Glasser’s “Broken Bodies, Shattered Minds”: A TFT Review
Ronald Glasser’s book is an argument for a choice between two stark, inescapable courses of action: call up a national draft and put everything we’ve got into the fight, or withdraw our forces from Southwest and Central Asia — or to use his phrase, the “Edge of Empire.” The paradigm shift between our presence in Indochina and our multiplex of wars these days is best reflected by the fact that the enemy used to shoot. Today, soldiers get blown up. And that is a fundamental difference, Dr. Glasser says. It seems that this veteran Army medic takes the image of exploded bodies as a larger metaphor for what is going on: everything is blowing up in our face and we have no plan.
One decade after the beginning of a global war of undefined scope and duration against a protean foe that could hardly care less about the next American election cycle, the United States as a society is not at war — only its allegedly all-volunteer Armed Forces and military families who have carried the entire burden for this Ten Years War, what some have called a crusade against evil that may simply be freedom enduring the sweeping dust over the “Graveyard of Empires.” Since the weight of the fight is almost entirely borne by a sliver of the population, Glasser raises the question of a draft directly and forcefully. He writes that “even after a decade of fighting, with the volunteer army stretched to the limit and more and more reserve forces being deployed multiple times, no one is complaining, or even talking, of sharing the burden by instituting or considering a draft.”
It may be too glib to declare that the suffering remains the same, not only for all the psychological, physical, emotional, and social casualties returned back home to normal civilian life with the war still going on in their heads, or reflected in the form of a missed limb or a burned face.
Although extraordinary strides in technology have kept more G.I.’s alive, many are condemned to live with injuries that, for some of the wounded, can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. Many more suffer brain damage and psychological wounds for which the toll has not yet been completely accounted.
Glasser quotes Gen. Fred Weyand, former Chief of Staff of the Army, who in 1976 put it: “The American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful. We believe in using ‘things’—artillery, bombs, massive firepower—in order to conserve our soldiers’ lives. The enemy, on the other hand, makes up for his lack of ‘things’ by expending men instead of machines, and for that suffers enormous casualties.” The enemy must be dehumanized, Glasser adds, thus solving the problem of killing.
The work of war is in the end, the work of death. And that the necessary killing is made immeasurably easier by the dehumanization of the enemy, whether it is as infidels, the gooks of Vietnam, the skinnes of Mogadishu, the terrorists of the world, the Nazis, the Japs, or the Ragheads. Yet in a very real way, killing is so difficult that the country has to work very hard to keep up dehumanization in order to get our troops to go back, again and again and day after day, to kill the bad guys.
Broken Bodies/Shattered Minds takes on the dimensions of that burden, going far beyond the V.A. hospitals and medevacs. This book is about how the way we fight, from Vietnam to Afghanistan in what Glasser calls a “medical odyssey,” has changed dramatically.
This book is not only concerned with the often technical rendering of the kinds of injuries the troops encounter, but takes stabs at world history and the problem of killing. Glasser tells the story of a soldier he calls “Jake,” who became a Marine and was sent to Afghanistan on the day that “a helicopter flying through the Kunar Valley in Helmand Province … was shot down. It was the exact same spot where, twenty years before, Russian helicopters were shot down ferrying Russian troops into that same river basin. It was close to the bridge destroyed 2,300 years earlier by Afghan tribesmen who had trapped half of Alexander the Great’s Army, forcing him to marry the daughter of the local tribal chieftain to get what was left of his troops out of Afghanistan and into India.”
In the 19th century, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, “the British lost a whole army, 20,000 troops,” in the “same mountains” from which Jake and other soldiers carry the wounded. Some of those casualties “become brain dead during the first part of the flights home. More than one set of parents waiting in Germany to meet their sons and daughters have flown back to the States with the bodies, many to donate the soldier’s organs.”
Glasser then turns his attention, and therefore ours, to Iraq: “In the months following the fall of Saddam Hussein in early 2003, Fallujah was one of the most peaceful and pro-American cities in Iraq,” which may come as a surprise. The situation soured quickly. He writes,
In April of that year, a crowd defied a local curfew and the protest escalated, with gunmen reportedly firing on U.S. troops. Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne returned fire, killing seventeen and wounding over seventy. When there was a review of the allegations of firing on U.S. troops it was discovered that no U.S. soldiers had been killed or wounded.” By February 2004, “control of Fallujah was turned over to the First Marine Division. In retrospect it was probably a bad decision.
The city was leveled nine months later. Later on, he returns to the Marines in the city of Fallujah, who were reporting that their ammo was not stopping the insurgents because it was not of suitable caliber. This “was something that hadn’t happened to American Marines since they fought in the Philippines during the native uprisings in the 1890s.”
Speaking of which, it may be appropriate to consult Mark Twain’s observations of that war. He wrote that Gen. Leonard Wood looked on as our soldiers massacred some six-hundred Filipinos during those “native uprisings,” in 1906, giving them the order to “kill or capture” them. Twain dryly noted: “Apparently our little army considered that the ‘or’ left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste, and that their taste had remained what it has been for eight years, in our army out there—the taste of Christian butchers.”
The soldiers our politicians send overseas to fight a war less and less of us believe in are becoming increasingly demoralized. Accordingly, they are being drugged. “Across all branches of the military,” Glasser notes, “spending on psychiatric drugs has doubled since 2001.
“Literally tens of thousands of troops struggling with insomnia, anxiety, alcoholism, flashbacks, irritability, chronic pain, and survivor’s guilt have received prescriptions for sleeping aids, narcotics, anti-depressants, tranquilizers, and mood-stabilizers,” he adds, citing a report in the New York Times that “documented that many of these medications used together can cause severe and deadly complications. An Army report published in 2009 admitted the problem by reporting that one third of all troops deployed have been on one prescription medication, and of the 162 documented suicides of all active duty personal [sic] in 2009 over a third involved the use of one of these prescription medications.”
Glasser also draws our attention toward the actual extent of women in combat. During the Second World War, 400,000 women served in the fighting, but few people seem to know that. Pointing it out “was considered at best ‘unseemly’ and at worst counterproductive to encouraging national enthusiasm for the ongoing war effort. There were some things that you simply didn’t talk about.” And today, women “currently make up over 20 percent of the 1.9 million soldiers and marines deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.” He continues,
Between 2001 and 2009 over 200,000 female soldiers, marines and another 80,000 women from the National Guard and Army Reserves had been sent to the two war zones … The numbers of servicewomen killed is now approaching 700, as compared to one death in Vietnam, while the numbers of overall casualties—shattered limbs, penetrating head wounds, ruptured spleens and shattered kidneys, tension pneumothorax [e.g., collapsed lung], traumatic brain injuries, burns, and PTSD—is passing levels of over 30 percent of all women deployed.
Toward the end of his book, he cites Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which Gibbon wrote, according to Glasser’s paraphrase, that “within a period of sixty years not one general of the Roman Army and not one ground commander of any legion was from a family of wealth, privilege, or influence, even though these were the citizens who most benefitted from Roman power.”
Glasser explicitly draws a parallel between Washington and Rome; we may not be seeing the fall of the empire yet. The use of “odyssey” as the subtitle is no coincidence. Glasser cites “History’s most famous veteran, Odysseus,” who “upon his return home from the Trojan Wars, looks around and, clearly confused and disoriented, wonders out loud; ‘Who are these people whose land I have come to…’” His question has lost none of its resonance.
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