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Helen Benedict: The Moral Confusion of Post-War America

May 28, 2014

At a Manhattan bookstore, Iraqi author Hassan Blasim’s reading touches off a discussion of more than just literature.

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Image from Flickr via JD Hancock.

By Helen Benedict

It is not often that an Iraqi writer is entertained on American soil. But just such an event occurred this April, when Hassan Blasim, author of a new collection of startling and brutal stories about life under occupation, The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq, spoke to a small audience deep in the basement of an Upper East Side Barnes and Noble.

Several veterans of the Iraq War were in the audience, and Hassan wasted no time in addressing them. He was speaking through a translator, so I am approximating his words:

“All the time, I hear American soldiers say they are proud,” he said, shifting restlessly in his chair. “But how can you carry a weapon and invade another country and call yourself proud?”

He looked us over as if expecting an answer. Receiving none, he went on.

“Everybody needs to feel proud, of course. American soldiers are proud of what they have done in Iraq. Iraqi insurgents are proud of killing American soldiers because they were defending their country. Even jihadists are proud of something. But, again, how can you carry a weapon that kills people and call yourself proud?”

He waited again, and the room suddenly felt tense. I took a quick look around. As well as the vets, there were at least three or four Iraqis present. Otherwise the audience was made up of the usual bookstore mishmash of readers, politicos, and the curious. I wondered how many of them had read Blasim’s book, which, while often fantastical, is one of the most brutal accounts of man’s cruelty to man I have ever read.

Once more receiving no answer, Blasim shrugged, turned to his interlocutor, and said, “Never mind. Let’s just talk about literature.” But his question hung heavily in the air, for it laid bare one of the great unspoken problems of our time: the moral confusion of veterans and civilians alike in the wake of the Iraq War.

“I abhor the war but am proud of my service.” When I hear this, I realize that I am staring into a divided soul.

As Blasim said, every one of us needs to feel proud of something we have done—we need to feel like good people —and perhaps no one more so than a war veteran, who ostensibly joined the military to serve his or her country and be a good person in the first place. It is natural, therefore, to seize upon what good one can find amongst one’s deeds in war in the hope of salving one’s conscience: saving the life of a child riddled with shrapnel, perhaps, rescuing a wounded comrade from danger, restoring a bombed school or road or bridge, training local police to fight militias, etc. But hovering over all those deeds, difficult and courageous as they may have been, is the glaring fact that none of those efforts would have been necessary had we not bombed and destroyed Iraq, opened its doors to fundamentalist thugs and militias, and killed nearly half a million of its people to begin with.

Over my years of interviewing, or simply getting to know some hundred or so Iraq War veterans, I have heard this disconnected logic again and again. “I abhor the war but am proud of my service.” When I hear it, I realize that I am staring into a divided soul. Being proud of one’s actions in war, while also acknowledging how wrong that war was, is a kind of moral oxymoron, a confusion that cleaves the mind and blinds one to reality. It is to believe two contradictory things at once: I was wrong and I was right.

So many veterans become ensnared in the paradox of needing to feel proud while actually feeling deeply and painfully ashamed.

War, of course, induces this kind of myopia. In the midst of the cycle of terror and boredom that characterizes warfare, soldiers quickly lose sight of the big picture and focus only on matters at hand. Not only have they been deliberately trained not to question their superiors or the politics of war in the first place, they have to think about surviving and helping their buddies survive from one minute to the next. It is when they come home that they are ambushed by moral questions. And that is when so many of them become ensnared in the paradox of needing to feel proud while actually feeling deeply and painfully ashamed.

Robert Jay Lifton, renowned psychiatrist and author of several important books about psychology in war, writes that in a war of occupation like the one in Iraq, where the enemy is the resistance and the war is justified by what he calls “profound ideological distortions,” like the now well-recognized mendacities that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was in cahoots with Osama Bin Laden, soldiers are particularly prone to commit atrocities. When soldiers can find neither justification for nor nobility in their war, he writes, their moral center is thrown askew, leaving them prey to anger, resentment, and hatred, both of themselves and others.

The Iraq war may be officially over for Americans, but these same moral confusions live on. I would argue that, along with survivor guilt, scrapes with death and sights of horror, one of the primary causes of post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide in veterans is the agonizing clash between needing to act proud of one’s service while really feeling remorse—the soul-rotting knowledge that one has participated in a terrible wrong. Chris Hedges and New Yorker writer Dan Baum, among others, have documented this remorse well, but I have heard and read plenty of it myself, from women and men alike. As one Iraq War veteran I interviewed put it, “When you force a democracy on a people, it’s not democracy anymore.” Another said, “You know what we are in America? We’re bullies, that’s what we are.” And a third: “In the end I didn’t believe anything I was told. I saw how we weren’t helping their lives at all. We were making it worse.”

