Wounds of War and the Dilemmas of Stereotype

Below is a guest post by Ken MacLeish. Ken is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and the Program in Folklore, Public Culture and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He conducted 12 months of intensive fieldwork with soldiers and military families at and around the U.S. Army’s Ft. Hood in Killeen, TX. His dissertation explores the impacts of war and military institutions in everyday life via the concepts of attachment, vulnerability and exchange.

At the end of July this year, media outlets all over the country picked up a story from Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Army’s Ft. Carson, about a spate of violent crimes committed by soldiers. Most of the soldiers were from a single infantry battalion that had served two arduous tours in Iraq and had seen some of the bloodiest (for U.S. forces) fighting of the war—in Ramadi in 2004 and Baghdad in 2006. Between these two tours, the 3,700-person brigade to which the battalion was attached sustained over half of all the casualties of all units at Ft. Carson. The crimes include ten arrests for murder or manslaughter, along with kidnapping, rape and other violent crimes. There were also suicide attempts, some of them successful. Many of the soldiers who were charged had engaged in excessive or indiscriminate violence against civilians in Iraq and also demonstrated dire combat stress reactions both in Iraq and at home. But the stories gathered by Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Dave Phillips suggests that the unit commanders were interested neither in punishing the soldiers nor in helping them. They were indifferent or even hostile to parents, wives, and girlfriends and to soldiers themselves who sought assistance. So they languished without help, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, and went on to commit more violent acts, Phillips writes.

The story is familiar: young men are trained to kill, sent to war, produce and are exposed to brutal levels of violence for long periods, and then return home traumatically altered by that training, action and exposure with only a neglectful and ill-prepared institution to turn to for help. The news stories focus on the excessive, random and sometimes intimate nature of the violence: a gun held to a girlfriend’s head, a drug dealer repeatedly tased and then shot, an anonymous passerby run over with a car and then stabbed to death. They link the violence it directly back to excessive, shocking and randomly targeted behavior in Iraq: soldiers killing Iraqi livestock, shooting unprovoked and indiscriminately at civilians, and equipping themselves with non-regulation tasers and hollow-point ammunition. And ultimately the stories root the violence in the trauma glossed as the “horror” and “hell” of war, trauma that left these particular soldiers unable to return to “normal” life back at home. And they criticize the Army for its mercenary neglect of troubled soldiers, for the blind eye it turned to the people in Iraq and in the U.S. who were harmed by them, and for its internal culture that stigmatizes as weak soldiers who seek help for combat trauma.

This is not a criticism of the journalism that broke the story. Phillips’ article [audio] is a striking piece of writing: nuanced, provocative, exhaustively reported, and over 15,000 words long. It captures the chains of tribulation that make up each individual case, highlighting the way that soldiers were caught in the cumulative effects of battlefield violence on the one hand, and an institutional indifference and instrumentality on the other. But as the story re-ran in capsule form on NPR, the New York Times, CNN, etc., and 15,00 words shrank to a few hundred, and the editing collapses Phillips’ breadth and depth, perhaps inevitably, into stereotype—or so it sounded to my cynical ear. In the headlines and ledes and pull quotes, but also more diffusely, in the cultural logic in which the stories are embedded, the soldiers appear as both horrific monsters and pitiable victims—“crazy vets,” as a friend of mine, an Iraq vet and a veterans advocate, likes to say. The emphasis on the concentration of the crimes within a particular unit groups the individual perpetrators into a single class of actors—Amy Goodman, for instance, reported that the battalion had a murder rate 114 times that of the city of Colorado Springs. My own quantitative chops are a little shaky, but since murder rates typically involve incredibly steep ratios—single- or double-digit quantities per 100,000—a figure like that does far more to shock than it does to inform. More to the point, it (inadvertently) casts the taint of murder over the entire unit, and arguably, over all combat vets. A similar and much more involved quantification of soldiers connected to violent crimes in the New York Times’ January 2008 series “War Torn” attracted bitter criticism from veterans’ groups for precisely this reason.

The dilemma of the “crazy vet” stereotype is this: even as it can be deployed to draw critical attention to the dire structural conditions and damaging and unfair stigma faced by traumatized soldiers, its elaborate and horrifying imagery cannot help but confirm stereotype and increase stigma. Again, this is not to pick on the journalists and commentators doing the crucial work of bringing the difficult circumstances of soldiers to public attention. For indeed, soldiers and their advocates also invoke the “crazy vet” stereotype among themselves all the time. A Veterans Affairs service officer I knew emphasized the urgent need for PTSD screening, treatment resources and disability compensation via the image of “PFC Joe Snuffy going postal in Wal Mart.” Soldiers would joke about pulling out their “Crazy Card” or “TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury] Card” as an excuse or explanation for odd or erratic behavior—mouthing off too much, getting lost or distracted, or falling into black moods. Such antisocial actions are all symptoms of TBI; these soldiers were not exploiting their diagnosis, I think, but rather ironizing and acting back on the inhuman instrumentality to which they felt their condition had been reduced.

