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Facing the Human Wreckage of War

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 [1], 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 [2] 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 [3] 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. [4]

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 experiencepoverty and loss of identitywritten 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

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Facing the Human Wreckage of War"

#1 Comment By bacon On June 19, 2017 @ 1:57 am

It has been said ad nauseam, if one hasn’t had the experience it isn’t possible to even imagine what it is like. Most of our national leaders haven’t experienced even peacetime military service, much less combat. And without national service, our military consists of the children of a tiny fraction, mostly an underprivileged fraction, of the population. So we continue to engage in “wars of choice”, meaning as far as I can understand wars that congresspersons think will play well in their districts. We need in the worst way a draft. Whatever national service would cost, it would be less than any one of our recent wars of choice and if voters had to face their children going to war, we would do it much less often.

War is hell, as Sherman said. But if only the poor and underprivileged have to fight, so what? That seems to be the national answer. We need a draft.

Vietnam, 1967-1968

#2 Comment By Johann On June 19, 2017 @ 8:41 am

“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.”

This exact thing is going on right now in China. Just swap “Chinese” with “Japanese” in the above paragraph. The Chinese government is preparing their people for war and has been for some time.

#3 Comment By Dave skerry On June 19, 2017 @ 11:09 am

U.S. business, government,and cultural interests are shilling the same inducements. Support your wounded warriors as heroes who invaded foreign nations 5,000 miles from our shores to defend our freedoms and wounded, maimed and killed 10 times as many unarmed,inocent woman and children with their heroics. And, they “would do it all again”! At some point u have to conclude that the individual with free choice is responsible, the “Nuremburg defense is no longer available.

#4 Comment By calvin smith On June 19, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

Kyoto was bombed very little during the war and certainly was not a bombed out smoking wreck of a city…

#5 Comment By Michael Fumento On June 19, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

Do not blame the soldiers! Bad things happen in every war but Americans have a relatively good record. The worst was the terror bombing. But both Churchill and FDR had no problem with that.

#6 Comment By bronze surfer On June 19, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

Dave Skerry, I so agree with you. I am so disgusted with the jingoistic celebration of the American Warrior (never soldier, etc)fighting for our freedom, as if they are all that are stoppiong some AK-47 wielding malcontents from invading the US and taking our Bud Lite and pork rinds.

#7 Comment By Garry Kelly On June 19, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” RE Lee

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” said G Santayana and
“Only the dead have seen the end of war”.

#8 Comment By Adriana I Pena On June 19, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

There is one thing that makes America’s so cavalier about war. Except for the South (who remembers too well) America has never faced invaders in its soil. They have no idea how it is when the front moves in the opposite direction and then they have to live home and join the columns of refugees.

They can afford to watch it on TV and enjoy at a spectator sport..

Alas, America is so rich and powerful that it can afford a lot of stupidity.

Until it cannot afford it anymore, but does not know how not to be stupid.

#9 Comment By J Harlan On June 19, 2017 @ 8:14 pm

Does anyone have any ideas about why the Japanese fought to the death against the US on Pacific islands but surrendered in droves to the Soviets in Manchuria?

#10 Comment By Vitaly Purto On June 20, 2017 @ 12:09 am

“This exact thing is going on right now in China.” It is amazing how “free people” in the US are simply unable to comprehend their own deficiencies. Along with “your” armed forces that go 5000 miles away to teach China “democracy” you point 5000 miles away whereas right here people are totally condition with the help of the best experts in advertisement technologies to behave as Pavlovian dogs.
I was born and lived for 40+ years in Soviet Union and still remember the day in 1944 when Nazi troops were marched along the Garden Ring in Moscow. Then I emigrated to the US and live here for another 40+ years. So, I now couple things on both sides of the Pond. And my verdict is that majority of American people became the most slavish people in the world. They are hooked on all sorts of dependencies with the drugs the least destructive of them. Delusions obtained with drugs is harmless comparative to delusion of being exception nation. Keep whining about Tramp, Congress, MSM etc – it wont help. The clock is ticking.

#11 Comment By genetuttle On June 20, 2017 @ 5:44 am

Kyoto was not fire bombed:

But yes, war is hell, and too many Americans fail to understand that it is more often than not unnecesary as well.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 20, 2017 @ 7:47 am

Bacon is right: “We need a draft.”

#13 Comment By Nelson On June 20, 2017 @ 9:50 am

I highly recommend an animated film called Grave of the Fireflies (available on iTunes and Vudu). It is from the point of view of two Japanese children who have to deal with the consequences of war.

#14 Comment By Nelson On June 20, 2017 @ 10:52 pm

I doubt a draft would change anything. A draft never stopped any of our previous wars.

#15 Comment By Patrick O’Connor On June 21, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

In the sub headline and in the second paragraph the novel is described as an alternative history, hence the Kyoto firebombing.

#16 Comment By Adriana I Pena On June 25, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

There is a military museum nearby and I went there. It was instructive about the kind of weapons involved and the challenges that ordinary soldiers faced. It was sobering.

But when I saw the children outside climbing on the tanks, laughing, and pretending they were soldiers, my heart sank.

Are we teaching children that war is fun? We should look at such war memorials with reverence, and ponder on the awful toll war takes. That war may be unavoidable, perhaps necessary, but never a positive good.

Yeah, I had to laugh at @Johann’s comment about the indoctrination about war was something to be found IN CHINA!, but not in his own backyard.