Truthdigger of the Week: Ann JonesJones' new book, "They Were Soldiers," was written to give veterans and their families alienated and estranged by war a chance to find their way back to one another.
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Soldiers often say the experience of war can never be fully appreciated by those who haven’t lived through it. This seems difficult to doubt. But journalist Ann Jones knows the shooting and killing endured in battle is relatively short-lived compared to the pain, suffering and violence that follows veterans home. Thanks to her new book, “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story,” which will be available Tuesday, right after Veterans Day, a great many more of us can be certain about that.
Across eight books dating back to the mid-1980s, Jones, a daughter of an American veteran of World War I, has dealt up-close with themes of violence in war and against women, and chronicled some of the efforts of people determined to put an end to both. Her latest offering is the product of a yearlong investigation into the experience of wounded U.S. soldiers and their military caretakers in trauma hospitals in Afghanistan, Germany and Washington, D.C., as well as the damage’s lasting effect on them, their families and their — our — communities. In the hands of a typical journalist, the book would consist of a series of stories about the sacrifice and misfortune of American servicemen and women. But Jones is not a typical journalist. Her questions are those of an anthropologist determined to understand both how her subjects view their experience and what objectively happens. This is extraordinarily welcome. Soldiering is among the most mythologized professions in the narrowing spectrum of American employment, and its continued misunderstanding by the public, which is often committed out of an honorable sense of respect for its victims, is a major part of its perpetuation.
War is “a human invention,” Jones writes in her first pages, that vast research into the causes of human behavior shows is not and never was necessary. Unnecessary then is its long and repeating pageant of horrors unleashed on the battlefield and at home, each represented in stories of veterans and families she interviewed. We learn of the shredded remains of soldiers scooped up by those who were “lucky” enough to avoid being hit in a war fought mostly with bombs; the arm, leg and genital amputations of those who were not so fortunate; the sometimes invisible post-traumatic stress that accumulates in the minds of survivors; violent mood swings and chronic depression; the helplessness of isolated wives, girlfriends and mothers; the rapes, of which a majority of victims are men; the crushing loss of a sense of purpose, self and pride; the empowerment of criminals and the already-disturbed due to inadequate enlistment rates; the training of certain men who are likely to embark upon careers of crime upon returning home, a practice that amounts to the state sanctioning of terror and sadism; soul-deadening drugs and painkiller addictions; pharmaceutical corporations that collude with interest groups and (almost certainly) lawmakers to pull profits out of chronic pain; thousands of suicides; the personality-shaping confusion and abuse of children; and $1.1 trillion in taxpayer wealth delivered over 10 years to dozens of contractors guilty of fraud. The list goes on. If the wars ended tomorrow, Jones points out, these evils would still be with us in 50 years or more, and their effects would influence subsequent generations.
The callousness of the official responses to the wounded and their families features in many of the book’s major scenes. Like wind-up dolls, generals and hospital officials ply bed-ridden soldiers experiencing perhaps their first, profound moments of doubt with empty compliments about greatness and bravery. Newly wed wives complaining in group counseling sessions of how their husbands have changed are told only to give their soldier “his space” and suppress their own needs and desires indefinitely. “What about my space?” just one asks. A section on sexual assault tells how the military redefined rape to “remove it from the realm of criminal prosecution to the shelter of the old boys’ network, the military chain of command.” We have long known about the difficulty many veterans have obtaining adequate medical care; the aged, homeless Vietnam soldier is a familiar feature of the downtown areas of nearly every major American city. Jones presents a decisive update of an unaccountable military establishment interested primarily in protecting itself and willing and able to dissemble and distract to evade accountability.
Although the corrupt failings of military brass are well exposed, the most controversial and socially important parts of the book come when the author assaults what she identifies as the myths of military brotherhood and the soldier’s alleged entitlement to emotional distance and silence. The “biggest military secret of all,” one veteran reveals to her, is that the bond between soldiers, so vaunted in movies and presidential speeches, consists of little more than the stripped-down instinct to survive. Soldiers may not even like one another, she learns. But they rarely afford their families the willingness to cooperate that they give to one another. And unsure of what to do about it, spouses, children and parents often opt for what seems to be the security of silence. But of course silence leads nowhere. “The worst we can say of war is that it is ‘unspeakable,’ ” Jones writes.
With these rare revelations, Jones gives readers a basis for a conversation that is necessary to the healing of soldiers whose lives, bodies and minds were deformed by war, and to the mending of the nation at large. War will always define some measure of the lives of combat veterans and their families. But the well-being of communities demands that all groups, veterans included, be willing to address the problems that separate them. Remarkably, Jones does this with indisputable respect for the men and women whose precious but acquired values and behaviors she unflinchingly criticizes. Among endless opportunities for division, “They Were Soldiers” was written to give people alienated and estranged by war a chance to find their way back to one another. For that invaluable public service, Ann Jones is our Truthdigger of the Week.Wait, before you go…
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