And sometimes, and more poignantly, they would cut right to the heart of their own sense of psychic injury. “I am a totally different person,” one acquaintance told me. What soldiers “like him” wanted, said—those with physical injuries or PTSD or TBI, or suffering more diffuse, less official forms of bodily and mental wear and tear—all they wanted was to get the care they felt they needed and then be left to themselves. “Guarantee you, dude, that’s exactly what we want. Let me go raise my children. I’m gonna go and I’m not gonna bother you anymore, just leave me the fuck alone.” In these kinds of statements, talk of being “messed up” performs work with its wry and macho tone, claiming ownership of the feeling of being damaged on its own terms rather than submitting to the role of monster or victim.

The crazy vet stereotype is both pernicious and culturally productive, a highly effective vehicle for anxieties about the contamination by violence of those whose job it is to officially produce it, as if killing and dying are a contagion contracted on a foreign battlefield that threatens the nominally non-violent homefront and its “civilized” social life (see, e.g., Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites or Catherine Lutz’s discussion of the figure of the soldier in Homefront). Americans in particular, I think, are accustomed to thinking of war and the wounds it produces as a literally foreign entity. Thus the language of the “hell” and “horror” when war “comes home”—a place where hell and horror presumably don’t belong. This sense of the foreign or the exceptional is reinforced by sensational media accounts of damaged soldiers. And this is a second paradoxical quality of the “crazy vet.” Even as the stereotype pathologizes all soldiers, it focuses attention on a very narrow range of extreme behaviors, making it actually harder to see the broad and far subtler range of burdens that war—waged in Americans’ name, whether we like it or not—inevitably lays on those whose job it is to produce it. Regardless of one’s perspective on this war or war in general, the “crazy vet” can both confirm our worst fears about war and justify our outrage about it without prompting us to face these more everyday violences. So in the end, the critical use of the “crazy vet” may be as a sign that there is no separating out “normal” social life from the illegitimate excesses of the legitimate violence that sustains it, and that all efforts to sort out that violence are caught up in that tension.

4 thoughts on “Wounds of War and the Dilemmas of Stereotype

  1. Well said Ken – you captured the thoughts/perceptions of the deployed soldier and the separated civilian beautifully. Thank you for putting a few things into perspective.

  2. Ken, do you have any thoughts regarding what relationship the attitudes of civilians towards veterans may have with the U.S.’s all-volunteer military? I have often wondered whether attitudes toward the U.S. military and its use might be quite different if U.S. citizens had the spectre of conscription hanging over their own and their loved ones’ heads. In the case of the crazy vet stereotype I wonder if civilians are able to rationalize any notions they might have of the vets as polluted by telling themselves, “Well, it IS an unfortunate situation, but it isn’t like they were hauled off by a press gang. They did choose to join, after all!” Whereas veterans of a conscripted military might be viewed as a randomly selected sample of American society and therefore be more difficult to rationalize away?

  3. Ken,

    As both a veteran and anthropologist, thank you for this very interesting and empatheic post. I have constantly been frustrated by the depictions of soldiers without voice, objects acted on (by war, the “institution” of the military, etc), and not as subjects capable of making their own decisions, and interacting with the world with our own style of humor and sarcasm. I was recently reading Lubkemann’s Culture in Chaos, discussing refugees from warfare in Mozambique, who makes a similar argument about his subjects: it appears to be easier for others to label refugees as powerless and without agency than to have to deal with the complexities of people who, in the midst of war, are still reasoning actors making decisions. This I think gets to MTBradley’s comment above: with the advent of the All-Volunteer force in the 70s, the “soldier” could become someone apart from civilian society, at least in the mythology of civilian culture. The “crazy vet” meme you discuss in your post I personally feel began with the Vietnam Veteran, and my own research shows that soldiers’ main touchstone for the war experience are Vietnam films such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, etc. It is hardly surprising then, that soldiers will also clue in on the scripts these stories provide them with how to deal with the aftermath of war as well, albeit with a more ironic flair I think is widespread among the current generation of soldiers.

Comments are closed.