It’s been more than 15 years since the start of the Afghanistan War and already the horrors of the ground combat there and in Iraq appear at an increasingly “safe” distance in the American psyche. Sure, on sanctioned holidays and Marine Corps Marathons the visage of the wounded warrior is wheeled—or with advanced prosthetics, marched—out to serve as a sanitized reminder. But the really dark stuff, what they did and what they’ve seen, not to mention the consequent suicides, the often irrevocable psychological damage, are receding into the past—somewhere between “don’t go there” and “already forgot about that” on our mental bookshelf of American war experiences.
Peter Van Buren, who says his own life changed forever during a stint on behalf of the State Department during the so-called reconstruction period in Iraq, has published a book on the moral injuries of war. Van Buren, who wrote the viscerally arresting The Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent, about the human wreckage left behind by the evaporation of the manufacturing economy in the Midwest, has now written a wrenching alternative history of the Pacific War, one in which entire cities including Kyoto were firebombed by invading U.S. forces.
Hooper’s War is a series of flashbacks told through the eyes of Lt. Nate Hooper, who commands a unit as it makes its way across the countryside, eventually falling onto the blackened cinder hell that is Kyoto. It is also told through Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa on the Japanese side. Both meet because of one woman, and she decides their fates. Hooper lives to tell the tale: an aged veteran living out years of nagging regret, guilt, and the humanity he left smoldering, literally behind.
But Hooper is not an anti-war brief, nor an exercise in penance for American war crimes. Van Buren’s aim is to identify with the soldier, embracing his basic instincts for survival, petty motivations, biases, and moral flaws, along with his ability to transform, like Hooper, mid-stride. He writes like he was there, evoking the back-of-the-throat fear of the unknown, the sheer terror of losing every man around you, and following orders you know are wrong.
We talked to Van Buren, now retired from the government after a much-publicized break with the State Department. For him the past is present, as a new administration seems increasingly prepared to put more Americans into harm’s way any day now.
The American Conservative: Tell us why you took an alternate view of the Pacific War in WWII.
Van Buren: What I learned about moral injury, and what happens to people in war, I found spilled over historical lines. To go beyond the politics, I had to put people into the “Good War,” the one war that did not have all the political baggage of post-9/11 conflicts in it, and then to take another step back from reality into a fictional situation, to get away from the politics of using the atomic bomb. I wanted to talk about the murder of civilians, innocents, but I didn’t want to get into an undergraduate poli-sci discussion of why Harry Truman should have, or shouldn’t have used the atomic bomb on Japan.… So, the setting of WWII Japan is something familiar enough to the reader but without the complications that distract from my basic story.
TAC: What is moral injury?
Van Buren: The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war, that people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested. When they violate deeply held convictions by doing something—such as killing in error—or failing to do something—such as not reporting a war crime—they suffer an injury to their core being. That’s moral injury.
Think Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book The Things They Carried, or films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. As beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, it follows that that sense can be broken.
One Marine coming out of Iraq told me simply “My guilt will never go away. There is a part of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”
TAC: What was the most surprising thing you learned from the elderly Japanese you spoke with for this book?
Van Buren: Things were done in Japan that turned schoolboys and farmers and merchants from neutral persons to combatants. They became radicalized. I think that was something I knew intellectually but did not understand at a gut level, how easy it is to propagandize people, especially children. Japanese kids had been propagandized from their early childhood. These kids had been taught from the first day of kindergarten that it was their hemisphere in East Asia, and they were obligated to free it from western colonization. They were taught via movies and school lessons that the Japanese were superior to Koreans and Chinese, that that was the natural order of things. Even the Japanese version of religion was better, more pure.
Sound familiar in a post-9/11 world? It was never not part of their lives. It was very easy to take that as the natural state of things, that they were going to be part of a struggle of good versus evil. The Japanese government spent a decade getting its children ready for war. I look back at my childhood and, where we said the pledge of allegiance and did not ask questions of what your government was doing. You did not ask the hard questions of what what your country was doing.
