War zone journalist and humanitarian aid volunteer Ann Jones is the author of eight books on war trauma, violence against women, and Afghanistan. She recently spoke with Salon about her latest, the newly released “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars – The Untold Story” (a Dispatch Books project for Haymarket Books). “The sort of post-deployment crime waves are pretty, pretty frightening,” she said. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
And what’s the nature of the connection you’re suggesting between violence in war and violence at home?
Well, this is the connection that’s been pretty well established in past wars, but it seems to be even more extreme in these wars. And I think probably part of that has to do with the extent to which these people are doped up with drugs that aren’t doing them any good. But there are several different kinds of connections that have been pretty well established by researchers, psychiatrists and so on working with veterans. One is this inability to fit into their own families again, and the kind of hyper-explosiveness that comes out in family violence. And so there is a great deal of wife-beating, sexual assault of wives and girlfriends, and the murder of wives and girlfriends. Because often both partners in a relationship are in the military, often male soldiers are murdering their partners who are also soldiers. This has something to do with the whole macho ethos of the military, because rates of domestic violence have always been much higher in the military population than among civilians.
And a great deal of effort has gone into trying to get the military to institute effective programs to deal with domestic violence, but they’ve never really done it. They’ve made gestures and they’ve instituted some reforms which civilian experts in domestic violence recommended against. And so the results have not been good.
And then the other typical behavior that results in trouble is that guys who’ve been in combat especially tend to come back and engage in very risky behavior. And I don’t know if this is an adrenaline hangover or what. A great number of returning soldiers are killed in single-car crashes, or even more so in motorcycle accidents at a rate much higher than the civilian population. And then there’s getting into bar fights and attacking other guys and so on, and it goes on and on. And then there is quite a lot of this soldiers murdering other soldiers. And I think there are a lot of them who come back and haven’t gotten out of combat mode, and they just kind of carry on. In fact this is especially associated with certain bases … So the Pentagon is well aware of this but they don’t seem to know what to do about it.
And what is it that you think should be done?
I think they shouldn’t send people to war. Particularly, they shouldn’t send people to absolutely pointless wars. But this is the result of having a so-called “all volunteer army” or a standing army such as those wonderful Founding Fathers warned us against, because as long as you have the military drawn from this very small percentage of the population or generally from the poorest 1 percent of the population, that leaves – and this is something that the Founding Fathers predicted — that leaves the executive branch free to use that military as they please, and they don’t get the pushback that they used to get when we had conscription or a draft
… Much of our military is drawn from a portion of the population that just isn’t able to push back effectively on its own. And the rest of the population seems perfectly happy to just look the other way and let these kids fight the wars for them.
Do you believe then that the U.S. should reinstitute the draft?
You know, I don’t want to go into these issues … My book is simply a witness to the damage that’s done to soldiers that serve in the U.S. military, and the cost of that to the soldiers themselves, to their families, to the communities they come from, and to all the rest of us, because we are all paying the costs of this in many ways. We’re paying for the care of all these damaged people … ...
Were there things [given] your father’s experience, or your time in Afghanistan, your past reporting, that surprised you in your reporting for this book, or that reinforced what you had seen before?
Most of my work before this book has been concerned with women and violence against women, and in fact I had worked in Afghanistan since 2002 with women and children as an aid worker in addition to being a reporter. And I didn’t embed with American troops until 2010, and that was to do a story on American women soldiers. But it was when I was on forward bases doing that story that I saw what was happening to the male soldiers, and then began to look at that.
But what I knew from lifelong experience of writing about women who had been trapped in situations where they were subjected to repeated life-threatening violence — I saw the same thing happening to the soldiers … Researchers who have worked with battered women and rape victims have previously identified there’s a remarkable resemblance between the after-effects, the traumatic effects and symptoms that are suffered by soldiers and battered women — particularly those who have also been subjected to repeated rape … Of course the military doesn’t like to talk about that at all because it is still such a macho organization, and to think that they’re suffering from some of the same effects of trauma that women have been suffering for many, many centuries probably it just doesn’t go well with the military bosses.
Given that you’ve written about the question of embedding journalists, how does your experience with war reporting and conflict reporting inform the way you look at some of the debates that go on about questions of what it means for journalists to be objective, what it means for journalists to be independent, what the role of journalists in relation to conflict should be?
I think they should be absolutely independent. I’ve embedded twice, only to get stories that I absolutely could not have seen otherwise …
I just got an email from a veteran … He said his job had been to escort lots of journalists who came to a forward base for one or two days, never left the base, and that was years ago, and they’re still writing articles about all the things they saw in Afghanistan …
I lived among Afghan civilians for so long, so when I went onto military bases I saw how remote they were from any understanding of who Afghans are and how they live. And it was almost like going to a different planet. And you’d hear about their strategies and their plans and what they were doing and their theories about Afghans — and of course a lot of their theories about Afghanistan came from the war in Iraq, which was an entirely different war. So it was really remarkable to me how little there was to be learned from being with the military except the exposure of how little they knew about where they were and who they were dealing with … The military understands the civilians much less well than the civilians understand the military.
On this question of “theories of Afghans”: Sometimes you’ll hear people arguing for getting out of Afghanistan making arguments that seem to rest on a broad-stroke criticism of people in Afghanistan or culture in Afghanistan. I recently interviewed a former congressman who said this is a country where “85 per cent [of the population] deal in rumor.” How do you react when people make those kinds of arguments about some kind of essential nature of Afghanistan?
I’m sorry, but you could say that about any country that depends primarily on word of mouth to transmit news, and that’s what happens in the countryside anywhere. But to believe that because people are not literate, they’re not smart is a big mistake. So that kind of sweeping statement – no, I think you can dismiss that …
I have sat in think tanks in Washington and listened to their strategies for their plans for the next 10 years in Afghanistan and these were plans that were drawn up by very young people who had never been there and never met an Afghan. This is part of the craziness of American arrogance.
I think we also forget the shadow army. Those people who are the mercenary contractors in these wars, who greatly outnumber the uniformed military, are completely unsung, never spoken about by the Pentagon, completely ignored. They don’t march in the Veterans Day parades and all of that. But we could not wage wars, and we certainly could not stage these decades-long occupations of other countries, without that huge number of mercenary contractors to do most of the work that used to be done by the uniformed military itself.
But we haven’t gotten this corrupt yet: The government cannot say to the American populace, “OK, we’re just going to send the mercenaries to do this now.” Because to finagle the American populace into supporting these wars, we have to have something going on that looks like war as we think we know it. War as the way Hollywood enacts it. War as we believe it has always happened and continues to happen. So we have to send these uniformed soldiers out there to fight and get killed and blown up and so on to make it look good, so that the American public really thinks that there is some terrible dangerous thing going on, threatening our country. When actually, to my way of thinking, the most dangerous thing threatening our country is the way this militarized culture and these wars successfully transfer enormous amounts of money from the public treasury to the pockets of the already-rich. So these wars are responsible, really, for so much of what people are suffering from in America right now …
If we stop sentimentalizing these combat soldiers and look at what’s really going on with this transfer of wealth and the enormous profits of the war profiteers, we would rise up and have a very different attitude toward these wars.