“And its one,two,three,four, what are we fightin’ for // Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam // So five,six,seven,eight, open up the pearly gates // There ain’t time ta wonder why, whoopie!! We’re all gonna die…
”Come on mothers, throughout the land, pack yore boys off to Vietnam // Come on Dads, don’t hesitate, to send off your boys before its too late // Be the first ones in your blocks, to bring your son back in a box”
Country Joe (1972)
That’s enough country music. Let’s get back to the here and now.
Among US Military combatants, the demographic whose members are the most susceptible to PTSD seemed in the beginning to be the most unlikely,
given the fact that these fighters never have to smell the burning flesh of innocents and the cordite of the battlefield.
Meet the new-age warriors of today – the drone pilots.
Although a soldier, a drone pilot leads a life that is just like ordinary working civilians. He signs in, 9am he sits on a tall straight backed seat in front of a large screen, inside a climate controlled hut at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Thanks to technology, he doesn’t have to be present where the action is.
In the pilot’s right fist is a video game style joystick which controls the flight of an MQ9 Reaper drone, it’s single tail mounted 900-hp Honeywell turbine engine keeping it flying in a lazy figure ‘8’ pattern 20000 ft above an arid Iraqi hamlet. His colleague sitting right next has an almost identical set-up that controls the munitions (which are considerable).
The Reaper got it’s name from the “Grim Reaper” which is a euphemistic term that we use for death. A very apt name indeed and its because of the laser guided AGM-114 Hellfire missile slung under it’s belly that can hit a target with an accuracy of 25cms. Detonated, the high explosive in it’s nose will wipe out everything within 50 metres all around the strike point. At maximum payload capacity, the Reaper can stay aloft for 14 hours at a stretch. This one still has 5 hours to go, having taken off 9 hours prior, from a strip in Djibouti, in the horn of Africa where the CIA has bribed the local government and coerced it into providing space to build a base.
Up front, just below it’s chin, the Reaper has a hyper-sensitive infra-red camera that can detect the heat signature of a human body from an altitude of 4 miles. The camera is not sophisticated enough to tell between a boy playing with a stick and a militant brandishing an AK-47, but those who are flying the Reaper really don’t care. There are no rules of engagement that the drone pilot has to worry about. It’s just a cut and dried two-man chain of command. In under 10 seconds, the pilot will get the go-ahead, “This one looks like a bad guy. He’s moving around suspiciously. Burn the m…ther f…cker.” That’s all that it takes.
A slight pressure from the pilot’s thumb will send down a 100-lb high explosive-tipped laser guided Hellfire missile which will bore down on the target at 1.5 times the speed of sound and annihilate people who have done him, his family or his nation personally no harm. The target will not sense even a whisper, since the projectile is supersonic.
After his shift gets over, the drone pilot will strut out into the dazzling Nevada sun and drive home in the F-350 truck that he has souped up with his considerable overtime pay. He will be filled with a sense of having accomplished something, ie: eliminating a “bad guy”.
At home, the drone pilot has work to do – like taking his kids out for their little league baseball and maybe a slice of pizza after.
“Intrepid” drone pilots, picking targets between swigs of Moka and bites of donuts with sprinklies on them
“Hey, Bud, I think that was a kid in there.”
“Take it easy. Relax. We’ll say it was a goat…..”
All within a span of 24 hours, a drone pilot will careen between two vastly different lives –one, in which he will engage in wholesale slaughter where women and children often get vaporized and the other, in which he goes home and leads the life of a typical “all-American family”. Day in and day out.
In the beginning, the drone pilot finds his bizarre bipolar existence thrilling. He develops a sense of playing God, instantly vaporizing people at will. But the adrenaline high is short-lived. All the wanton killing of faceless people thousands of miles away destroys his sense of humanity and ultimately gives way to massive guilt at the enormity of the mayhem that he willingly unleashes. He finds it increasingly difficult to square how what he is doing can “save American lives”.
Like it or not, we all have a moral compass “factory installed” within us. Most drone pilots suffer from a variant of PTSD known as “moral injury”. It is the injury to a person’s conscience and moral values from a morally repugnant act that can induce profound guilt.
In all fairness, some strong arguments against the ‘just war’ theory also exist.
Many believe that the premise that a morally justified war is psychologically clean and therefore PTSD-free, is a myth. They argue that there were in fact comparable numbers of the PTSD-afflicted among WW2 vets too. The vets just didn’t know they had it, calling it simply, ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’. Unaware that PTSD was a sickness that needed treatment, they kept it to themselves and just sort of muddled along, trying to make the best of what post-war life had to offer them.
