JOHN SHATTUCK: Good afternoon and welcome to the John F. Kennedy Library. I’m John Shattuck, the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation. And on behalf of our Board of Directors, and our Library Director Tom Putnam, I want to welcome all of you on this beautiful Veterans Day afternoon here on Columbia Point. And I want to thank all of the institutions that make these forums possible, starting with our lead sponsor Bank of America. We’re also grateful to the Boston Foundation, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Corcoran Jennison Companies and our media sponsors The Boston Globe, NECN, and WBUR, which broadcast these Kennedy Forums on Sunday evenings.
John F. Kennedy was a veteran, and he knew the face of war. When he was asked how he became a war hero, he said with typical, self-effacing humor, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” Kennedy’s generation of veterans didn’t talk much about what they’d been through. And what they said was always understated. But, like my own father who was badly wounded in the Pacific as a marine in the Second World War, Kennedy knew what it meant to go through battle. And as with other people, other veterans throughout history, he carried with him the names and faces of those who didn’t make it back. And on November 11, 1961 a young President, tempered by war and disciplined, as he said in his inaugural address, by hard and bitter peace, went to Arlington National Cemetery to honor the nation’s veterans. And here’s what he said 47 years ago today. He said, “We commemorate the veterans this Veterans Day with a few moments of silence and then this country’s life goes on. But it is appropriate that we recall on this occasion the sacrifice which so many soldiers and their families have made in order to permit us to gather here together. In a world tormented by tension and conflict, we meet in commemoration of peace. Some might say that this day has lost its meaning, that the shadow of new and deadly weapons has robbed this day of value.
But at this time of remembrance, let us pray in the name of those who have fought before, that there shall be no veterans of any further war. Not because all shall have perished, but because all shall have learned together to live in peace.” So that’s what President Kennedy had to say on Veterans Day. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
And today, many years later but in that same spirit, our thoughts and words turn toward those who served, who have served, or soon will serve in Iraq, Afghanistan and other distant places, and toward their families who have joined with them in making that sacrifice about which Kennedy spoke so simply and so eloquently. And with that in mind, I’d like to ask all of the veterans of all wars who are here with us today to stand, so we can recognize you and thank you for your service to the nation. Please. [applause]
For many years now we have been a country deeply divided by the issues of war and by the way our government has taken us to war. Here in Massachusetts alone there are now some 35,000 citizens who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a staggering number. And for those of us who came of age in the shadow of another deeply controversial war in Vietnam, we remember all too well how veterans would return home without the welcome and appreciation they deserved for the sacrifices they had made.
So here at the Kennedy Library we are determined not to let that happen today. And that those who have served are properly honored, even as those who have lead our nation to war are justly criticized for the decisions they have made. And to honor and represent the veterans of 2008, and especially all of you who are here with us today, we have invited a wonderful panel to talk about the trials and difficulties of homecoming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me introduce our panelists as they are seated.
First, starting over on the far left of me is our first panelist, James Meeks, who served two tours of duty as an army officer of the First Infantry Division in Iraq. [applause] A graduate of Harvard and Stanford Business School, Captain Meeks was deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2004 where he was wounded by a roadside bomb. Following his recovery, he returned to Iraq in 2005 as a tank commander and platoon leader. He saw active duty during a particularly intense period of the war in Diyala Province where he conducted combat patrols, trained soldiers in the Iraqi army and provided security for the parliamentary elections and constitutional referendum. And when he returned from Iraq after this second tour of duty, Captain Meeks served as an executive officer tasked with transitioning his combat battalion into a training unit. We salute you for your service, Captain Meeks, and welcome you to the stage of the Kennedy Library.
Our second panelist is Dr. Jonathan Shay, who’s seated here to my immediate left, and who serves as staff psychiatrist for the Department of Veterans Affairs here in Boston. Dr. Shay’s pioneering treatment of combat trauma suffered by war veterans, combined with his imaginative interpretations of the ancient accounts of battle in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have deepened our understanding of the effects of warfare on the individual. In his book, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trails of Homecoming, Dr. Shay uses Odysseus as metaphor, focusing on the American soldier’s experience on returning from war to civilian society in highlighting the role of public policy in protecting the mental well-being of soldiers. Last year, Dr. Shay received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. And in its citation the MacArthur Foundation described him as follows, and I quote, “A passionate advocate for veterans. He strives to reform the way the armed forces are organized, trained and counseled. Respected by humanists and military leaders alike, he brings into stark relief the emotional problems faced by military combatants, ancient and modern.” Dr. Shay’s book is available for purchase in our bookstore, and I’m sure he’d be delighted to sign copies after the forum. We welcome you, Dr. Shay, to the stage of the Kennedy Library. [applause]
And our moderator this afternoon is one of Boston’s most distinguished journalists, my good friend Christopher Lydon. Chris has recently decamped to Brown University, at least temporarily, where he’s serving as a Visiting Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies and broadcasting his path-breaking series of Internet radio conversations, Open Source. For more than three decades Chris has been a distinctive voice in print, television and radio journalism. He has covered presidential campaigns for The New York Times, anchored the 10:00 o’clock news on WGBH TV and founded an award winning radio program, The Connection, on WBUR. And I should say parenthetically he also trained our outstanding forum producer, Amy Macdonald. So please join me in welcoming to the stage of the Kennedy Library, Christopher Lydon, Captain James Meeks, and Dr. Jonathan Shay. [applause]
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: John Shattuck, thank you. Amy Macdonald is, I mean, she did it all on her own, but she may be our proudest product. We’re talking this afternoon, on Veteran’s Day 2008, about this astonishingly steady, consistent, sometimes you think incurable process of war. War is a job, is a daily job, as Dr. Shay says, and the question of homecoming. So much to say, and we won’t get it all done in an hour and half, but we will very much want your engagement and your questions, your thoughts stated concisely, so be prepared. Nobody’s going to carry on at great length.
It’s Dr. Shay who in this remarkable book takes us back to the ringing plains of Troy and establishes that story as a kind of central narrative that we all know. We were joking about the fact that there is a school of thought -- and I’m a part of it -- that if Homer was the only book we had, we’d have enough for everything. It tells all the stories of human life: men, women, young, old, birth and death and battle, battle, battle, But I’d like to ask Jonathan Shay to begin by simply explaining how he, as a psychiatrist, got into both The Iliad and the matter of war, not unlike my friend Chris Hedges whom I’m sure you know, who went through a similar process as a journalist, discovering Homer and Shakespeare and the great literature of war in the course of preparing his book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. But give us the -- if you can in a headline, Dr. Shay -- the Homeric context of what we’re still talking about.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Well, what Homer shows us so amazingly is that what really matters to soldiers in war is the social and the moral context of his own forces. Yes, the enemy does matter. The enemy is the enemy and is terribly dangerous. And what makes the enemy so dangerous is that he is human, just like us, and is doing a damned good job of killing my friends in war. But ultimately, the thing that wrecks people’s lives is the social ruptures, and in particular the ethical ruptures, by people who hold legitimate authority in war. And that’s really what the main, straight-ahead narrative of The Iliad is about. It’s about the story of this one particular warrior, Achilles, who is betrayed by his boss, Agamemnon, and the terrible, terrible consequences that flow from that. Now, a consequence of the consequence is that his dearest friend, closest comrade and foster brother, Patroklos, is killed wearing Achilles’ own armor. And so it’s all raised one exponent there.
