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Home to Roost in the VA Affair

The Cost of War: a Rhetoric

by JERRY LEMBCKE

Opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the war that followed was infused with rhetoric about the cost of war. Critics said the tax dollars spent for the military effort were draining the budgets for education, infrastructure maintenance, and health care. More graphically, anti-war activists mounted displays of empty military boots on town commons to remind residents of the men and women, now dead, who once filled those boots—surely a cost of war that was too great.

I was opposed to war in Iraq so I was receptive to just about any discourse that might dissuade lawmakers and their constituents from its continuance. But I also thought it was naïve to think that by just toting-up the dollars and cents spent, and the arms and legs and lives lost, enough people would come to their senses, run to the streets shouting “stop the war”, and the war would end. Indeed, I argued in a 2007 opinion article for The National Catholic Reporter, that the horror of war seemed to be catnip for young men, and the more terrible we make war look, the more attractive it seemed to be. I knew, too, that at the level of the collective unconscious, loss and sacrifice can register as virtue, an equation that inverted the customary cost-benefit line of thinking.

The anti-war movement was, of course, the strongest purveyor of the cost-of-war phrase, a fact with hidden and contradictory political consequences.  By the reasoning of that rhetoric, veterans returning as casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan added to the moral currency weighing against the war, a logic that made them more valuable as victims than as allies. It was a logic that ran counter to the history of the Vietnam-War years during which the movement recognized and valued veterans for the combat experience that had empowered and politicized them. It was the Nixonian pro-war pundits, in those years, who portrayed anti-war veterans as psychologically wounded in order to discredit them.

The difficulty that Iraq Veterans Against the War had in getting off the ground was due in no small part to the larger anti-war community’s preference to see returnees as casualties in need of help rather than comrades in the cause for peace. At an IVAW stop on its 2006 “base tour,” Thomas Barton editor of GI Special Newsletter, complained to me that public preoccupation with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder made it harder to organize. “Everywhere we go,” he said, “All people want to talk about is PTSD.” Motioning to his compatriots, he asked, “Do these guys look fucked-up to you?”

The contradictions in the cost-of-war as an anti-war discourse are now evident, as well, in the crisis surrounding the Veterans Administration. While it is unclear how much reality there is in the charges of wait-times and inadequate treatment persisting at some VA facilities (versus those allegations being designed to discredit President Obama), it seems clear that a shortage of doctors coupled with a surge of veterans in need of care is straining the system.

What isn’t so widely acknowledged, however, is that a huge portion of that surge in demand is for mental health treatment: about 25% of the VA’s recent net increase of 1.5 million patients seek treatment for PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), according to figures provided to The New York Times by Senator Bernie Sander’s office.

The etymologies of PTSD and TBI being the admixtures of medical, psychological, and cultural ingredients that they are, it might seem unfair to say that the stress on the VA is due to the trauma-hyping by the anti-war movement. But British soldiers returned from Iraq with one-fourth the PTSD rate of Americans, a difference that Lori Grinker, writing for the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism, attributes to, “American soldiers returning to a society that expects them to be psychologically wounded.’’ Those expectations, it should be clear, evolved out of the four decades since the end of the war in Vietnam during which the notions of PTSD and TBI gestated in the overlapping spaces of anti-war activism, mental-health science, pharmaceutical funding, popular culture, and journalism.

In the end, the cost-of-war rhetoric intended to turn the public against war in the Middle East got so twisted in the motivations and expectations surrounding the conflicts that its effect is hard to assess. What seems clear is that the crisis of overload now facing the Veterans Administration is exacerbated by the PTSD/TBI cases swelling the demand for service, and that the number of those cases is itself a function of expectations—the societal expectation that soldiers come home mentally or emotionally damaged, and veterans’ awareness of those expectations and desire to meet them.

The political tragedy playing out is that the cost-of-war argument emanating from liberal-left anti-war circles has helped set the table at which neoliberal strategists now feed. The privatization of the VA which they seek would be a disaster for veterans and one more blow to the sense of the collective good already tattered by attacks on public schools, health care, and housing.

Recognizing the predicament we’re in and how we got here is an essential first task in crafting a counter-strategy to the privatizers. An introspective response that acknowledges the overreach inherent in counting all combat experience as traumatic—an “unseen wound” eligible for VA care and Purple Heart status—could relieve the VA of political risk it didn’t ask for, without abandoning long-standing commitments to veterans.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and  Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His newest book is PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.