Which brings me back to the basement of Barnes and Noble (a bleak, windowless room, and no place to welcome someone who has struggled for years to get into the country), when Blasim said something else that should have shot to the heart of every American there, veteran and civilian alike:

I doubt our apology would do much for Blasim or his fellow Iraqis, other than show them long overdue respect.

“Your army came to my country and destroyed it,” he said, arms crossed, eyes calm. “Your war has not only destroyed this generation, it has destroyed generations of Iraqis’ futures. And you don’t even say you’re sorry.”

Silence. Some visible squirming. But no apologies.

What if we had said sorry? What if everyone in the audience, the veterans included, had stood up and said, “Hassan Blasim, we are sorry for wrecking your country and killing your family and friends. We were wrong.”? I doubt our apology would do much for Blasim or his fellow Iraqis, other than show them long overdue respect. And we certainly shouldn’t ask for forgiveness; that would be audacious and absurd, but it might help clear up the divisions of the soul that the Iraq War has produced in so many of us.

The silence in Barnes and Noble—the fact that none of us, myself included, stood up and said, “I’m sorry,” although I’m sure many of us are—exposed our moral confusion for what it is. Because, just as veterans are trying to ignore the glaring contradictions between being ashamed of participating in the Iraq War and being proud of it, so are we citizens. We are all implicated in this bitter paradox, whatever our politics. Yes, veterans are on the front lines of this moral battle, but we civilians are the ones who put them there—with our votes and tax money, and with our policies that drive so many boys and girls from poverty into the military to make a living or to pay for college. We are all culpable. And like so many veterans, we—our media, our government, all of us—are having a terrible time asking honest questions of ourselves about the Iraq War, or answering Blasim’s challenge to face up to what we did and apologize.

I do realize that admitting to the fact that one has been used—or allowed oneself to be used—to commit large-scale murder takes enormous moral courage, possibly more than most acts in war itself, especially for those veterans who actually pulled the trigger, dropped the bomb or beat up the prisoner. Yet without facing this fact, veterans become trapped in a painful, roiling stew of unresolved guilt, unable to feel like a “good” person while desperately needing to.

And we civilians are no better. Why, for example, do we praise our military as the best in the world without considering the unjust wars and slaughter of innocents it has been involved in since World War Two, let alone the corruption, sexual predation and bullying that pollute its ranks?

Why do we insist on calling our troops heroes while knowing little to nothing of what they actually did—or worse, when we do know that much of what they did was unnecessarily brutal and cruel? Certainly, many people commit acts of great self-sacrifice and courage in war, but it become meaningless to both vets and civilians alike, not to mention propagandistic, to use the word hero for everyone.

And, for that matter, why do we create books, movies, TV shows, and computer games that glamorize war and soldiers when we haven’t been in a justifiable war (if any war is justifiable) since 1945; pay taxes that support automatic weapons, torturers, inhumane prisons, black sites, and wrongheaded wars; and sign laws with fundamentalist clerics who have rolled the rights of women and girls in Iraq back half a century?

So yes, we civilians, too, are trapped in a moral oxymoron. And we will continue to be trapped there as long as we continue to deny the harm we have really done to Iraq, to portray Muslims as terrorists and never as artists, writers or intellectuals; and to glamorize war and violence in our movies and books and newspapers while ignoring what we did to Iraq. We, too, are caught in morally erosive tangle of denial and lies, a tangle that has made us lose sight of who on earth we Americans are.

Thus I have a suggestion. Like the veterans I know who are struggling with the question, “Am I still a good person and, if not, how can I be good again?” so should we civilians ask this of ourselves: How we can we feel like a morally upright, “good” people when our military has killed and tortured so many innocents with our support, tacit or otherwise, and continues to do so? And if we do face these facts, where and how do we start to heal?

Near the end of his talk that evening in New York, Blasim said that reality in the wake of the Iraq War is like a giant mirror that has fallen and shattered into a million shards. Each one of us picks up one shard and thinks he sees the whole picture.

Perhaps, as the lone voice of this Iraqi writer deep in the basement of a dying bookstore suggested, we can start to piece together both the mirror and our divided souls by saying, as Americans to Iraqis, “We are very sorry. Our war against you was wrong.”

Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of Sand Queen, a novel, and The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq.

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One comment for Helen Benedict: The Moral Confusion of Post-War America

  1. Comment by Ka on May 29, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Honestly, this empathetic and yet matter-of-fact account of the moral dilemma among the conscientious veterans and citizens of America, sort of, moved me to tears. However, a mere realization of the blunder committed by the Americans by destroying the 5000 year civilization is not enough. To atone the guilt and set right the wrongs done, you need more than just an apology. You need to help the Iraqis out of the crisis in which the country is burning today. It’s the moral responsibility of every American adult to pressurize their government to help rebuild what they have destroyed instead of funnelling out the oil.

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