And all I said in Achilles in Vietnam is that this really is a story about soldiers in war and what matters to them: Achilles’ connection to his comrade Patroklos and the betrayal by his boss Agamemnon, and that if you grasp the significance of all those things and the way those play out in the human heart, you’ve really learned a lot about war and how it wrecks people.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: And guys. I always think of it as the original “guy” book.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Well, it’s amazing how important women are, too, in the worlds of everyone. We see Andromache, Hector’s wife -- Hector being the Trojans’ main man -- and so he is sleeping in his bed every night after battle, whereas Achilles is a part of an expeditionary force. The only women there are captive slave women. And we actually get a significant glimpse of these women. But it is fair to say that The Iliad primarily focuses on the men fighting with each other, whether the enemy or their own leadership.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Jonathan, a story for all times, such a cliché, but it’s so true. When you make the connection as a doctor, as a citizen, as a human being to the war stories and the homecoming stories that we’re all hearing first or second hand in Iraq today, from Iraq, the 35,000 -- an astonishing number -- veterans in Massachusetts of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: I had the privilege of writing both of these books really by dumb luck. I stumbled into it. My daughter Tamara is here in the audience. She was a freshman at Harvard College, taking Professor Gregory Nagy’s famous freshman course, lovingly known as “Heroes for Zeroes.” And she gave him a copy of a little paper that I had had in the “Journal of Traumatic Stress,” which I thought a really nifty teaching piece. If you want to take a decent combat history from a patient who was a veteran, remember the story of Achilles and you’ll touch all the bases. And I thought that’s all it was. And she gave that to Professor Nagy and he came to my apartment and said, “Would you please expand this into a book for one of the series that I added, because this has never been said before?” “What? All I said is that The Iliad is about war and what matters to soldiers in war.” So never been said before. Now if Shay says that something is or is not in the corpus of Homeric scholarship, that and a nickel will get you a ball of gum in the supermarket. But if Professor Nagy says that something is or is not in the corpus of Homeric scholarship, you can go to the bank with that. So I realized this is my one shot at immortality. If you write something good about Homer, people will literally read it for centuries. And so I dug in and wrote the book that Professor Nagy requested. He was incredibly generous, incredibly generous with me and this book. Actually, the whole tribe of classicists has been incredibly generous. And it has all changed my life. The books have changed my life, but most of all the veterans have changed my life.
I went to work for the VA. And, by the way, I have retired from the VA as of May 31 so I’m no longer doing clinical work. But what I am doing and what I come back to -- what the veterans did for me in addition to redirecting my life once I went to the VA, I went there expecting to reopen the laboratory that I had had at Mass General. And they -- I’m fond of saying that the veterans kidnapped me when I got there. They redirected my life in that regard.
But also once involved in work on psychological injury -- by the way, a term I much prefer to PTSD -- once I became involved with that, I became deeply, deeply fired up over preventing psychological and moral injury in military service. And when I retired from the VA, it was not to play golf. It was to devote myself fulltime to the quest for prevention of psychological and moral injury in military service. And I learned from the veterans that I served for 20 years that this is something that they are absolutely unified on. They don’t want other young kids wrecked the way they were wrecked. And, in a certain sense, every thought in my head tends to be aimed in the direction of how to protect the good young kids we are sending into harm’s way. And then, if they do get hurt -- and in war people always get hurt, both physically and psychologically -- if they are hurt how can we help them in their recovery.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: What is the psychological IED?
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Chris, you have to decode this metaphor for me.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: I mean the roadside bomb. We hear about trauma, shrapnel, these improvised explosive devices. What are you talking about when you speak of the psychological injury?
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Well, I have been encouraging people to think of two aspects to psychological injury. The first is a primary injury that you can think of as being like a mortar fragment, slashing across the thigh of a soldier or Marine. That’s the primary injury. Now, that primary injury can be severe enough, especially if that mortar fragment goes right through the head or right through the heart to kill that soldier on the spot. But generally, it’s not the primary injury that will kill a soldier, it’s the complications of that injury. And just about everybody knows, whether they know they know it or not, what those complications are. And that is bleeding, bleeding to death, and infection. Bleeding to death kills you quickly. Infection takes a while. But these are the two primary complications.
Now, I have advocated that we view psychological injury in this sort of military frame of mind. What is the primary injury? And the way I have tried to frame it is that in war there are certain physiological adaptations, psychological adaptations, social adaptations, and maybe even cultural adaptations, in the form of ideologies. I’m not certain about the cultural side actually. But the brain, mind, and social connection I’m certain about. So you develop these adaptations that allow you to live through this hideous situation of other human beings really trying to kill you. That’s real. You’re not making that up, and they’re doing a damned good job of it. And you’re seeing comrades being maimed, being killed. And so this is certain, and it takes up residence in your gut.
Now, you come then home, either to life in garrison or to civilian life. And from everything I understand -- and I will welcome correction here if it is called for -- from everything I understand life in garrison on a base in the United States or in Germany or in Japan, whatever, is much more like civilian life than war in a battle zone. And so whether you’re coming back to life in garrison or civilian life, you have all of these adaptations in your body, your mind, and your way of relating to people. And these often just don’t fit. They don’t work. Sometimes they’re outright destructive, like the instant readiness for violent, lethal action when surprised, which is certainly a survival adaptation. You’re patrolling in a built-up area in Iraq where people in your unit have been ambushed before, and you’re ready for instant, lethal action.
One of my patients, a 173rd airborne trooper from Vietnam, was working at his workbench. And his 10 year-old daughter thought it would be cute to sneak up behind her father and surprise him. Well, in a flash he had her pinned against the wall by the neck. And then he realized he was looking in the terror in her eyes and realized what he had done. He was so mortified, he just put her down and walked out of the house and didn’t return for a month because he was so mortified. So this is an example of the primary injury. It’s a valid adaptation to the real situation of war which doesn’t fit in civilian life or life in garrison.
Now, I want to say that it is rare, in my observation and belief, that the primary injuries are so severe that it totally wrecks the veteran’s capacity for a good life. It may impose focal disabilities, focal like someone with a hand shot off, no matter how skillful they become with that prosthesis. And I’ve known a veteran who could flip a quarter in the air with his hook and catch it. That’s real skill. But there will be things that that veteran can’t do because he’s missing that hand, focal disabilities.
But my view is that it’s the complications of combat trauma that truly wreck the veteran’s life, the life of the family, the life in the workplace. And in the extreme, many historians believe that it was the pathogen burden, if you wish, of combat trauma in the population of Viamare, Germany that contributed mightily to the destruction of Viamare, Germany. So it is not just a humanitarian issue. It is something we all have a deep, personal, positive self-interest in getting right. And yes, I am devoting myself primarily to prevention of psychological injury and its complications. The moral injury part actually connects to the complications.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Can I do this? Captain Jim Meeks, I wanted to say to begin, Jim. You’re so unusual in a certain way: a guy, especially in a war fought a lot by poor people and a sort of poverty draft, volunteers in the armed forces today. You came at it as a child of real privilege: Harvard education and business ambition. I’d love to know why you went and then some of the lessons you brought back -- I’m thinking on the Homeric scale here but against this sort of ageless process that you got deep into.
