September 5, 2011
It was past 11 a.m., and Abdullah was finally waking up. The night before had gone late, he and his friends challenging and daring and fleeing from the feared mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police, who for the past five months have been bent on crushing dissent here in Homs. With a few hours of sleep behind him, Abdullah rolled off his mattress and began tapping out details of their exploits on his laptop. The clashes had been fierce and lasted hours, past the muezzin’s call to prayer at dawn. “We won’t bow to anyone but God,” the protesters declared. The mukhabarat replied with tear gas, buckshot and bullets. “Hot” was how Abdullah described it as he typed.
As safe houses go, the room he slept in was lavish. A wide-screen television shared space on the wall with framed Koranic verses, rendered in sloping gold script. The hot wind of the Syrian summer billowed the thick drapes like sails in a storm. There was a mattress for each of the four men, all in their 20s, who slept surrounded by their smartphones and laptops and satellite phones and speakers.
Abdullah, a 26-year-old computer engineer and pious Muslim, is a wanted man. He joined the first protest in Homs in March, and since then he has emerged as one of the dozen or so leaders of the youth resistance. His savvy with technology has made him a target for the police, and this was the fifth place he had slept in in less than a week. He hadn’t been to his family’s home in two months. Around his neck he wore a tiny toy penguin that was actually a thumb drive, which he treated like a talisman, occasionally squeezing it to make sure it was still there. I sat next to him on the mattress and watched as he traded messages with other activists on Skype, then updated a Facebook page that serves as an underground newspaper, then marked a Google Earth map of Homs with the spots of the latest unrest. “If there’s no Internet,” Abdullah said, “there’s no life.”
The other young men in the room began to stir. Abdullah’s friend Iyad (last names of the activists will not be used, in order to protect their identities), brought in tea and emptied ashtrays. They all soon started talking with an excitement that belied the danger to which they have grown accustomed. By day, a measure of normal life unfolds in Homs: stores and government offices are open, and people go about their business. Checkpoints have proliferated, though, and the most active youth try to stay off the streets, worrying that they are easier to identity in the daylight. By night, they gather in scores, sometimes in the hundreds, in open defiance of the regime. In Iyad’s living room, they bragged about spreading nails in the streets to flatten the tires of security-force vehicles and described to me how they load onions into plastic pipes and fire them by igniting hair spray. When security forces surged toward one of their comrades, they shouted to him: “You’ve got 20 guys around you! Blow yourself up!”
“They just fled,” Abdullah said, smiling as he recalled the security forces retreating in fear from the imaginary explosives.
The Syrian uprising began in mid-March in the hardscrabble town of Dara’a, about 160 miles from here, after 15 teenagers were arrested for writing anti government graffiti on school walls. The teens were reportedly beaten, and some of them had their fingernails pulled out. Their mothers were threatened with rape. The revolt spread quickly from Dara’a throughout the country and has become the most violent in the Arab uprising, rivaled only by Libya, but Libya was a civil war. More than 2,200 Syrians have been killed and thousands more arrested in the relentless government crackdown. Protests after Friday prayers have become ritual, and in response to them the military and security forces have assaulted many of Syria’s largest cities — Latakia, Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour and, of course, Dara’a — the violence so pronounced that the United States and European countries have demanded President Bashar al-Assad end his 11-year reign.
Iyad, a young father who named his newborn daughter after Dara’a, showed off a bandaged right knee that was grazed by a bullet. Abdullah pulled up a picture on his computer of one of Homs’s first martyrs, a 19-year-old named Amjad Zantah, who was killed during the government’s attempts to crush the earliest protests in the city. I’d been covering the uprising since its beginning, but the question that still eluded me was how the Syrian youth — the shabab — keep fighting in the face of such withering violence. How can laptops and cellphones and bags of nails and pipes that shoot onions be any match for one of the Arab world’s most fearsome police states? And how can an eclectic array of leftists, liberals, conservatives, nationalists, Islamists (themselves diverse) and the disgruntled and downtrodden prove unified enough to bring it down?
“Tunisia won, Egypt won, and we’re going to win ourselves,” Abdullah said when I asked him about the odds they were up against. “There’s no going back.”
