Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Does the military own the franchise on horror? (graphic photo)

I found this post tucked away in draft mode, all but forgotten, and I think it deserves to see the light of day. At first blush it may puzzle some regular readers, who deem it (at least) tonally incompatible with my recent rants on race, thugs and the like. I believe that readers who draw that inference are also drawing unwarranted inferences about my outlook in general, and probably need to give my posts a closer read. Sorry.

With that said, some weeks back there was a story in the paper about a veteran who returned from Afghanistan haunted by horrific memories and blighted by PTSD; after an escalating series of mishaps, he ended up killing his fiance's mother and himself. The tone of the story is understanding, warm, sympathetic: "look what this poor guy went through." And I don't dispute that. Nothing said here is intended to minimize what our fine young men and women faced (and continue to) in Iraq and Afghanistan; if you want to get a bit better idea of the horror, as well as the sheer pointlessness of it all, I suggest you pick up a copy of Jake Tapper's brilliant and mesmerizing book, The Outpost.

Brains get blown out here at home too...as in this drive-by gang hit.
But, it's just... Why are we so understanding of some people who do terrible things and not of others? When a boy is raised in an awful neighborhood by neglectful or abusive parents, grows up confused and full of rage, then commits some heinous act, we are seldom filled with sympathy. The tone of the media coverage certainly isn't. The sympathy, the only sympathy, is for the victim, while the perp is usually made out to be a monster. (Is not a gangland ghetto much like a war zone?) In today's paper, for example, there is this story, which is one of the mildest I've heard, but basically serves our purposes. There's a story like it almost daily. As noted, in most cases the central character endured far worse than this young man.

Some might sayas judges will at sentencingthat there are countless kids who grow up in terrible circumstances yet don't go on to commit atrocities, thereby implying that this kid, too, should've been able to "suck it up" and turn his life around. By the same token, there are many vets who come back from war having seen the same ugliness as the guy who committed the murder-suicide above, and they don't become killers. They become teachers, bankers, engineers, writers. They marry, have families and live happily ever after, or at least no less happily than any of the rest of us. So why the special compassion shown in our coverage of the minority of GIs who collapse into tragedy?

Can we not agree that many of us are subjected to horrible things, and that we are affected in many different ways, to many different degrees? We are also very different people going in, such that some of us are better equipped than other to handle adversity (and even outright horror). Some of us are stronger, have more of a moral core or internal clock, to begin with.

How about sympathy for all? Or sympathy for none. The selective application of sympathy makes no sense to me.

22 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, when you live your entire life with a specific set of values, and are then placed i an environment where those very values are quite likely to result in your being wounded or killed, something snaps inside. When you see your friends blown up, and find yourself killing people that likely pose no threat to you, simply because they *look* like someone who might pose a threat, those values you grew up with turn into the source of nightmares that don't always go away when you awaken.

It's the difference between pulling yourself up by your bootstraps after a tough childhood and discovering that a part of you has learned to *enjoy* something that you've known to be evil your entire life. It's tough when you hope for goodness, but see yourself as evil.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you for that, Ron. I know you're not just speaking theoretically. I did not mean to sound disrespectful. I just wonder sometimes how we so easily categorize people and decide for whom we root.

RevRon's Rants said...

We routinely categorize people whose lives are far removed from our own experiential base. Leftovers from the old tribal consciousness, I suppose. Assume that there is nothing about "them" to which you can relate, and it makes it much more acceptable to hate them.

No disrespect felt, my friend.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever served in a forward area Steve? Have you served at all? I'm guessing not, it's so easy to sit in your cozy ivory tower and compare those of us who did serve to gang bangers.

Steve Salerno said...

Damn, Anon, a person has to work hard to miss the point that badly. And I just finished asking some of you to read a bit more closely.

Btw, did you lift that dialog straight out of A Few Good Men?

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon - I *did* serve, and in my opinion, someone who raises an honest question - even a controversial one - deserves a lot more respect than someone who takes cheap shots at a target they don't know, from good cover. Try reading to *understand*, rather than just to find a way to attack.

whistle said...

Anon, Have you ever been raised in slums with absent parental figures and no money or education opportunities? Guessing not, it's so easy to sit in your cozy VA tower and compare those of us with curious minds to judgmental pricks.

Ugh.

Great post, Steve, and thanks for the interesting perspective, Ron.

I find this post to be a nice complement to the RACEBlog stuff. Sorta brings the discussion back full circle. Looking forward to additional comments on this one.

Steve Salerno said...

Whistle, I appreciate your appreciation of the full-circle quality in play here. It's good to have readers who don't immediately look to pigeonhole my ideas while I'm still in mid-sentence.

That's where we are in our so-called political rhetoric nowadays, alas: We listen to the other guy (or gal) just long enough to flash on which talking point we need to run to in refuting him/her. All noise signifying nothing.

Anonymous said...

I see you posted this two days ago. Takes on a more newsy relevance now doesn't it? Seems in poor taste.

whistle said...

anon @3:27: I don't see how the tragic Ft Hood shooting has any bearing on the point or the taste of the original post.

The OP discussed the idea that maybe we should extend some of the compassion given to one group to another group. Now we see an event where (pending further details) some might come out and say that compassion should be given to that first group. How does that make the point of extending that compassion to another group in poor taste?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 3:27, Whistle said almost exactly what I was going to say, and almost exactly how I would've said it. And since you say yourself that I posted it days ago, I'm not understanding what you would have me do...take the post down because of Ft. Hood?