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: Well, I was one of the zeroes in Gregory Nagy’s “Heroes for Zeroes” class and so I became … I was always interested in the classics from this perspective. And I think if you ever are attracted to epics and you see something like 9/11 happen, you say, “This is not an everyday occurrence. This is a huge rift. This is a huge scar in our society and we’re living in it right now. And what are we going to do?” And I picked up Dr. Shay’s book largely because my professor had written a forward for it and began thinking about what does it mean to be a leader. And I think that term is probably the most overused and misunderstood phrase out there. Lots of business schools, we hear about leadership all the time. It gets confused with management, but true leadership is accepting the responsibility, the moral responsibility of those who are underneath you, that you’re actions and your decisions are going to very much influence the moral universe of those that follow you.
After September 11, in the spring of my senior year, I went to Israel with Bishop Tom Shaw, the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts, which I’m a member. And we went, and we met with lots of Palestinians and lots of Israelis. And everyone was trying to tell us a story, everyone was trying to convince us that one side was right or the other side was right. And there was one woman who I thought was very open with her heart. And she said to me -- her house was right next to Arafat’s compound, and we got there right after the Israelis had surrounded Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. And her house had been taken over by these Israeli soldiers. And they had rushed in and put her whole family in one room and ate all their food, trashed their house and were walking out. This woman was telling us a story, this very traumatic story. And she stopped and she said, “You know what? They’re not all bad.” One guy stopped, this private. And when he was rushing out of the room, he knocked over the picture of her deceased husband. And I think he could tell this was an important picture. And he stopped, and he picked it up and he yelled, “I’m very sorry.” And put it back on the shelf and ran out. And this woman, who was a part of a community that was starting to think that maybe killing Israeli civilians isn’t so bad because their soldiers were so cruel to us, this woman said, “I don’t think they’re all evil. I think there’s goodness in their heart.”
And I thought a little bit about what is that impetus that a leader has. What is his responsibility? And I came to the conclusion that I don’t understand this Iraq War. I’m not smart enough to figure out why we’re going to go into it. I’ve got a sense we’re going to go into it. And the question is: are we going to fight this war in a way that upholds our greatest honor and our values of the country that I assume that we have? Or are we just going to leave it to other people to fight a war as they see fit? And so I took that sense of responsibility I think pretty seriously and tried to accept that call in the way that generations before me had accepted it. And I ended up joining the Army.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: And then what happened? [laughter]
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: I learned how to shine my boots pretty well and clean a rifle. And then next thing I knew, I graduated. I finished my training as a tank commander and was shipped over to Iraq to a unit in 2004. And what was interesting was everything was changing so quickly in Iraq. When I joined the Army it was the debate to go into Iraq. When I was in basic training it was the last ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, “Give up the WMDs or else.” By the time I started officer candidate school, we were rolling over the Berm in Kuwait. And by the time I had finished, it was mission accomplished. Wow, this is a pretty quick turn around.
And so over the summer we were occupying, and I’m learning how to be a tanker. We’re getting some reports about … There’re these things. They turn Pepsi cans into explosives. They’ve got some snipers firing at us. There’s something going on in Iraq. By the time I finish my tank training and I get to my unit -- I find out that’s already deployed -- six of the 22 lieutenants had either been killed or wounded so critically they had to be evacuated. So I got switched from a normal unit to one that was in Iraq as an individual replacement. And something Dr. Shay talks about really eloquently is the trauma of being an individual replacement, like you’re a replacement cog in a wheel just to make sure that vehicle keeps on running. And when I got there as a green lieutenant -- which is about the worst of the worst anyhow in garrison -- who hadn’t been fighting like these guys had been fighting for six months. And then to top it off the single worse thing possible, I was from an Ivy League school. [laughter] The level of respect and compassion I was going to get from this unit was going to be very low. But I kind of tried to figure out a way to stick with what my ideals were, about how we should fight this war with acknowledging that these guys had been doing it for six months.
And I think the Army that I arrived into had no clue what it was doing. It was not trained for counter-insurgency. It was not expecting this type of resistance. We were rewriting the rule book as we went, and good people under times of duress were making bad decisions. And I was put in charge of a prison camp of detainees. And we had taken over a British base in Habbaniyah. And they had a ten person prison facility back when the British Air Force was stationed there. So we had taken it over and we turned this detention facility from a 10 person to a 112 person facility. People were just swamped into this area, and I was stuck with the problem of how do I figure out where to reform this, because this is a legal and a moral and a safety nightmare with no moral credibility whatsoever, just being a young lieutenant. And during that time the images of Abu Ghraib were coming out, and they were cycling through the U.S. Army before they hit The New York Times. And I was very much thinking of this Homeric position. Because on one hand, if you think of the Geneva Convention as a contract between two nations in war, then the Iraqi insurgents, and Al Qaeda specifically, had violated their end of the deal. They were killing civilians. They weren’t fighting in uniform. And if they would have gotten a hold of us they would have tortured us worse than we had tortured them. So you think about it as a contract and I think that’s how some people in the Army with their backs against the wall were thinking of it.
Or you can think of it as a covenant that says regardless of what our enemy does, we have certain morals and values as a society that if we break that, we don’t deserve to be a society at all. And to wear an American flag, it just makes us like Roman conquerors, not this notion, this home of American democracy and idealism that we cling to. And that was something that I was very sensitive to and I think the Homeric viewpoint was helping me. If you want to win a war you can win a war, you just have to destroy the entire city. But you have to win a war well because if you don’t win the war well, then you go home and what are you going to tell your kids? What are they going to tell their kids about how you performed? And that’s an element of the American army that makes it fairly difficult.
And you try to explain to an 18 year-old kid, “Hey look, I know this guy just killed your friend. I know you watched your friend die. And you think that his guy put the bullet in him. But you can’t go after him.” “Why not?” “Because then we don’t stand for anything.” And then we go home and we have to deal with the fact that we have committed atrocities that, at the time, seemed like they were pragmatic but you’d have to live with for the rest of your life.
And I think that was the biggest charge I had when I was in the Army. I certainly wasn’t the strongest or the fastest or the best shot. But the one thing I thought I could bring to the table was this understanding of not just morality in an abstract sense, but the fact that you are going to have to live with these decisions. If you survive here, that’s great. But if you survive here and you’re haunted for the rest of your life, that’s debilitating. So we have to make decisions that we can believe are right and good and that were … I just want to thank you in front of all these people for writing the book that helped crystallize some of those thoughts for me while I was over there.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: You’re very kind to say that. If I can just follow up a little bit with that. You may know a person with a somewhat similar experience, Nate Fick. This is a young man who was a marine platoon commander in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and he wrote a book called One Bullet Away. And what’s unusual is that there’s a second book that was written by someone situated very differently in the universe, a reporter from Rolling Stone who was embedded with Nate’s platoon during the Iraq fight. So we get to see the same casts of characters, the same fight, through two very different sets of eyes. And I find remarkable that both of these witnesses, one of them with his particular interests, the commander of this platoon, and the other in some respects really disinterested, but different interests. And both of them testify to the same thing, and that is that these junior enlisted American service members cared deeply about the moral context of what they’re doing in this fight. They do not want to know themselves as murderers. They think that the bright line between militarily legitimate and necessary killing and murder means everything to them.
