Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner. Review of Aaron Glantz's The War Comes Home: Washington's War Against America'sVeterans (University of California Press paperback edition, 2009)

Mar 30, 2010 4:56 pm

Murray Polner. Review of Aaron Glantz's The War Comes Home: Washington's War Against America'sVeterans (University of California Press paperback edition, 2009)

I once commuted to work on the Long Island Railroad with a neighbor. He had been an Air Force captain during the Vietnam War and one of his jobs in the states was telling people that their family member had been killed or grievously wounded. Tell me more, I asked after he unexpectedly told me about his war when I mentioned I had just published a book about Vietnam combat veterans. I’m sorry I told you that, he answered, adding that he’d never allow his two sons to join the military. The pain of delivering the news of death was too much for him.

Another memory: A laconic and pleasant kid who worked around his father and uncle’s neighboring gas station served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam and was mortally wounded. His parents were at his side when he died in a military hospital in Japan. My onetime student, Ronald, was a shy, not especially athletic African American who tried hard to get good grades. His mother cared for my mother in a nursing home and one day she told me about her dream in which Ronald had been killed in Vietnam. I had once been a soldier and told her to ignore it because most soldiers do make it home. He finally did, but in a casket draped with an American flag. Decades later one of his aunts told me that the family never recovered from Ronald’s death.

All the more reason to read and admire Aaron Glantz’s deeply disturbing and justifiably angry “The War Comes Home,” about our newest crop of wounded soldiers and marines who managed to survive Iraq and Afghanistan. It belongs on the list of books about combat and the incredible damage it inflicts on troops and their families.

Remember all those “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers now happily vanished from automobile bumper stickers? (Someone must have made piles of money from this pro-war business). Years later, with nearly 5,000 American troops dead and some 33,000 wounded, some maimed for life, most Americans have sadly learned to adjust passively to our two wars plus quasi-wars in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and who knows where else.

Glantz could not. He spent three years as a war journalist in American-occupied Iraq, and witnessed all the horrors. Back home he found it hard to shake off serious symptoms of PTSD. Writing became his personal form of therapy and he began interviewing veterans of the two wars. What he found was what those who have written about previous combat vets also found, namely that many return from combat and its butchery quite different from what they once were. In fact, as Glantz rightfully points out, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may be more dangerous and daunting than Vietnam. Relatively few troops in Vietnam experienced combat and they had access to women and liquor, one year tours and R&Rs; in Iraq and Afghanistan all these diversions are taboo. Moreover, our two wars, like Vietnam, were never worth fighting and dying for. Even more so, as our latest war vets discover soon enough when they get home too many Americans seem to care little about their wartime experiences and even less about what happens to them once they return.

The centerpiece of the book could very well be the scandal at Walter Reed Hospital, when the Washington Post reported in September 2007 that “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army’s Top Medical Facility.” Salon had reported the identical situation two years earlier but the news was overlooked by our political elite. But once tales of badly wounded and ignored vets began appearing in the Post and other national media, politicians, of course, became predictably outraged. Some overworked medical personnel became scapegoats and were fired. Even so, years earlier, not everyone was convinced of the need for radical changes. Glantz quotes a Bush Pentagon appointee telling the Wall Street Journal that veterans’ medical treatment and disability payments “are hurtful” and “are taking away from the nation’s ability to defend itself,” invoking, naturally, the sacred cow of national defense. There are many tales of individual suffering and frustration in this essential book. Unsurprisingly, Glantz writes, while the Bush administration remained in power, there wasn’t much improvement. at military and VA hospitals. “In short, the Bush Administration did not hire more medical help to care for “a tidal wave of wounded soldiers.”

From the very start, he angrily contends, a government which sent them to war turned their backs on them. “The sorry state of care for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is not an accident. It’s on purpose. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration fought every effort to improve care for wounded and disabled veterans. At the root of that fight was its desire to hide the true costs of the war in order to boost public support.”

It was the same with Agent Orange in Vietnam and the Gulf War Syndrome. Veterans and their families were forced to battle a vast bureaucracy for assistance and recognition while a largely indifferent Congress, White House, and ubiquitous neoconservative think tanks, many of whose members never served a day on active military duty, rarely seem to think of soldiers and veterans as a priority. It is no accident, then, that our two current wars and its after effects have resulted in a startling increase in suicides, broken marriages, and PTSD induced crime and drugs.

Glantz hopes the Obama administration will take a different approach. That remains to be seen. Still, with the expansion of the Afghan adventure there will certainly be many more dead and wounded.

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