I still believe that the good guys and the oppressed tend to suffer less from PTSD. What helps them is the moral high ground.
Take the Vietnamese, for example. In those 11 years that they fought the American invaders, nearly 1.6 million gave up their lives. They suffered horrible burns from Napalm and they were consumed by Agent Orange. Countless others died in massacres such as the one at the hamlet of Mai Lai in 1968, when American soldiers went berserk, killing hundreds of innocent villagers. We recall Tây Vinh, Gò Dài, Binh Tai, Tinh Son, Bình Hòa and last but not the least, ‘Operation Speedy Express’ which was a macabre ‘reverse hearts and minds’ effort that killed 11000 innocent Vietnamese villagers. The list of known massacres committed by the US troops in Vietnam is long and grotesque.
In comparison, the American deaths from the Vietnam War were 52000, lesser by a factor of 1 in 32. The incidences of PTSD among the Americans would naturally be expected to be in the same proportion, but it is just the opposite, as per a research funded by and American non-profit, The American-Vietnamese Friendship Foundation, presented in 2005. The study found that as against 35% for American vets, only 19% of the Vietnamese vets were found to have PTSD.
”American-Vietnamese Friendship Foundation”. Irony, isn’t it? The nation that, by it’s brute power, devastates also has in it people with real guilt, real conscience.
Interestingly, a similar trend was noticed in another study comparing British and American WW2 vets. It was observed that the number of Americans suffering from ‘combat fatigue’ (they didn’t call it PTSD then) was double that of the British. That was believed to be because the British and the Vietnamese had one thing in common. They were fighting for their very survival. Perhaps having a solid reason to fight staved off PTSD in both cases.
And then there are the holocaust survivors. Most holocaust survivors have rebuilt their lives. Almost to the very last man, they have picked up the pieces and moved on to build successful careers in business and industry wherever they settled after the war. I’m not saying they didn’t have the occasional nightmare. They did, but they chose to look beyond.
When the state of Israel was still young, it was teeming with holocaust survivors. Out of a total Jewish population in 1948 of 806000, holocaust survivors made up 250000, which means that one out if three Israelis was a holocaust survivor – a walking skeleton with a damaged psych.
If any one group of people were expected to suffer from massive long-term PTSD, it was the Holocaust-surviving Jewish settlers in Israeli. Instead, just the opposite happened in Israel. They farmed the arid land, set up its cutting-edge industry and built one of the world’s most feared defence forces. It fought off murderous neighbours on all sides and took the battle into their territory.
Fighting for their survival and building a nation at the same time kept the holocaust survivors in Israel busy and saved their nation from becoming a basket case. Stray incidences of PTSD did begin to crop up in the 1980s, when the holocaust survivors began leading retired lives with very little to occupy them and in some cases, became lonesome, with a spouse dead and nobody to talk to and a tiny percentage of them began having nightmares related to PTSD.
My elder bro, an intellectual, sent me this excerpt from an essay by an Indian journalist, Mukul Sharma, that kinda resonated somewhere within my head…..
“Does the universe care about what we do or what happens to us or whether we live or die?
If we were to believe hard-core amoral nihilists who say that the universe is just a physical phenomenon with no spiritual component, that events are random and have no deeper meaning or purpose and that there are no consequences to our actions, then the answer is obviously no.
Yet, even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t care about the universe because, unlike it, we have evolved into sapient creatures that are capable of wonder and love. Meaning, we can infuse it with the same whether it cares or not. In fact, with that kind of involvement on our part, who cares whether it cares or not?
If we were to do that, we could begin living in a basically spiritual universe, ordered by feelings of good and bad; a cosmic
order that would in turn, underpin and motivate all our actions. It would be like a moral force where our actions have definite effects that we carry with us. In this respect, its meaning would then be close to the Hindu concept of Karma.
The notion of a moral universe would also buttress spirituality and form the basis for kindness, compassion, altruism and caring for others. This is because it places a value on human life and living things that goes beyond what seems suitable if we regard people and living things merely as a collection of atoms, and essentially no different from any other unfeeling, non-sentient structures such as rocks soil, mountains or planets”.
I am an atheist but I believe in a “moral universe”, a universe that distinguishes between good and evil and ultimately rewards morality.
How can we stop a soldier and make him think of a moral universe? How can we make him ask, “what am I fighting for?’