And so one encounters it in my experience -- and I’ve worked with a fair number of people in uniform, not as their doctor but as an agitator for preventive psychiatry -- that people in uniform understand this, and that it’s most often civilians and some people in uniform who actually never go into harm’s way who say, “Ah, there are no rules in war. It’s kill or be killed, and you just kill them all as efficiently as you can.” Uh-uh. You’re doing a profound disservice to the people you’re sending into danger to believe that that bright line means nothing. It means everything.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Dr. Shay, for some people it is everything and for others it’s not. And as we’ve seen in the Abu Ghraib accounts especially, that for some people it was aggressively not to be a restraint on their behavior. So it’s a terrible complicated thing. I’m sure there are more of the conscientious ones than not. And on the other hand, the ones who weren’t conscientious aren’t punished or held to account in today’s world. And it’s one of the most distressing things that we’ve learned in this war is that Abu Ghraib goes, in effect, unaccounted for, anything higher than one or two very junior people.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: There is so much to say about these horrors one doesn’t know where to begin. But I want to point out that the first duty of leadership is to pay attention. And it’s really clear that there really wasn’t adult supervision in Abu Ghraib. And what adult supervision there was was distracted by office politics, was distracted by conflicting chains of command and by very clear messages coming from above: “This is what we want you to do.”
Herbert Kelman, a great social psychologist at Harvard, wrote a book called Crimes of Obedience. And, in my view, Abu Ghraib was unmistakably a set of crimes of obedience. And something that I never saw in an American news source which is something prominent -- a full page in Financial Times, starting in the White House and showing with arrows, specific dates, specific actions and decisions going down through every echelon, eventually arriving at those pathetic, in some cases, and horrifying corrupt junior enlisted at the very bottom, that these were … It was a failure of the ethical compass of leadership at every level. And when Rumsfeld said, and I think his boss also said with the same dismissive wiggle of the shoulders, “We’ll catch them or kill them” wiggle, as though there’s no distinction.
If you have to kill somebody in war, you have to. But the point of being a soldier is to accomplish something useful. And if it’s necessary to kill somebody in the process of doing that, that’s unfortunate, but that’s part of it. But the soldier’s job is not just to kill. And you hear people saying that, “Your job is to kill.” And there’s unfortunately some folk culture that persists within some of the ranks that says that you have to desensitize people to the meaning of killing others.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Can I ask Jim Meeks, for a man who went with questions about the war and a real commitment to do your part, as an American, in a time of war, how does a man in the Iraq situation, on the ground, day after day, sort these questions out? You refer to that it’s a kind of chronic -- this probably goes back to Homer, too -- but second-guessing the rank above you. And the captains second-guess the generals and the lieutenants, and the privates second-guess the officers. You’re trained to be analytical from a moral standpoint, from a pragmatic standpoint, “Is it working?” kind of thing. What was the short history of your own reflection on this war? And does a fighting man at your level get kind of a moral, historical, bigger political perspective on it?
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: I hope they do. If they don’t, then it’s pretty difficult to get up every morning for a year away from your family and your friends, an incredible hardship and not get super satisfaction out of what you’re doing. I was thinking the other day, in the history of warfare how do you motivate your troops? Well, Genghis Khan motivated by dividing up the spoils and saying, “These women go to you and these women go to you, and you get this house in the middle.” Or maybe the Soviets motivated their troops by giving them priority status in society in which they could have more access to food stamps. And how do we motivate U.S. soldiers? Well, the G.I. Bill. But that didn’t even pay for my rent when I was at Stanford. We don’t have a lot of perks for being a soldier. But one of the things you get satisfaction out of, I believe, is you’re looking at these faces of Iraqis and you're saying, “I could be doing something that’s worthwhile for these people. I can be protecting them.”
And so, regardless of what my administration is doing and regardless of what I hear from the politicians, I am here. I’ve been sent here. And I can either do my job and make sure these people are protected, or I can fail and have to deal with the fact that I’m watching innocent people die in front of me.
And one of the very poignant things that I’ve heard from the Persian Gulf War in 1991 --which was a very pragmatic war -- it didn’t have all the, at least moral rhetoric that we have now about creating democracy in Iraq -- was when George Bush, Sr. decided not to push the army any further into Baghdad and made a treaty with Saddam Hussein, there were some troops from the 82nd airborne who were kind of left on that demilitarized zone. And over the Bern they were watching as Saddam Hussein [inaudible] and destroying the Shiite insurgency that was happening in the south, literally, massacring men, women and children. And these soldiers of the 82nd airborne -- one reporter was talking about the tears were just streaming down their faces. They were clutching their M-16s knowing they had the combat power to stop this, knowing that they had the ability to prevent this massacre from happening and because of politics not being allowed to do it. And that’s crushing.
I think soldiers … When you realize you have power, you have force, you can stop bad things from happening, you want to employ that. And in Iraq, regardless of whether we should have gone in or we shouldn’t have, or regardless of whether democracy is a viable political institution in Iraq or not, the question is, “Is a suicide bomber going to come in today?” And are you going to have to pick up more body parts in the Shiite marketplace or in the Sunni mosque, or are you going to try to stop it? And then the question kind of crystallizes a little bit more where people are trying to make these analytical, political, academic arguments. That’s great. But at the end of the day, people are going to bleed to death in front of you or they’re not. You’re either going to stand for something you care about, or you’re going to sit in your base and wait for a time to go expire so you can go back home. And I just really believe that trying to convince ourselves that we’re there for a purpose is truly the only way you can get through it. Otherwise, it’s pure hell for no reason.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: I’d like to engage everybody here, especially the veterans. I’d like to ask Jonathan and Jim just one general question, again going back again to The Iliad and The Odyssey perspective, about coming home. We know it took Odysseus a long time and many adventures. And I always think of the finale when he comes home. His wife doesn’t recognize him. His father doesn’t recognize him. His son doesn’t recognize him. And his dog does recognize him, and then the dog dies. The first great dog in literature, Argos, if I’m not mistaken. Define the struggle of men who have come home from Vietnam, and you know a lot of them Dr. Shay, but also of the Iraq veterans coming back to our midst now. What are they going through?
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Well, there is an enormous chasm of understanding. And the fact is that nobody who’s been to war wants to hurt the people they love. And they will often say to civilians, “If you knew what I knew, it would screw you up, too.” So there is a protective aspect there. But the fact is that the primary injury in war … You must shut down those emotions that would compromise your survival in this fight. To be really crude about it, you can’t burst into tears in the middle of a fire fight because your closest friend has just been killed. If you did, you would be in danger of being killed yourself and other people in your unit who are depending on you would be in danger of being killed. So that’s sort of simple, basic adaptation.
The problem is that we don’t know how to turn that switch on and off. And so a classic thing that combat veterans returning to life with their families hear from their partners is, “You’re like a block of ice. What’s wrong with you? This is your mother’s wake and that’s her in the coffin, and you haven’t shed one single tear for her. What’s wrong with you?” Well, this is the primary injury. Now, not everyone is injured in this way. There are some people who can return to their emotions, to the full range of emotions fairly quickly. And I think it’s fair to say that we don’t entirely understand what allows one person to return quickly and the other not. I can’t resist saying, and it’s so simple and so unfancy: sleep, that I think that one of the key differences between someone who can return to the here and now and someone who cannot is that the person who can return has managed to get enough good quality sleep after returning from war. It’s not rocket science. Sorry. I didn’t mean to get into a rant.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Jim Meeks, for yourself and for the veterans coming back from Iraq, what should we know that we aren’t aware enough about what the real problems are?
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: Well first, I think I need a nap … [laughter]
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Don’t we all.
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: … and then come back. I guess I could take a step back and look at it from a two-different-generation perspective. When I told my father that I had joined the Army, he began to tear up. And I think his perspective was, “I worked so hard in my life so that my kids wouldn’t have to go through what I went through. Why would you do this? Why would you take this on yourself?” And I went through basic training. And I was graduating from officer candidate school, and we have a big ball, a big celebration. And my mother had convinced my father to wear one of his medals from Vietnam. And he was sitting next to a fellow candidate of mine, a newly minted officer. We’re all trying to be the best officers we can, learn as much as we can. And this guy, Lieutenant Merlin, noticed my father’s lapel and he said, “Sir, you served in Vietnam?” And my father said, “Yes, I did.” He said, “Would you mind telling me about it?” And my father kind of paused and said, “I’d rather not.” And Merlin without skipping a beat says, “Well, thank you sir for your service.” This was in 2003. And my father said that was the first time anybody ever did that.
And I guess one of the things I would say is I’ve been living in Europe for a little while. And Europe’s an interesting country because their history, for some reason, gets frozen. And they live with the ghosts from their past for a long time. And one of the things about America that is spectacular -- I think this election shows it -- is our ability for renewal, our ability to take a scar and let it heal and come out even more strong in the end. But I think a certain American renewal is happening before that. And the fact that society now understands what soldiers are going through, and that they’re doing it because they believe in their ability to do good, not because they believe in the actual politics of the administration.
The fact that Americans now, like you guys, come out and support people like me on Veterans Day, that is for me is a number one example that America can renew itself. That when my father got off a plane from Vietnam and people threw stones at him and called him a baby killer, and I come back having done one fifth of what my father had accomplished, saving lives in Vietnam, and that people will celebrate it, I think that is something that gives me more hope for this nation than almost anything else. So I actually would just like to thank you and ask that you stay informed, stay informed on the news in Iraq, but also stay informed with the research like Dr. Shay’s and tell your friends. So that when you recognize behavior from Iraqi soldiers, you don’t pretend to understand but you offer compassion which I think is the only thing that we can ask.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Can I just make one comment? The various lessons learned from Vietnam: One lesson, thank God, that it appears everyone has learned regardless of your opinion of the wisdom or justice of the wars that we have recently gone into, regardless of your opinions of the wisdom or justice of the ways those wars were being fought, that you don’t take it out on that junior enlisted man coming back from these wars. He did not get a vote on this, but we as the citizens of this country do have the responsibility that only wars that have the full weight of justice and wisdom behind them are worth sending good, young American kids into this terrible situation.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Let’s open it up, please.
Q: My name is Roy Freed. I live in Canton. And it’s my impression that ordinarily in a war an effort is made to degrade the enemy, to indicate essentially they’re inhuman. Has that been a factor in the Iraq War?
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: It’s a good question. The difficult thing about the Iraq War -- and I think there are some elements of this in Vietnam -- was you’ve got no idea who the enemy is. And so you’re going through a town and your mission is to ensure democracy in that town. And you’re constantly evaluating, “Are they for me? Are they against me? Are they indifferent? And are they the trigger man that’s about to set off an IED?”
And so given that you have this double mission which is very unusual, to protect and help a people that very well could be the same people that are going to kill you, you’re not afforded that luxury to dehumanize the opposing force because you don’t know who the opposing force is. And I think that’s actually a good result of the Iraq War, is that we have to trust that every Iraqi can have the potential to be both a democratic ally or to be an insurgent. I think the number one example of that is the Sunni reawakening in Al-Anbar Province.
When I was in Al-Anbar Province, I was driving up and down that road, Route Michigan, 12 times -- five times a bomb went off, last one hit me. Now, in that exact same area soldiers are walking around without flack vests or Kevlars. It’s not that everyone moved out of Al-Anbar province. It’s that the people who were once insurgents are now trying to cooperate with the Americans. And the fact that the American military could swallow it and say, “Hey, I know I’m across the table from someone who’s shooting at me and probably killed my friend yesterday, but now we’re ready to make a deal, to negotiate.” That to me is America at its best.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Mr. Freed what’s your own impression of degrading the enemy? Especially curious of the situation in Iraq where we were never at war with the people of Iraq. We convinced ourselves that we were at war with their dictatorial leader. And yet, five years later we’re still there in the middle of trouble. But who’s been degraded by whom, in your own observation?
ROY FREED: I think that we haven’t degraded them. I think that’s the significant factor. It’s been Saddam Hussein who’s been the main problem there and his coterie of Sunnis in control. And this distinguishes it greatly from Vietnam and from fighting the Japanese and Germans in previous wars and things like that, and I just wanted to bring that out.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Interesting point. Thank you.
ROY FREED: Thank you.
Q: Since you work in the field of psychiatry and you deal with the field of trauma, here’s something you may not have thought about. It’s the trauma created by psychiatry itself. When people like me -- I’m one of these people, get put in a psychiatric institution against their will, have the will of others imposed on them. You talk about moral injuries. There are the moral injuries done to the people who work in those places by imposing that on the people who they keep there. And you talk about the coping mechanisms that people go through to survive those uninjurable experiences. I’m familiar with that. I consciously cut off part of my emotions in order to deal with the fact that I was put in there in order that they would release me sooner.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Is there a question that Dr. Shay can answer here and now?
Q: Well, it wasn’t necessarily a question. It was a sermon. And I also want to say that there’s something that is different culturally between the Vietnam War and now. In the Vietnam War, the people who were spitting on veterans, it wasn’t just that they were calling the Vietnam War obscene. They called all of war obscene. Now, we’ve shifted back to a position in reaction to that, of making it unacceptable to talk about the morality of war itself rather than just the morality of individual wars. That’s all, okay.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: I would like to respond to both sides of that comment. One is that I deeply abhor coercive psychiatric treatments and have never chosen to function in a hospital setting with locked doors. If you would be interested in reading any of my clinical writings you will see that I give enormous attention to the respect for the free self- determination of the patients, which of course does have the limit that when death or violence is immediately in question, that that is a limit on everyone’s autonomy. There are people who would argue that philosophically, but I’m ready to accept that.
On the morality of war in general, I would like to say that it’s my view that we can end this human practice of war. I’m not talking about ending evil. I’m not talking about ending individual violence. These are probably beyond our capacity, but war is a state activity. And, in fact, we have a pretty decent idea of how to end war. It’s just that, in fact, we’ve never actually pursued it with any consistent seriousness. And that’s a broad and wonderful topic, but it would take us way … And I want to mention that people in uniform, in my experience, do not regard this as some sort of subversive … They don’t love war. In fact, my loathing for this human practice is tiny compared to the loathing that most of the military people that I’ve known who’ve actually been to war have. I have said -- and this is a truthful report, although I acknowledge there may be some self-selection in who chooses to let me get to know them -- but I have never met a warmonger in uniform, but I’ve met plenty of warmongers among civilians who think that it’s “Way cool.”
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Can I take that cue to say that for next year the assigned readings should be William James’ great essay on The Moral Equivalent of War. William James -- in a situation astonishingly like ours, about a hundred years ago, he abhorred the invasion of the Philippines. But he wrote this piece that could have been written yesterday about the moral equivalent of war. “We are children of war. We are here because somebody fought for our genes as opposed to somebody else’s genes. We’ll never get it out,” he said. But he also took a long view, again going back to Homer, that it’s one disgusting blood bath after another. It’s murder. It’s plunder. It’s foolishness. And we’ve come to a point with our weaponry where it literally destroys. It threatens the destruction of the species and the globe. But we’ve got to deal with the fact that we are a sort of tooth and claw species. And it’s in our make-up and yet it leads to an unutterably awful place. So we’ve got to think up ways to honor military values, to recognize the values of courage and even a kind of combat, but we’ve got to do it some other way. We’ve only been working not for a hundred years in his terms, but I think it’s where we’ve got to go.
Q: My name is Tom Fitzgibbon. I live in Newton, Massachusetts. I wanted to talk or ask a question about the evolution, or the devolution, if you will of [inaudible] attitude about war and veterans as heroes or villains. World War II veterans came home to parades and to the G.I. Bill. Vietnam veterans came home and -- and this centers on the question of homecoming -- to being vilified. I happen to be a veteran of the Korean War, the forgotten war. And that is not a misnomer. It was a forgotten war. Korean War veterans came home and were largely ignored. You hung up your uniform, and you went out and looked for a job. That’s pretty much it, even though 54,000 American men died in Korea.
Now we have a situation in Iraq where our veterans are coming home and being severely wounded psychologically. I don’t remember coming home from Korea ever hearing the term post-traumatic stress syndrome. You just took your uniform off and got a job. And I’m sure that we were as wounded as any other population of veterans. But what concerns me, and what I’d like you to comment on, is what I feel is an evolution of numbness towards war. We’re surrounded by a society which immerses itself in violence as entertainment. And I often wonder now if we’re becoming immune to the real trauma of war. Anybody here, my fellow veterans who’ve been in the war zone, knows that you don’t trivialize the experience. It’s something that you put behind you and you get on with your life. But I’m concerned that our country, maybe the world for that matter, is treating war and violence as a source of entertainment.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: That was a terrific question. I wonder Dr. Shay, do you have an answer?
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: I deeply, deeply agree with your horror at the idea that people’s eyes should sparkle. Actually, Thomas Mann, in his great novel about the run up to World War II, Dr. Faustus, describes in this the declaration of war in World War I. This novel spans from the beginning of the century through the end of World War II. And he describes the scenes on all the capitals of Europe when war was declared in World War I. He describes it like an unlicensed holiday, that there was literally dancing in the streets of every European capital when war broke out in World War I.
And I think we must get control over that tendency for our eyes to sparkle, for us to go around feeling like every single person we meet on the street is our brother because war has been declared. There is something -- I don’t know exactly how to describe it -- but this is toxic. This is a crack-cocaine addiction. Now, I know without a trace of defensiveness that I don’t have to defend my respect and my appreciation, and it wouldn’t even be too much to say my reverence for the men that I have worked with, who have been to war for my sake. But I can tell you that I feel revulsion any time I encounter somebody whose eyes sparkle when they see a tank, or a military airplane, or a gigantic war ship, and I’ve been in the presence of these tools of war. And, again, forgive me. I’m getting into a rant. [laughter]
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Well, thank you. Right away, take another question and re-rant.
Q: Thank you. A woman’s perspective, a little bit of context here, and I want to thank you for your service. And please thank your father for his service in Vietnam.
JIM MEEKS: He’s right in the corner there.
Q: Thank you so much. Thank you. I’ve been associated with military for a long time. And this is the first time in five years that I’ve done something other than be at the Vietnam Wall counseling our servicemen who are there. Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Memorial, quite an experience. My first degrees were nursing. My doctorate is in family therapy. And in 2007 I worked with Military OneSource, which is the employee assistance program in counseling. And so part of the context, when I was a new therapist I did a very small study of nurses who had served in Vietnam and found that a high percentage of them also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological injury. Never did a lot about that, but I’m pleased that people are beginning to attend to women in service since the Gulf War and the Iraqi War when they have served on the battlefields as well.
When I was at Military OneSource, I learned that anybody struck by the IEDs or any of the other bombs, they suffer trauma to the brain. That because their brain is rattled by the virtue of being hit, 70-90% of those hit in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer some sort of brain injury, whether that’s short term memory loss or severe injury which leaves them unable to function cognitively, to do mathematical problems, to remember their children’s names. Very, very difficult. There is a Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., actually in Arlington that I’d like to let all of you know about. It honors all women who support the services through all the wars, not just those who served, although there are certainly those of us who served in uniform.
When I came back from Hawaii, I too was spit upon. And as a member of a family who for generations had served in the military, this was just enormously surprising and shocking to me. And I wanted to respond to two things, one each of you said, what are we there for? What is our purpose? And that we shut down our emotions to be able to survive. And I remember doing that. I sat by the bedside of many of our soldiers who were dying. And you shut it down because you’re there to support the troops. And it wasn’t until I saw the movie Coming Home that it occurred to me that I was not just a nurse that happened to work in a military hospital. I really was a part of the war machine. And I had to go through a whole lot of that. So knowing now that Charles Figley, who was a part of the definer of post-traumatic stress disorder, is working on some new therapies, the question is what at this point can those of us in community service, in therapy service, those of us who support families who have people who are serving, what can we do in our community to provide the therapies and the help that our people need at this point? Thank you.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Wow. Well, first of all, knowledge is incredibly important. Sigmund Freud did us all a disservice in claiming that knowledge really didn’t count unless you drank it through this tiny little straw called psychoanalysis. The extent to which families of veterans and veterans themselves benefit from trustworthy knowledge about what to expect, what is sort of characteristic of this situation of being in war and returning from war, it is so valuable.
And I swear that half of what we did for 20 years in that little program in the outpatient clinic was basically giving veterans a chance to discover that they weren’t freaks. “Gee. You mean you had nightmares like that too? I thought I was the only one.” Now, today we think that everybody knows this because it shows up on television sitcoms and so on. But the fact is that, in a strange way, it’s still possible not to know these things unless you’ve heard it from your peers.
So my overwhelming emphasis in mental health is to recognize the critical value of peers and not to be too captivated by the heroic drama of the compassionate and well-trained mental health professional helping the service member or helping the veteran, that to do everything you can do to strengthen a trustworthy community among veterans, where it’s amazing how much work they can do with each other. And I think that’s my major rallying cry is that we should be stagehands. The credentialed mental health professionals in my view -- and I got very fancy credentials -- do not belong in center stage. The people who belong in center stage are the veterans and the service members themselves. And our job is to sweep out the gum wrappers, get the lights on, make sure there are enough chairs. So that’s my view.
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: And bring the beer. [laughter]
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Another question please.
Q: Thanks, first of all, for this excellent conversation. To have juxtaposed Dr. Shay and Captain Meeks gives us a balance because very few people have the perspective of Captain Meeks. I’ve read your book. I serendipitously ran across it in a used book store years ago, and I’ve studied and work in this area. And it’s appropriate that I segue this last lady who spoke because what you just said about communities really -- not only supporting those who come back from war, but also morally dealing with the issues of war and really looking at the moral issue of how the contract of the individual facing war.
And I mean Captain Meeks himself has a unique perspective, having studied it before he ever went into it, which is very different, is really crucial to the issue of how people handle that experience, I think. And I’d like to talk to you later about some other issues there, but just to be brief here. And, oh by the way, I put in a word this morning -- there was a conversation on the old program you used to have, “On Point,” on women in war. This morning Tom -- I forget his last time -- had a very excellent program if people can get it on a podcast, because it’s discussing a lot of the issues that we’re discussing here. And it looks at a unique perspective of women. And they talk about the post traumatic syndrome and also the sexual harassment and the relationship between women in war and war zones and sexual harassment. It’s something relevant but I won’t digress more than I have.
I have two questions. One for you doctor, in your research, and even though you’re sort of downplaying yourself here, how do you find the difference between the Greek concept of war, where literally children were raised with the understanding of honor and duty and sacrifice … I mean, Socrates used to say his mother said, “Go to war with your shield or back on it.” And this, of course, the Spartans have epitomized that. But there was a sense of violence and a very raw sense of war. Whereas today a lot of the problems I think that we’re encountering are this grandiose romanticized notion of war, that many of us, many of our people are leading our society with. And the moral issues are either distorted or, again, romanticized and how that creates that crisis when the person is facing the life or death situation.
The other question I had for you, Captain, is you really are unique. I’ve never met anyone who studied war from a theoretical perspective and then goes to Israel and encounters … And the woman, the story you had about the woman was beautiful … But then how did you decide, I mean, I guess your father’s example must have been a great example, but how did you decide to risk your life and then try to deal with the moral issues? Your answer was, “Okay, regardless of whether you’re for or against the war, I felt I had to deal with the safety of the Iraqis and the safety of my men and my own safety everyday,” and that always is the case when the military wants to inculcate that into people to protect themselves and to try to do the moral thing. But there are a lot of people, and Chris mentioned it, who don’t have that moral compass. And how do you talk to other -- you’re very unique -- how do you talk to other veterans, though, who don’t have that moral sense?
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: Sure. I think why I wanted to go and put ideas to action was in addition, I was studying it and I was very sensitive to it. And I was very sensitive to the fact that I had a keen sense that American liberty was on a loan from prior generations, and that I just felt an obligation to be a part of that tradition in a pretty deep way. And I guess I drank the Kool-Aid and by the gallonful, and I still do. And it was the honor of my life. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. How to convince other people, I think, it’s very difficult because you don’t want to be on a moral high-horse. Because if you sound too idealistic, especially coming from a background like Harvard, you are quickly discredited. People aren’t going to listen to you. So you have to mix a lot of the morality and the idealism with hard nosed pragmatism, strategy and the fact that, “Hey look we get shot at. This is where we’re going to go, and this is what we’re going to do.” So for me it was how do you establish yourself as a combat leader in the way that it’s a job, and you’re either good at it or you’re bad at it? And then how do you tap into people’s -- to use Lincoln’s phrase -- “better angels?” Because I think everyone wants those angels to be tapped. But they only want to be tapped by someone they think is credible and will be willing to sacrifice with them. And I want to put myself in the situations the best I could.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Do you want to answer the man’s question too?
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: I’m having a senior moment. [laughter]
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Listen, there’s never enough time and there is never enough questions, in a way. But I think it would serve everybody’s interests if we went through the questions entirely. And I’ll make a note of them, to protect ourselves from all our senior moments. And then let Dr. Shay and Captain Meeks answer them in as general a way as we can. Could we start here? Let’s get the questions out, and then we’ll have an omnibus answer.
Q: I think I got the message, let’s be fast. My name’s Lynn Black. Thank you very much for just a great panel. I’ll ask a very specific question. I am a physician. I’ve very interested in and work around issues of domestic violence and interpersonal violence. And I think we don’t have a historical picture about what happens with veterans returning, because this is a hidden epidemic, essentially. And I think it is of major concern and it encompasses adaptation that’s valid in the field versus what happens when you get home. But I would just like to hear your comments on interpersonal violence for returning vets and their families and any issues and help we could provide. Thank you.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Excellent. Thank you.
Q: I was surprised to learn in my freshman year of high school that there were actually two gods of war in Greek mythology: Aries, the god of chaos, war, destruction, the rage of war, and the goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom, tactics, that kind of stuff. And after learning this, I had a conversation with my father about the cruelty in war because -- God rest his soul -- he passed away five years ago, and I had many conversations before he died. And I asked him what he thought personally, like Odysseus used his mind to get out of the … to return home after 20 years, constantly having to rethink and rethink. I asked him what he believed would be the cure to war and cruelty in the world and among human beings. And he told me that there wasn’t one, and that there was just a constant ethical vigilance. And that every day in our lives, no matter what topic it was, we had to be constantly aware that it was going to always be a struggle no matter what. So I would just like to know what you think can be done, or should be done, or is being done to help impart an ethical justice upon, not just soldiers, but civilians of the world?
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Wonderful question, thank you.
Q: I’m someone who suffered psychological trauma as a child, so I’ve dealt with that for many years. But my question has to do with how the physical health part of the healthcare system, they don’t seem to have a very good understanding of what psychological trauma is. And the reaction tends to be, “Okay, give them a valium if they’re having that problem.” So I was just wondering, Dr. Shay, what you’ve experienced with this and what steps you think may need to be taken in order to have a better understanding placed in the physical health, not just primary care, but specialists, people who deal with veterans? Because I have a great fear that there’s going to be additional trauma brought on by the medical system, because there’s no understanding of psychological trauma.
Q: Yes, Dr. Shay. My father was a VA social worker after his service in World War II. I served in the 25th Infantry Division, Vietnam, 1966-1967. One of the things that affects me when I first saw the welcoming home of the veterans was the transfer to the news media’s reporting of the very seriously injured veterans in Walter Reed, etc. Since you are now retired from the VA -- and my message is that I’ve heard soldiers’ stories for 65 years and experienced them -- what do you see is the atmosphere toward wounded veterans and how it is or is not changing? Because, as you’ve mentioned, it is a disgrace and part of some of us, that we haven’t done more for the wounded veteran.
Q: Hi. Two quick questions. We know the vulnerability of the adolescent brain and particularly around things like substance abuse, how much more vulnerable the adolescent brain is to more enduring addiction. I’m mindful, Captain Meeks, that you went into the military after graduating from college and were no longer an adolescent. So I’m wondering whether that’s a piece that we need to look at, in terms of the vulnerability of adolescent soldiers. And the other thing -- I don’t know if it’s relevant for today -- but if you would comment on the role of psychologists in torture and how psychologists have basically been coached how to torture.
Q: When I went to Vietnam as a lieutenant out of Berkeley of all places, my roommates went to play golf. When you went, Captain Meeks, to Iraq the President told us to go shopping. It is totally immoral, unethical and insane that we have a society like this. And it goes back to what this gentleman said here. It’s impossible. If we’re going to go to war, everyone in this country, in some way, has to go to war, has to sacrifice. Otherwise we’re nothing but immoral people, in my opinion.
Q: Hi. I just want to say welcome home to all the veterans that are here, and to James in particular, and to my husband as well. My name is Judy Henley, took the afternoon off from my job because I really felt that it was important for me to come to this. I’ve been waiting, I think, for 30 years to hear a talk like this since reading about Robert Jay Lipton and his work, many, many years ago. My knees are shaking as I’m telling you this. I have my sons and my husband, who is a disabled combat veteran from Vietnam. And as a young wife and mother, I used to go to a Vet satellite center in Brighton, not too far from my home. There were women who came from western Massachusetts, coping with suicidal husbands and all manner of disorder. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had no idea the situation that we were in as a family. But this has really been the backdrop of our lives. You know, Marty and I’ve been married almost 35 years now, a couple of wonderful boys. But we’re vastly misunderstood by most of our friends who don’t have veteran experiences.
My father was a World War II vet, two of my brothers were veterans, my husband is a veteran. I feel deep, deep compassion for all veterans and the cost, the price they’ve paid. And what I want to say, I guess, is that thinking back to that time in Brighton when there were centers for women in distress -- the knees keep knocking -- they cancelled that out after a few years. And it seems that these sorts of services are so inaccessible now. I think it’s really a damnation for the future resources of America that the families who also pay this great lifelong collateral are not addressed. And I can’t understand. In my mind, there should be folks sweeping up the gum wrappers at every recruitment center. Next door there ought to be an attendance center for the folks that come back and the wives or the children who suffer and suffer still. I wonder, Dr. Shay, I know you’re retired now. And I’m not quite sure what you do post-retirement, I hope wonderful things. But how were you able to address this to the Pentagon and to the VA about this collateral that wrecks even more people?
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Great question. Judy, thank you. A couple more and we’ll …
Q: I’m a disabled veteran, never left the comfort and safety of the United States. I’m interested in psychological injury. A couple of weeks ago at the BPL I saw a movie called Lioness, about women in sort of combat situations, house to house in Ramadi. I asked a post-movie panel -- one of these women apparently has psychological injury. And I read Dr. Shay’s book. I know recovery comes in groups. Apparently now in these recovery groups -- if I didn’t misunderstand, women are in the recovery groups themselves with men who have psychological injury. I have no questions about whether women should be in combat. That’s beyond me, but women in recovery groups? Good idea? Sensible idea? I have no idea. Thank you.
Q: Hi. My name is Laurie Winters. I’m the daughter and daughter-in-law of World War II vets. I have a tough question for you, maybe a good ending question of the groups that we have here. And that is what are we to do as a people when our leaders are the ones with a sparkle in their eyes for war? [applause] I really want to know if there’s anything to be done. I would like to hear you address it.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: That’s a brilliant question, obviously. Let’s get that one out first. [laughter]
Q: One more.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Sorry. One more.
Q: In thinking about this book that I read by Victor Frank many years ago when he talks about surviving in concentration camp and losing all of his family, people being outside in the middle of winter, scantily clad, working in 20 and 30 degree days, coming home, and at the end of the day being given broth and being emaciated. And I do remember, he said the one thing that has enabled him … the reason that people survived these concentration camps who did, was that there was hope. And that was the single reason that they remained alive.
And I was also thinking about the comment, the gentleman was asking about how wars started and he commented on a violent society. I don’t think it’s just the leaders, I think it’s all of us. I don’t know specifically how wars start, but something that comes to mind is, you know, this attitude of better, good, better, best people saying, “Oh, I have this. And you have that. And this is better. I’m better because I have this and I have that.” I think that this is the kind of violence that puts people against one another because of what they have, what kind of house they live in, what kind of car they drive. I think that when we leave this world, just as well as when we are in it, that none of this matters. The single thing that will matter is what is in our hearts. And I think we all know this. We all know this.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Okay. Thank you. Dr. Shay, speak to this question about when the sparkle in the eye, the prospect of war, when we see it in our leaders, or in our media, or in our political campaigns.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Well, I’m glad, Chris, that you mentioned the media because the overall functioning , or rather lack of functioning, of the American media in the run-up to this war, these wars, is so staggering. The media were just flat on their backs. And so, that’s certainly one. And then there are voices. And there have been voices right from the start. Often, well maybe not often, but certainly more than one -- people with unmistakable military credentials who said, “Now, let’s think this through. And let’s do this in a way that’s not going to make things worse for everybody.” And they were just ridden right over. Congressman Murtha comes to mind. I don’t recall exactly the history with Chuck Hagel, as to whether he was … I don’t remember whether he was a vocal opponent of us going to war in Iraq from the start. But we need to make sure. If I had to summarize democratic process in a one-liner, that one-liner would be safe struggle, with equal emphasis on the words “safe” and “struggle.”
In a democracy, we attempt to struggle safely together over the shape of our future. And what was so striking in the histrionic and hysterical atmosphere post-9/11 was that it became profoundly unsafe for anyone in public life, and even often in private life, to say, “Let’s think for a minute.” It was all, “I got to get me some.” And so we have to attend to the strength and durability of our democratic, political culture. And when that gets out of whack so that either we all agree 100% -- and democracy is out the window when that happens -- or more commonly when it becomes unsafe to disagree, then we need to remind ourselves and really recall that it’s our duty to listen to points of view that we disagree with and try to find the good reasons why this other person might be thinking in that way.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Jim Meeks, would you take your pick among the many important questions we heard about ethical vigilance under the gods of war, the vulnerability of adolescence that you’ve seen, the political and social response to wounded veterans coming home, the relation of domestic violence, a hidden epidemic of domestic violence to war, stress. Put them all together in one swell group, and we’ll close with a sermon.
CAPTAIN JIM MEEKS: No problem. I think most of those are actually in your lane of expertise because I’m not that sophisticated. The one thing that I’m interested in is actually this philosophical question of ethical vigilance and what is it in human nature that causes war. And the one thing that was very shocking for me that I think is difficult to understand in American society is there is this prevalence to think that reason will triumph. If I get upset with somebody, if I can speak calmly, engage, see things from their point of view, we can find some kind of détente and maybe agree to disagree. That’s kind of how civilized society works. I would argue that that is 300-400 years of civilization of working pretty hard to make sure we can walk down the streets without getting worried that we’re going to get into a duel. And one lawyer once described to me the whole reason for the Constitution is to make sure people aren’t shooting each other on the streets. It’s just that simple. You can resolve our conflict in the court room instead of in violence.
There are still parts of the world that live in a pre-legal, pre-civilized, pre-humane society. And I just want to remind us, in this very lovely room today, where we don’t have to worry about hitting the deck because a mortar round might come in and disrupt it. And we don’t have to worry about the Polit Bureau coming in and telling us to shut up because we’re saying something different than what the administration cares about.
But there are still corners of the world that live like this. And there are certain areas in which I looked at people … I looked in the eyes of these Iraqi detainees, these people who had no problem setting an improvised explosive device in a schoolyard to kill children for their cause. And I remember thinking to myself, “If we hadn’t captured this person what could we have done? I don’t know if I could reason. I don’t know what universe he exists in which I can convince him that his ways are wrong because he is so far off of my understanding of good and evil that I can see how sometimes things evolve into violent conflict.”
And in The Boston Globe today there was a report of a bombing in a Shiite marketplace in which people were running to save school children who were trapped in a bus because of a first bomb. And that was when the suicide bomber came in with the second. And I would just say that perhaps in the future -- and God willing it comes -- we all live in societies that are democratic and free, where people debate in words this kind of safe struggle. But just to remind you that there’s still pure viciousness out there. And I do not make that as a claim to justify going to war. I don’t make that as a claim to justify the Iraq War, but just a reminder that the world that we understand is very unique. And thank God for the people who came before us and created this society. But I do not think that the way we live is as common as we would like it to be in the rest of the world.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Captain James Meeks, Dr. Jonathan Shay, thank you all. John Shattuck and the Kennedy Library, thank you.
DR. JONATHAN SHAY: Thank you for coming.
CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Let’s go. We go forward in safe struggle. Thank you.