Even today we see things like like “patriotism,” that look very much what these Japanese kids were being told. The demonization of the enemy. You can take what they were told then and you could pop it out of that context and into any other context of a the War on Terror. Change the nouns, and it would translate literally, word for word, from 1930s Japan to 1960s American to modern ISIS online sessions.
I also learned the extent that hunger played in Japan in the Second World War (during the Allied siege). People eating dogs and they were eating roots and parents were making choices about which of their children to feed. That story is not told in Western media at all.
TAC: In your last book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, you cast a glaring light on another very human experience—poverty and loss of identity—written through the eyes of regular Americans. How might Hooper compare to Tom Joad?
Van Buren: We find out that the main character in Hooper’s War is from the same town as the characters in Tom Joad. These stories are all connected. What happens to America at the hands and by the actions of their government is at the core of all of these stories. In Tom Joad the actions of the government destroy the midwestern way of life. In Hooper’s War there are young people who are sent off with the belief that the government is doing the right thing by them, sending them into war. That may be true in some macro sense, but the characters on the ground find nearly every situation morally ambiguous, and where there are no right or wrong answers and they are making split decisions that could harm the rest of their lives.
TAC: How did your own experience as a boomer-generation child inform this?
Van Buren: There is a lot of me in there I’m afraid, but it’s a much older me. I grew up in the gap between the patriotism that fueled the early Vietnam generation and the new patriotism that picked up during the first Gulf War. I was in the kind of neutral period where most of us didn’t feel compelled to join the military. I knew very little about the military. My dad served in a non-combatant role in Korea, my own grandfather was disabled and not a combatant in World War II. All of that changed for me when I went to Iraq in 2009, when I was embedded in the 10th Mountain Division there as a State Department diplomat. I knew so little about the military and war and what good and bad people do in these situations. I was suddenly exposed in so many different ways to things I never thought I would experience. I was mortared. I saw the aftermath of car bombs. Two soldiers in the units I worked with committed suicide. I saw what people were like making life and death decisions under enormous stress.
At the age of 50 I was experiencing so many things that changed me as a person and sensing things I had been totally ignorant of. It changed me. I’m in the book, I’m all through the book but not in an arrogant way, but in a sense that I’m the voice that is learning all these things alongside the main character, who also enters this story clueless about what is going on.
TAC: How did your Iraq experience inform your graphic, often unsettling portrayals of battlefield combat and the daily drudgery of war?
Van Buren: I was in a very unique role in Iraq. I had my little job to do working for the U.S/ Government, and I had reason to be there but it was a small part of what my Army unit was doing, which was shooting bad guys at night and doing real soldier stuff. I was a participant, I had a role, not like a journalist or some kind of war tourist, but I also was a third-party observer for a lot of things and I took advantage of that to learn everything I could. The soldiers were very nice to let me go along on missions that I had no official business being on and experience stuff that soldiers did. My eyes kept getting wider and wider. And I was looking at this stuff in utter shock. Not everyone gets that opportunity. At the same time I was personally, emotionally struck by the suicides, I was personally, emotionally struck by the devastation. There is always a lot of down time in military operations—hurry up and wait, right?—and so I talked to everyone I could, new guys and old vets alike. I hope my book does justice to the things they shared with me, because about 90 percent of what I read elsewhere is garbage, making everyone out to be either a hero or a baby killer, depending on the political needs for the day. Nothing is straightforward like that, nothing, not in any war.
TAC: What do you want readers to take away from this?
Van Buren: I think they will enjoy that it is a good story, a good story with a conscience. There are messages here, and philosophical points to be made there, but it is also a story you can still down and enjoy.
I also hope I am bringing this concept of moral injury to a wider audience, and to people who are not familiar with it—that moral injury is a cost of war. That it is about the suicides that take place every day, it is what their husbands and wives and brothers and sisters come home with. The next goal is to understand that there are implications of war forcing us to choose between morality and expediency. It never works when you step away from the moral positions. Whether on a macro level or among individual soldiers or whatever, it is never right when you abandon morality, when it is not at the core of what you are doing it will fail.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC