Dec 9, 2013
The American System of Suffering, 1965-2014
Posted on Jan 8, 2013
By Nick Turse, TomDispatch
American Refugees in Mexico?
For most Americans, this type of unrelenting, war-related misery is unfathomable. Few have ever personally experienced anything like what their tax dollars have wrought in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia in the last half-century. And while surprising numbers of Americans do suffer from poverty and deprivation, few know anything about what it’s like to live through a year of war—let alone 10, as Pham To did—under the constant threat of air strikes, artillery fire, and violence perpetrated by foreign ground troops.
Still, as a simple thought experiment, let’s consider for a moment what it might be like in American terms. Imagine that the United States had experienced an occupation by a foreign military force. Imagine millions or even tens of millions of American civilians dead or wounded as a result of an invasion and resulting civil strife.
Imagine a country in which your door might be kicked down in the dead of night by heavily-armed, foreign young men, in strange uniforms, helmets and imposing body armor, yelling things in a language you don’t understand. Imagine them rifling through your drawers, upending your furniture, holding you at gunpoint, roughing up your husband or son or brother, and marching him off in the middle of the night. Imagine, as well, a country in which those foreigners kill American “insurgents” and then routinely strip them naked; in which those occupying troops sometimes urinate on American bodies (and shoot videos of it); or take trophy photos of their “kills”; or mutilate them; or pose with the body parts of dead Americans; or from time to time—for reasons again beyond your comprehension—rape or murder your friends and neighbors.
Imagine things getting so bad that you decide to trek across the Mexican border to live an uncertain life, forever wondering if your new violence- and poverty-wracked host nation will turn you out or if you’ll ever be able to return to your home in the U.S. Imagine living with these realities day after day for up to decade.
After natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, small numbers of Americans briefly experience something like what millions of war victims—Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans, and others—have often had to endure for significant parts of their lives. But for those in America’s war zones, there will be no telethons, benefit concerts, or texting fund drives.
Pham To and Pham Thang had to bury the bodies of their family members, friends, and neighbors after they were massacred by American troops passing through their village on patrol. They had to rebuild their homes and their lives after the war with remarkably little help. One thing was as certain for them as it has been for war-traumatized Iraqis and Afghans of our moment: no Hollywood luminaries lined up to help raise funds for them or their village. And they never will.
“We lost so many people and so much else. And this land was affected by Agent Orange, too. You’ve come to write about the war, but you could never know the whole story,” Pham Thang told me. Then he became circumspect. “Now, our two governments, our two countries, live in peace and harmony. And we just want to restore life to what it once was here. We suffered great losses. The U.S. government should offer assistance to help increase the local standard of living, provide better healthcare, and build infrastructure like better roads.”
No doubt—despite the last decade of U.S. nation-building debacles in its war zones—many Iraqis and Afghans would express similar sentiments. Perhaps they will even be saying the same sort of thing to an American reporter decades from now.
Over these last years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of war victims like Pham Thang, and he’s right: I’ll probably never come close to knowing what life was like for those whose worlds were upended by America’s foreign wars. And I’m far from alone. Most Americans never make it to a war zone, and even U.S. military personnel arrive only for finite tours of duty, while for combat correspondents and aid workers an exit door generally remains open. Civilians like Pham To, however, are in it for the duration.
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