4 December 2004

Our troops deserve our support

By Andrew Boswell

All war is terrible, but urban insurgency fighting, as in Fallujah, defies description. Whether in Iraq, Palestine, Vietnam, or Algeria, it produces war crimes, as soldiers' basic humanity is tested.

Veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges, has said "You have an elusive enemy … in an environment where you are almost universally despised. Everyone becomes the enemy. And after your unit suffers-after, for instance, somebody in your unit is killed by a sniper … it becomes easy to carry out acts of revenge against people who are essentially innocent, but who you view as culpable in some way for the death of your comrades."

Shocking TV footage recently showed two separate incidents in which American soldiers apparently executed wounded captured Iraqis in Fallujah in what were surely war crimes. This raises the terrifying question: how many civilians and fighters have been killed in war crimes not caught by camera?

Such killings are atrocious, whether done in revenge, or in fear, or even as "standard operating procedure" as ex Falkland's soldier, Quentin Wright, has chillingly suggested. However, soldiers are dehumanised by their military life and training, reduced to "killing machines" and it will be quite wrong if this soldier is singled out to be punished as a "bad apple", in the Abu Ghraib fashion, whilst the military command chain is not held accountable.

We must become aware of the long-term spiritual and psychological damage that, being in this sort of warfare, does to those who find themselves caught up in it.

Stories of many Vietnam veterans reveal the suffering. Claude Thomas, was a 'star' gunner on assault helicopters at 17: the gunners bet each day on who would make the most kills, and Claude knows that he was directly responsible for the deaths of several hundred Vietnamese men, women and children. Upon return to 'normal' life, he hit rock bottom - "unable to function". Like many "vets", he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness.

Not just devastated psychologically by the trauma, he carried deep moral scarring - "at night the memories came - being shot down, the cries of the wounded, screams of people I'd killed". How can such a young person contain the guilt of killing entire villages? These intense flashbacks led him to regularly think of suicide.

Yet Vietnam veterans were helped little by their own society. For Claude, the turning point came when he attended a meditation retreat for veterans offered by, his previous 'enemy', Vietnamese Buddhists. In this immensely supportive community, he experienced forgiveness, and for the first time, he could see Vietnamese people as 'not enemy' - "the only experience I had with the Vietnamese was, they were my enemy. Every one of them: shopkeepers, farmers, women, children, babies." Now he is Zen Buddhist monk himself and travels widely to end violence (read his book At Hell's Gate).

Claude, and others who recovered, took decades to do so - their stories offer the hope of a deep transformation of the scars - but they are unusual: many simply do not recover and continue to live in suffering, or hold the pain in forever, or until it is unbearable. 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, but, according to a former director of the Veterans Administration, over 100,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide in the years since.

In the UK, 264 Falklands veterans have now killed themselves, more than those killed in combat. 20,000 British ex-servicemen are estimated to be sleeping rough, in hostels or squats.

This is a conveniently 'hidden' problem in our society, and the government prefers it that way. Honour the dead, yes, but if the people knew the extent of the living suffering of our servicemen, then they would oppose any future wars in even greater numbers. No surprise that the MoD do little to help veterans, except provide some support to charities such as Combat Stress and Crisis.

The Iraq war will leave many shattered service men - we can expect over the coming years to see hundreds of suicides, thousands suffering with PTSD, thousands homeless from our Iraq veterans.

The media and politicians often say things like "Our Troops deserve Our Support" - they actually mean "Our Government deserves Our Support". What government deserves anything but contempt when it sends soldiers to the Gates of Hell, having misled Parliament and the people to do so, and provides little, if any, help afterwards?

Charities shouldn't have to pick up the pieces- we should demand the Government act now to properly fund care for UK veterans.