Many Americans are too ready to make light of the wounds, mental and physical, that our surviving military men and women have suffered during our seemingly endless twenty-first century wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. As with the lifelong and mostly unreported disorders inflicted on minors by sexual abusers, the aftermath of our veterans’ brutal battlefield experiences may make us shy away from their very presence in our midst, let alone from reminders of their plight. David Finkel’s book, Thank You for Your Service (also a movie), was an effort to wake us out of this slumber.
The focus of the book is on the ruinous mental injuries many veterans suffered not while they were in Iraq–the subject of Finkel’s earlier book, The Good Soldiers—but afterwards, when they returned to the largely indifferent county they had served. Finkel’s catalog of their anguish includes their guilt about the fierce hatred they developed for their Iraqi enemies, about the number of those enemies they had killed, about the buddies they lost through no fault of their own, and about the accumulated rage they found themselves inflicting on their wives and children once they got home. The book details their brain injuries, loss of memory, alcohol and drug addictions, depression, social isolation and the suicidal thoughts they sometimes acted on. The war spread itself through these damaged souls from Iraq to our own shores, and the military establishment was finally confronted with so many such soldiers that it spent millions trying to care for them without adequately trained counseling professionals and often without a lot of success. Superficial therapies are of course easier on the Pentagon budget, but they often need to be supplemented by ones sophisticated enough to dig back into the traumatic episodes some veterans experienced before as well as during and after their service.
But Finkel is not without hope. He credits men like Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense who fought against the callousness represented on one military bulletin board that called men with the courage to seek help for themselves “babies in need of a binky.”
This muscular attitude is widespread in American society, at least for now. Citizens in need of treatments for their post traumatic stress, whether suffered earlier or later in life, are frequently considered “weak,” “crybabies,” or “feminine.” If they are women, they’re “complainers” or, in the case of sexually assaulted women, outright destroyers of men’s careers. Or they were “asking for it,” or the sex was “consensual,” or it never happened. If they are men, and their injuries are mental, they are “feminized men” in fight from the tough realities of adult life, or secretly “impotent,” or “homos” in or out of the closet. In any case they are not men, not really.
Such thinking has now spread so far into to our national life that we find ourselves in an endless need for “stronger” leaders and a “tougher” foreign policy that will make the world shudder and bow before us as, according to this masculine myth, it once did. But is this the way men quietly confident of their masculinity actually think and behave? Or does the tiring insistence on our superiority in fact suggest a disowned doubt about it?