The Physical and Mental Wounds That Torment Combatants and Their Families Long After the War Is Over
In his final letter to his family, 30-year-old Iraq war veteran Daniel Somers wrote of having never returned from war. "In truth, I was nothing more than a prop", reads the suicide note dated June 10, 2013, six years after his final deployment. "In truth, I have already been absent for a long, long time."
As the US-led war in Afghanistan draws to a close, Washington will tout the absence of combat troops in that country. Looking toward a scheduled withdrawal date of 2014, President Barack Obama has proudly announced hat "our troops are finally coming home".
But in what state he cannot say. For as the soldiers start streaming back, they will have absences of their own. Many will be disfigured, missing parts of the bodies they left with. Others will return in boxes, gone altogether. For some, like Somers, it will take longer to understand what was lost.
"There are some things that a person simply cannot come back from," he wrote in anguish.
Though it's the harshest condemnation we seem to hear, the horrors of war are not really "unspeakable". The English language gives us many words to express the wretched realities of modern warfare: rape, mutilation, massacre, psychosis. But there are those that make our wars, and there are those who live them.
Both choose not to utter these ugly truths for their separate reasons. The heroic vocabulary of patriotic sacrifice papers over a miserable human reality politicians wish to ignore and soldiers need to escape.
Between them are the witnesses who find the voice to speak.
Ann Jones, the scholar, journalist and photographer who for decades has reported from the world's conflict zones, turns in her latest book to those dealing with the silences surrounding the United States' longest war. They Were Soldiers is an unwaveringly human narrative about the soldiers who return from Afghanistan, whole or in pieces, and the communities that put them back together, or not. It is not, as she makes clear at the outset, about "the pointless wars".
From the outside, wars start and stop; they are planned, waged and, eventually, ended. For the people inside them, the violence never ceases. As Jones - the daughter of a World War I veteran whose trauma haunted him six decades after the Armistice, and herself diagnosed with PTSD after her time in Afghanistan - observes, "often it merely recedes from public to private life".
And so in her book, she begins with the end. In its opening chapter, she considers the dead, those termed in public-relations-speak "the fallen", of whom all that's left are "remains". Those words, Jones notes, are a way of de-emphasizing how in Afghanistan soldiers often are not found intact.
Families are sent "literally whatever remains" in this new kind of war defined by catastrophic explosions, mostly roadside bombs (IEDs), instead of gunfire. Mortuary specialists have the gruesome task of identifying people who have sometimes quite literally "fallen to pieces".
At each point of the impersonal systems of war, Jones listens as the human beings who care for those grievously damaged in Afghanistan (or sometimes the damaged themselves) tell their stories.
She speaks with specialists in Mortuary Affairs, whose job it is to collect partial humans and return them to their families. Many remain haunted by "the smell of dead meat", the images of mangled bodies lingering "because, still, they looked like us".
With Jones we take a C-17 medical evacuation flight as she talks to shaken doctors and boyish recruits. We follow her as she accompanies the wounded off the battlefield, first to the US medical hub in Landstuhl, Germany, then on to Walter Reed stateside.
We hear how parents, strong for their children at the bedside, step out into hallways and "hang onto each other", weeping. We see grueling prosthetic rehabilitation sessions that "begin to resemble a circle in hell", as former warriors sweat, groan, and collapse in pain and frustration, while their families slowly accustom themselves to their newly limbless children.
We are invited, with Jones, into the broken homes that receive the mentally marred, sitting with mothers and wives unable to recognize their former children. We are there.
A women's studies scholar and a longtime advocate for women's rights, Jones devotes much of her book to this oft-overlooked women's burden of war: rehabilitating traumatized men groomed into violence.
She sets the useless mantra of military therapists (give the returned soldier "his space") against jarring news clips recounting the stateside abuse of spouses and children, stories long since forgotten by all but local journalists.
Nineteen-year-old Jessica Hine's fate - to be beaten and murdered with her child by her marine boyfriend, then left as a corpse sitting on a couch for nearly two weeks while he watched TV beside her - crystallizes the epidemic of post-combat military murder for Jones.
"There's the metaphor: the soldier with his perfectly silent uncomplaining woman beside him, giving him his space while he enjoyed the national game."
But even in describing such brutality, Jones manages sympathy for the human beings involved, both sufferers and perpetrators of the violence. Her book reminds us that we are all made victims by warfare: the soldiers, their families, the strange human species that lacerates itself instead of living cooperatively.
"War is not inevitable", she writes, "Nor has it always been with us. War is a human invention-an organized, deliberate action of an anti-social kind-and in the long span of human life on Earth, a fairly recent one."
In this way, They Were Soldiers is as much about the debasement of military institutions as it is about the dignity of the people caught inside them. War simply passes from one body to the next, vessels for violence damaged along the way.
Jones follows this path of destruction unflinchingly, accomplishing one of the most moving antiwar texts we have today. And, still, it is no screed against US foreign policy - only an ode to those who suffer by it. When one sees war in such basic human terms as Jones has, one understands the starkness of the choice: war or humanity. No having both.
"Not suicide, but a mercy killing," Daniel Somers wrote of his own death. It's a statement at once piercingly sad and honest. War is an industry that makes humans its raw material, a public policy choice that ends lives and destroys the living.
Ann Jones cuts past the words, the concepts, the mythos - and puts us in the thick of it. In facing war's inhumanity and grasping its cost up close, we may become, in the end, a little more human ourselves.