His words reminded me of an anecdote from Islamic history known by all these youths, schooled as they were in a country that celebrates a glorified Arab past as state propaganda. In the eighth century, the Muslim general Tariq bin Ziyad led his troops to Gibraltar, then burned his own army’s ships after the soldiers disembarked. “Oh, my warriors, where will you flee?” he asked them. “Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy.” Abdullah and the others understood the story’s meaning. “We know the Syrian revolution is here,” Iyad said, pointing to his sinewy biceps. “It’s up to us…”
September 5, 2011
Has the cultural atmosphere in America changed in the ten years since the attacks on September 11th 2001? The question might seem irrelevant, even impertinent, given the profound transformations that have taken place in America and the world since that terrible day. But one of the strangest episodes in the days following the attacks was a loud collective sigh of relief at the prospect of liberation from selfishness and shallow irony. It is almost embarrassing to write that now. But there it was, emanating from all corners of the American media, even as the smoke was still rising from the smouldering remains of the twin towers.
“Up until the moment the twin towers fell, America was deep in a cocoon of self-gratification and self-improvement,” reflected Maureen Dowd in the New York Times in October 2001. An op-ed in USA Today wondered, “Are aging boomers overcoming narcissism?” In the Guardian James Wood, a British critic based in America, mused optimistically that the slaughter would forever change the American novel, having discredited both “social realism” and coy, self-conscious irony. He made a wish that the attacks might open “a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative”.
On the surface, such responses seemed only to demonstrate the isolation of the cultural elites from their own society. They recall the whoop of joy that went up from the youthful elites of England on the eve of the first world war. For them the war was, in the words of Robert Graves, “goodbye to all that”—the “that” being the dullness and mediocrity of a civilisation that had, in their jaundiced eyes, grown old and stale. One of the cultural revelations of 9/11 was that young America was in fact, in Gertrude Stein’s memorable phrase, “the oldest young country in the world.” Its civilisation had become stable enough, and unsurprising enough, to provoke some of its best and brightest to hope for good things to come from incredible violence against it.
The elite reaction to 9/11 was an outburst of long-simmering discontent with the most frivolous aspects of American life. Though blinkered in its haste to find a silver lining in the cloud of human ashes hovering over Lower Manhattan, this call for a new sincerity crystallised decades of cultural disaffection. In 1987 Allan Bloom offered a high-minded jeremiad against narcissism and general shallowness with his book “The Closing of the American Mind”, which became a sensational bestseller. Before that, in 1979, was Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism”, which also leaped on to the bestseller list. In 1999 theNew York Times Magazine published an article called “Against Irony”, which celebrated the popularity of a book called “For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today”, written by a bothered 24-year-old, Jedediah Purdy.
So it is hard to attribute any substantial cultural change to 9/11 alone. There may have been a brief shudder of general sincerity at the time, but human behaviour and cultural patterns are difficult to uproot. “Sex and the City”, the locus classicus of American narcissism and shallow irony, began its run in the antediluvian year of 1998 and only grew more popular until its final show aired in 2004. Meanwhile “The Sopranos”, a show of deadly earnestness, had a triumphant run on HBO from 1999 to 2007. Given America’s increasingly polarised politics, the purely ironic “Colbert Report” came as a relief when it debuted in 2005.
Despite those first cultural prognoses, American culture is as indeterminate and unquantifiable now as it was ten years ago. This is hardly a bad thing. The blessing and the curse of human existence is that people can get used to just about anything. We may be as selfish and shallow as we always were, but we have not succumbed to the trauma of that day, mercifully enough. Trauma is a fairly bad catalyst for new forms of behaviour…
September 5, 2011
Now that modern militaries accept that war creates psychological trauma, therapists wonder about its toll on the spirit.
Shelley Corteville felt “rocketed” into healing when she told her story at a veterans’ retreat after 28 years of silence.
Bob Cagle lost his decades-long urge to commit suicide after an encounter at a Buddhist temple.
These veterans and thousands like them grapple with what some call “the war after the war” — the psychological scars of conflict. Working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and private organizations, these men and women are employing treatments both radically new and centuries old. At the center of their journey is a new way of thinking that redefines some traumas as moral injuries.
