Crazy for Feeling This Way: Catch-22 Redux

Army Doctor: What seems to be the problem, son?
Sgt. Joe Sarian: I feel like I'm going crazy, Doc! I keep having flashbacks, panic attacks, sudden rages. I can't sleep at night, and if I do nod off, I wake up howling from nightmares. I feel confused all the time, can't remember things, get mixed up. I stay out all night, driving the streets, hitting the bars, and when I do go home to my wife and kids, I scream at them and scare them, or just sit in the basement for hours, crying. I've never been like this before, it's sheer hell!
Doctor: Were you in combat?
Sarian: Combat? Hell, yeah! I did 15 months solid. Street patrols and night raids. Pitched battles. Sniper fire. Mortar attacks when we bedded down. IEDs outta nowhere. Collateral damage: kids, women, old men. Car bombs, whole streets strung with guts and brains. Fifteen months, man, wall to wall. Can you do something for me, Doc? Got some pills? Can I see the shrinks?
Doctor: Sorry, son, there's not a thing I can do. You see, you've got what we doctors call a "personality disorder." That's an ingrained, maladaptive way of orienting yourself to the world. It's a pre-existing condition. You were just born that way -- or maybe your mother did it to you. Either way, it's not the Army's fault.
Sarian: But I wasn't this way before I joined the Army, before they sent me to Iraq!
Doctor: You joined the Army?
Sarian: Yes. I needed money for college and the recruiter said --
Doctor: You joined the Army, knowing they might send you off to a war?
Sarian: Yeah, of course I knew, but I mean, it's --
Doctor: Well there you go. You were obviously crazy from the start. Going to Iraq had nothing to do with it.
Sarian: What do you mean? I was serving my country, trying to help my family. The recruiter said --
Doctor: Look, kid. You'd have to be crazy to join the Army and go to war without realizing that it could drive you crazy. So obviously you were crazy to begin with. So we can't treat you. You're on your own.
Sarian: But the night sweats, the rages, the flashbacks....
Doctor: That's all perfectly natural. Anyone who's gone through what you've gone through and didn't have flashbacks and nightmares and God knows what else -- why, they'd have to be crazy!
Sarian: So...so I'm not crazy, then?
Doctor: Of course not! And that's why we can't treat you. Nurse! Next patient, please.

From Judith Schwartz in the Christian Science Monitor:
The high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among soldiers returning from Iraq is one of the many "inconvenient truths" of this war. Inconvenient largely because it is costly: The most effective and humane means of treating PTSD are time-intensive and long-term.

The military, however, has changed the terms and given many thousands of enlisted men and women a new diagnosis: "personality disorder." While the government would be obliged to care for veterans suffering from combat-related trauma, a personality disorder – defined as an ingrained, maladaptive way of orienting oneself to the world – predates a soldier's tour of duty (read: pre-existing condition). This absolves Uncle Sam of any responsibility for the person's mental suffering.

The new diagnostic label sends the message: This suffering is your fault, not a result of the war. On one level, it's hard not to see this as another example of the government falling short on its care for Iraq war veterans. Yet there's another, more insidious, bit of sophistry at work. The implication is that a healthy person would be resistant to the psychological pressures of war. Someone who succumbs to the flashbacks, panic, and anger that haunt many former soldiers must have something inherently wrong with him. It's the psychological side of warrior macho: If you're tough, you can take it. Of course, we know this is not true. Wars forever change the lives of those who fight them and can leave deep scars....

Rather, the new labels allow the government and society at large to do two things: 1) attribute symptoms after serving to individual psycho-pathology; and 2) disown the problem of the former soldiers' suffering. We needn't question the system that sends young people to war – merely the stability of those who bear the emotional brunt of battle.

All joking aside, this is simply despicable. The Bushists launch an illegal war to aggrandize the power and wealth of the rapacious elite they represent -- then they toss aside their soldiers (who didn't know they were signing up for a criminal enterprise) like so many broken toys they don't want to play with anymore. They created a hell, and now they abandon the tormented -- even those they used as tools to stoke the flames.

Not to mention the millions of tormented Iraqis left to writhe and suffer in the Bush inferno's lowest depths -- people almost entirely forgotten in the political "debates" among the champions and enablers of empire in Washington, but, ironically, well-remembered by the serving soldiers who wrote what could be a landmark piece in the New York Times this weekend.

(The article didn't say anything that was not self-evident, but the fact that it was penned by soldiers still in the field could provide some cover for politicians too cowardly to stand up on their own and demand a genuine end to the war; i.e., not its continuation by a "residual force," as called for by the "serious Democratic presidential contenders.)

Of the Iraqis, the seven soldiers write:


At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

It will be interesting to see what happens to these soldiers when they come home. (If they come home; one has already been badly wounded while the article was being written.) When the indelible marks of their sojourn in hell begin to manifest themselves, will they too be discarded as "disordered" personalities and left to rot? After all, you'd have to be crazy not to see the wisdom of the Decider Guy's noble crusade in Iraq, right?
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