Anonymous said...

I think it’s possible that in the case of the boy growing up without the benefits of a stable environment that’s chock full of options and opportunities that all lead toward a positive and productive life, people may have little sympathy when that boy makes a tragically bad choice because they wonder – truly, not facetiously – how else could we expect this scenario to unfold? I’ve read my share of stories like the one you linked and thought: Not surprising. Everything that could be stacked against him was and I’m not stunned that things went the way they did. It’s only when someone overcomes their horrible, challenging circumstances that we all cheer and remark about how they made such an admirable and positive life out of the pile of s—t they started with.
In the case of the military personnel, maybe our lens is different. While some enlisted men and women are no doubt escaping a life that offers them few choices, and trying to create a positive future by way of their training and service, I would think that many join from a relatively mainstream background, not the awful neighborhood you described. (My opinion; people may know more about the background of military personnel than I.) So when one of them “snaps,” even as a result of PTSD, it feels all the more startling and yes, maybe more sympathetic, to those of us witnessing the mayhem. In other words: “How could this have happened?” as opposed to “Of course this was expected!”
In other words: what Ron said. Maybe we selectively offer our sympathy because we can see ourselves in their place, or we can’t.

Jenny said...

I'm reminded of a psychiatrist I met once. His specialty is working with military veterans, specifically homeless ones. In almost every case, he determined that PTSD was a factor long before their military service. In other words, trauma from their childhoods had left them impaired even before enlisting in the armed forces.

Steve Salerno said...

That is a really interesting and germane point, Jenny, and I thank you for stopping by to make it. If people take my advice and read Tapper's The Outpost, they will see clearly how many of the young enlisted men who ended up in Iraq and Afghanistan already had unmistakable adjustment and other problems long before entering the military; indeed, that was often why they enlisted--hoping for an escape, a clarifying change of scenery or even, in some cases, an outlet for the more troublesome qualities they discerned in themselves. Tapper also seems to describe a general risk-taking thread that connects so many young enlisted men.

One is reminded of the old observation regarding all the fatal accidents in which Corvettes are involved. Is it the car? Or, long before that, is it the type of person who ends up buying a Corvette, and the way he's inclined to drive it? Same thing with the Army. Putting it in crass terms, does the Army change people into psychos? Or are psychos simply more likely to join the military in the first place?

Steve Salerno said...

"Psychos" is an unfortunate choice of words, and I certainly do not intend for it to apply to the mass of enlisted men. As noted in the post itself, we're talking about a phenomenon that afflicts a minority of those who leave the military in any case. But the word is jarring and makes the point in bold relief, and one does have to think it applies to some in the military the same way the Corvette example applies.

Jenny said...

I have the transcript of my entire interview with Dr. Joel Feiner in a file on my computer and I remembered that part of our conversation. I mentioned him in a blog post in 2006, Heroism. I shared that with you awhile back.

As you indicate, the terms we use can indeed be unfortunate. While the word "psycho" is not an accurate way of describing the result of changes a typical person goes through in the Army, as we've seen it does apply to at least a few people.

Here's another enlightening perspective, from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He describes the perverse self-talk that must occur when people are ordered to kill other people in the line of duty. Psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman On The Act Of Killing

RevRon's Rants said...

I wouldn't disagree with the assertion that most homeless veterans who suffer from PTSD had histories of abuse and resulting behavioral abnormalities, but I think it relevant to note that the sampling was a bit narrow. In my own experience working with military patients suffering from what was then termed Combat Neurosis, there was little indication that a significant percentage had endured such hardships prior to their combat experiences in Vietnam. To be sure, there were some, such as one patient who suffered many beatings at the hands of his alcoholic, abusive father, but his was not the norm.

Furthermore, those patients who suffered from severe psychoses had virtually no discernible pattern in their histories - not surprising, since schizophrenia is an organic disorder, rather than a reactive one.

Anonymous said...

I still dont get the comparison between servicemen and criminals. In one case you have fine young men/women who went off to serve their country and came back wounded by the experience. In the criminals you have people who had no positive motivations and in most cases probably just were missing a key component of conscience or some other flaw. They have evil inside them and were always out for themselves. It's a false equivalence.

Steve Salerno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Salerno said...

Most recent Anon, after Anon 210, I was trying to repost your comment from memory after accidentally deleting it, but then I screwed that up too. Sorry, could you kindly resubmit? Thank you.

roger o'keefe said...

I agree with Anon 2:10. You can't lump America's damaged GIs together with street thugs, as you yourself called them a few posts ago. It cheapens the whole idea of military service and heroism. A 12 year old kid who's already packing heat and mugging people or blowing away rival gang members is nothing like a GI who goes into service with all good intentions, Steve.

Anonymous said...

This is the anon you say you lost my comment. I was responding to the comment from anon 2:10 and all his talk about how "they" have evil inside them and "they" are minus a conscience. It sounds pretty obvious which "they" he's referring to. To me this whole idea of being "born bad" indicates the kind of quiet bigotry that still exists in the way too many people see minorities. I don't care who you are if you live in the circumstances so many of our career criminals are raised in with poverty and without parental guidance and seeing other crime all around you how can you avoid falling into the same rut? To me it's almost miraculous when somebody rises above it!