The psychological toll taken by war is obvious. For the second year in a row, more active-duty troops committed suicide in 2010 (468) than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan (462). A 2008 RAND Corporation study reported that nearly 1 in 5 troops who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression.
Since the American Psychiatric Association added post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to its diagnostic manual in 1980, the diagnosis has most often focused on trauma associated with threats to a soldier’s life. Today, however, therapists such as Jonathan Shay, a retired VA psychiatrist and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; Edward Tick, director of the private group Soldier’s Heart; and Brett Litz, a VA psychologist, argue that this concept is too limited. What sometimes happens in war may more accurately be called a moral injury — a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society. In short, a threat in a solder’s life.
“My colleagues and I suspect that the greatest lasting harm is from moral injury,” says Litz, director of the Mental Health Core of the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiological Research and Information Center. He and six colleagues published an article on the topic in the December 2009 Clinical Psychological Review, in which they define moral injury as a wound that can occur when troops participate in, witness or fall victim to actions that transgress their most deeply held moral beliefs.
While the severity of this kind of wound differs from person to person, moral injury can lead to deep despair.
“They have lost their sense that virtue is even possible,” Shay says. “It corrodes the soul.”
Litz acknowledges that the idea of moral injury is “controversial and provocative.” Neither the military, VA nor the American Psychiatric Association have sanctioned this as a diagnosis, but the concept is gaining traction. In April, psychologists, officers and chaplains led a plenary session on the topic at the Navy and Marine Corps Combat and Operational Stress Control Conference in San Diego.
In Europe, post-traumatic stress disorder researcher Ulrike Schmidt even seeks evidence of the moral injury in brain tissue itself. As she told Miller-McCune.com recently, “They need to know that it’s a recognized disorder. They are not weak, they’re sick, they have a spiritual wound. … And it’s important that they aren’t treated like outsiders, which is how many soldiers were treated in Europe in the ’40s and ’50s.”
Georgetown University ethics professor Nancy Sherman heard stories of moral trauma when she interviewed veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and World War II for her 2010 book, The Untold War. “It might be where you felt you should have been able to do more for your buddies, but you couldn’t, or because you simply survived,” she says.
“Regret,” she writes, “doesn’t begin to capture what the soldiers I talked with feel. It doesn’t capture the despair or depth of the feeling — the awful weight of self-indictment and the need to make moral repair in order to be allowed back into the community in which he feels he has somehow jeopardized his standing.”
Vietnam veterans John Fisher and Bob Cagle know that weight. Fisher served as a forward artillery observer and assistant gunner in 1968 and 1969. He vividly remembers the first time he shot an enemy soldier.
“I realized that I had taken his soul away from him,” Fisher says. “In the process, my soul was gone.”
Cagle served as an infantryman from 1965 to 1966. When he first killed a soldier in combat, he immediately thought of the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”
“Well, I guess I screwed that up,” Cagle told himself at the time. “God will never forgive me.”
When Cagle saw the body and realized that his enemy looked no older than 14, his guilt deepened. “He would have shot me in a heartbeat, I had no doubt, but I just couldn’t get over that.”
Fisher and Cagle came home to thoughts of suicide. “I literally couldn’t condone any of the things I had to participate in to save my own life,” Fisher says.
Although both eventually found successful careers (Fisher as a chiropractor and Cagle as a respiratory therapist), they struggled, enduring failed marriages, flashbacks and fits of anger and anxiety.
Moral injury does not always occur on a battlefield. In more than 20 years of treating veterans, MacArthur Fellow Shay concluded that these wounds most often occur when leaders betray soldiers in high-stakes situations, whether or not that occurs in combat.
Shelley Corteville, for example, was an Army air traffic controller from 1978 to 1980 in South Korea, where she was raped five times by a fellow soldier. The fault, she thought, was her own. After all, other soldiers and officers constantly referred to women as “whores or tramps” who were always “asking for it.” She did not believe these same officers would punish a rapist, so she kept silent, working side-by-side with the man every day.
After leaving the Army, Corteville drank heavily, married and divorced repeatedly. She moved 58 times and worked at 29 different jobs…
September 5, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.