it just doesn’t go well with the military bosses.
Given that you’ve written about the question of embedding journalists, how does your experience with war reporting and conflict reporting inform the way you look at some of the debates that go on about questions of what it means for journalists to be objective, what it means for journalists to be independent, what the role of journalists in relation to conflict should be?
I think they should be absolutely independent. I’ve embedded twice, only to get stories that I absolutely could not have seen otherwise …
I just got an email from a veteran … He said his job had been to escort lots of journalists who came to a forward base for one or two days, never left the base, and that was years ago, and they’re still writing articles about all the things they saw in Afghanistan …
I lived among Afghan civilians for so long, so when I went onto military bases I saw how remote they were from any understanding of who Afghans are and how they live. And it was almost like going to a different planet. And you’d hear about their strategies and their plans and what they were doing and their theories about Afghans — and of course a lot of their theories about Afghanistan came from the war in Iraq, which was an entirely different war. So it was really remarkable to me how little there was to be learned from being with the military except the exposure of how little they knew about where they were and who they were dealing with … The military understands the civilians much less well than the civilians understand the military.
On this question of “theories of Afghans”: Sometimes you’ll hear people arguing for getting out of Afghanistan making arguments that seem to rest on a broad-stroke criticism of people in Afghanistan or culture in Afghanistan. I recently interviewed a former congressman who said this is a country where “85 per cent [of the population] deal in rumor.” How do you react when people make those kinds of arguments about some kind of essential nature of Afghanistan?
I’m sorry, but you could say that about any country that depends primarily on word of mouth to transmit news, and that’s what happens in the countryside anywhere. But to believe that because people are not literate, they’re not smart is a big mistake. So that kind of sweeping statement – no, I think you can dismiss that …
I have sat in think tanks in Washington and listened to their strategies for their plans for the next 10 years in Afghanistan and these were plans that were drawn up by very young people who had never been there and never met an Afghan. This is part of the craziness of American arrogance.
You wrote a few years ago, “If war were undisguisedly as nasty and brutish as it truly is, it might also tend to be short.” How so?
Because what happens to people is shocking, what happens to people is miserable, but you know we don’t hear about it. There’s a great effort to disguise it or to transform it into this sentimental language of “the greatest nation” and “the greatest army in the world” and the sacrifice of our soldiers and the heroism and the warriors and all of this. You know, you wave the flag and transform what really is atrocity into something you expect the citizens to be proud of …
We have so successfully romanticized it and that kind of sentimentality of course makes returning soldiers even more reluctant to speak about what their real experience has been. Because part of being a soldier is to be a suck-it-up warrior who does the job. And you’re not supposed to come home and talk about how much you’re hurting and what’s been done to you and how much you’ve been betrayed by the civilian leaders who threw you into this stupid war, or the ambitious celebrity generals who gave orders to do impossible things.
The stories that you report in your book – what do they suggest about the mainstream political conversation in the U.S. about veterans and U.S. responsibility to veterans?
You know, I have trouble with a lot of these questions because as I mentioned before, I am not trying to suggest things about policy issues. I’m quite upfront about the fact that I think war is terrible and should be stopped and certainly the United States should stop doing what it does …
You know, Americans don’t seem to have been very impressed with the enormous number of civilian casualties and displacement of civilians in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And you know, Americans don’t seem to have a concern for people of other countries. So I thought maybe if we could get a glimpse of how we are destroying our own children, it might affect the way we think about war. But just telling those stories of these incredibly damaged soldiers and their very badly damaged families who are trying to help put them back together – those stories do not coincide with what everything conspires to make us think about veterans …
I think we also forget the shadow army. Those people who are the mercenary contractors in these wars, who greatly outnumber the uniformed military, are completely unsung, never spoken about by the Pentagon, completely ignored. They don’t march in the Veterans Day parades and all of that. But we could not wage wars, and we certainly could not stage these decades-long occupations of other countries, without that huge number of mercenary contractors to do most of the work that used to be done by the uniformed military itself.
But we haven’t gotten this corrupt yet: The government cannot say to the American populace, “OK, we’re just going to send the mercenaries to do this now.” Because to finagle the American populace into supporting these wars, we have to have something going on that looks like war as we think we know it. War as the way Hollywood enacts it. War as we believe it has always happened and continues to happen. So we have to send these uniformed soldiers out there to fight and get killed and blown up and so on to make it look good, so that the American public really thinks that there is some terrible dangerous thing going on, threatening our country. When actually, to my way of thinking, the most dangerous thing threatening our country is the way this militarized culture and these wars successfully transfer enormous amounts of money from the public treasury to the pockets of the already-rich. So these wars are responsible, really, for so much of what people are suffering from in America right now …
If we stop sentimentalizing these combat soldiers and look at what’s really going on with this transfer of wealth and the enormous profits of the war profiteers, we would rise up and have a very different attitude toward these wars.