On the day I heard that President Obama had officially declared the Iraq war over, I was at the Danville Veterans’ Administration hospital (VA) with my partner S, an Iraq War veteran. S is six months into a disability application, a request for benefits and compensation for disabilities sustained during military service, which will likely take another year to process.
We found ourselves navigating through a maze of yellowed walkways and drab interiors, shuttled from admissions offices to mental health clinics. While we were not the only ones moving through that system, we were perhaps moving faster than the others. Many veterans of previous wars—the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, World War II—lined the route, being pushed in wheelchairs, walking on canes, some perhaps visiting for the day with their families, some completely alone. S was one of the only young people I saw in this wing of the VA, and based on the way people looked at us, they clearly knew that he was a “hero” of the war that President Obama had just declared “completed.”
It took S five years to work up the guts to apply for disability status after getting home, and now I understand why. Anyone who has ever spent time in the military knows that there is a stigma against saying you are hurt, especially if those wounds are not visible. And then to go back to the institution that hurt you, with no record of the injuries you have sustained, to ask for help, to say you are not OK, runs the risk of adding insult to injury.
But being there with S, I realized there is another dimension to VA visits enough to keep you away for a lifetime: the proof that war is a lifetime for those who survive, that it traps you in its drab hallways, in its medical appointments and slow-moving applications and appeals, in its memory and worldview, in its wounds. Long after the war is declared over and the country stops paying attention to their suffering, veterans still walk those hallways, go to those appointments, and take those pills.
Even though Obama ran on the anti-war ticket, he ended up declaring the war a success. All day, I turned over in my head the President’s speech from that morning: “We knew this day would come. We’ve known it for some time. But still there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long. It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success.”
I wondered what it would have sounded like for Obama to speak those words at the Danville VA. Would “the end” sound as profound to “the dying and the bleeding” within these walls?
When VA mental health care professionals evaluate veterans for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they ask them to identify traumatizing incidents, the moments that ruptured their internal wellness. For some people it is an explosion, a rape, a body blown to bits. For others, simply being over there is enough to transform their perception that the world is a decent place or can ever be a decent place.
I was invited to join S in his mental health evaluation to corroborate his story. When he shared his traumatizing moments, my eyes began to burn, something inside me began to shake and scream. I’ve seen the haunting, detachment, and fear alongside the tenderness, love, and hope that’s in him. I’ve wrestled with the events that have dug deep holes of anxiety and despair in him, holes that you can lose yourself in.
There is nothing profound about the end of this war. It is pain and wreckage. It is symptoms on a PTSD checklist. It is trauma that goes unrecognized, here and in Iraqi communities. It is loss that is mourned, and loss that there is no one left to mourn. It is another night that S can’t sleep, just like every other night, tossing and turning. It is something that can never be undone.
The movement won
This is not meant to be a hopeless article. The “end” of the Iraq War is significant. It means troops will be leaving, and thus some lives will be spared trauma and loss. We all know that this is a direct result of the anti-war movement—its impact on public opinion made the war no longer politically viable. And in that sense, we have won.
Throughout this war, I have learned that traumatized communities have profound strength when they collectively organize; that soldiers and veterans have been organizing the whole time to bring their brothers and sisters home; and that Iraqis have been not only struggling to survive but also courageously organizing against occupation.
As a member of the Civilian Soldier Alliance and an ally to Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), I know firsthand that transformation is possible, collective healing is real and has happened throughout these wars, and those who are organizing will not stop or ever give up. I have worked with courageous veterans and service members in IVAW’s Operation Recovery, a campaign that takes on the rampant problems of military rape and sexual assault, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and other injuries that plague military service members by organizing around their right to heal and exit traumatic situations. I have seen the strength and courage of World War II, Vietnam, and Gulf War veterans organizing demonstrations, marching in the streets, and helping each other survive. And I have also seen the day-to-day brave acts of S and the kindness that radiates from him.
But the “end” of the Iraq war does not signal an end to US foreign policy based on brute self-interest, geopolitical control, and military empire. There was no apology, no talk of reparations, and no stated intention to shift direction. The “security” contractors and private companies will not leave anytime soon, and many soldiers will simply be transferred to “the good war” in Afghanistan or sent to one of 800 US bases around the world.
War and occupation in Afghanistan continue, as well as military campaigns against Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries the US public is not informed about, and the possibility of a war against Iran grows. The US continues funding and arming Israel’s apartheid policies towards Palestinians, as well as supporting dictators and monarchs in the Middle East and North Africa, helping put down any popular protests that challenge US strategic interests.
This is not to mention that at this moment of Occupy uprisings domestically, with Occupy Wall Street pushing the parameters of what we thought was possible, the US government is expanding its abilities to employ militarism against its own people with the latest “anti-terror” bill and shooting protesters with the same tear gas canisters it exports to Israel.
I saw my generation sent off to war. I watched as they were marched onto the tarmac and disappeared into airplanes. I watched the bombs explode in shock and awe attacks, followed the counter-insurgency, and then the surges. I marched with veterans when they returned home, wounded and determined that the only way to heal was to stop these wars. I watched people in the US mobilize against the wars, and I watched people give up, stop caring. I watched the wars become normal, invisible.
And now I am terrified that I will see my generation disappeared into VA clinics, onto the streets (veterans today comprise a quarter of all homeless people), or lost to suicide.
I can’t imagine what it is like for the people in Iraq who have lived under war and occupation for almost nine years and who will now live under the hand of security contractors, such as Blackwater, and US-installed politicians for years to come. Many estimate that the Iraq war has killed over one million Iraqis and displaced over 10 million, with countless others traumatized, wounded, and disabled. Iraqis are now left with a society torn, traumatized, and impoverished by over nine years of war. Bombs ripped through Baghdad last week, killing five and wounding 39, just as the Obama Administration was ringing the bells of “victory.”
To call this success, to call this profound, is a dishonor to my generation’s loss. It is justification for events that have no justification. It is ideological footing for future wars, future trauma, future loss.
The day the Iraq War “ended,” the VA was the same as ever. People shuffled to appointments, waited in waiting rooms, and filled out more paperwork. The wounds, both physical and mental, did not heal, the homeless were not housed, and the dead were not resuscitated.
S was evaluated for disability eligibility. This evaluation will be added to a pile of papers which will eventually be mailed and added to another pile, and then more waiting and more appointments.
When we got into the car to drive home, the radio blared the news that the Iraq war is “over” and played a clip of Obama’s “success” speech to Ft. Bragg soldiers. I quickly reached over to turn off the radio, and I gripped my partner’s hand as we drove away in silence, the VA disappearing behind us…until the next appointment.
First published in Left Turn on January 2, 2012.