“The wandering scribe of war crimes” is how TomDispatch regular Ann Jones once described me. Indeed, for more than a decade, across three continents, I’ve been intermittently interviewing witnesses and victims, perpetrators and survivors of almost unspeakable atrocities. I can’t count the number of massacre survivors and rape victims and tortured women and mutilated men I’ve spoken with, sometimes decades — but sometimes just days — after they were brutalized. In almost every case, what occurred in only a matter of minutes irreparably altered their lives.
I’ve also spent countless hours talking with another class of atrocity survivors: witnesses who did little else but watch and perpetrators who beat, tortured, or killed innocents in the service of one government or another. In almost every case, what occurred in just a matter of minutes irreparably altered their lives, too.
Sometimes, it seemed as if the survivors coped with the trauma far better than the perpetrators. I remember an American veteran of the Vietnam War I once interviewed. He had a million stories, all of them punctuated with a big, bold laugh. Jovial is the word I often use to describe him. We talked for hours, but I finally got down to business and he quickly grew quiet. Then, jovial he was not. I asked him about a massacre I had good reason to believe he had seen, maybe even taken part in. He told me he couldn’t recall it, but that he didn’t doubt it happened. (It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a response.) While he had endless war stories, when it came to the darkest corner of the conflict, he said, his memories had been reduced to one episode.
As was standard operating procedure, his unit burned villages as a matter of course. In one of these “villes,” a woman ran up to him, bitter and enraged, no doubt complaining that her home and all her possessions were going up in flames. After shoving her away several times, he drew up the butt of his rifle and slammed it straight into the center of her face. It was an explosion of blood, he told me, followed by shrieks and sobs. Mr. Jovial walked away laughing.
That’s it, all he could remember, he assured me. He recalled it because he couldn’t forget it. At the time, the act was meaningless to him. Decades later, he relived it every day — her shattered nose, the blood, the screams. He asked himself over and over again: How could I have done that? How could I have walked away laughing? I suggested that he was incredibly young and poorly trained and scared and immersed in a culture of violence, but none of these answers satisfied him. It was clear enough that he was never going to solve that riddle, just as he was never going to forget that woman and what he did to her.
Today, TomDispatch regular and former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren takes on these same issues, plumbing the depths of “moral injury” — what, that is, can happen to soldiers when the values they’re taught as civilians are shattered on the shoals of war. Van Buren learned something of this firsthand in Iraq and grapples with it in his new World War II novel, Hooper’s War. “Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time,” says Kirkus Reviews of this “complex” alternate history. Given America’s penchant for ceaseless conflict, his book, like his piece today, raises questions that remain tragically relevant. Ever relevant, you might say.