Murray Polner: Review of Marguerite Guzman Bouvard's "The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan" (Prometheus, 2012)

Murray Polner is an HNN book review editor and most recently editor, with Thomas Woods Jr., of We Who Dared Say No to War (Basic Books).

Five days before Veterans Day 2012 the New York Times, to its credit, published “Names of the Dead,” a sidebar listing seven more service members killed in Afghanistan. It is a regular death list begun during our dirty war in Iraq, a war for which no American policymaker has ever been held accountable, and which now includes the forever war in Afghanistan. A lot of Americans barely give these mini-obituaries any notice, least of all most of the candidates who ran for presidential or congressional seats. As Juliette Kayyam, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government lecturer and Boston Globe columnist commented, the political campaign that has just mercifully ended “left service members by the wayside.” Even those ubiquitous pro-war “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers have disappeared.

Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, author of The Path Through Grief, former head of the Political Science Department at Regis College and now resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, has written a sad and compassionate book in The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan about the plight of many veterans of our two undeclared wars, echoing in part what others have previously covered -- most recently Aaron Glantz’s The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans and Paula Caplan’s When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home. These books deal with the enormous problems our two wars have bequeathed to us: 2.5 million new veterans, about 5,000 dead, 50,000 wounded, and perhaps more if one considers adding harrowing brain injuries and other extremely serious lifetime injuries.

The Invisible Wounds of War dutifully notes the exceptionally high number of suicides among the volunteer forces during and following service. Given the absence of Vietnam-like mass protests, she mentions someone urging the reinstatement of the draft, a pet panacea among some liberals who believe without a shred of evidence that a draft would have prevented Bush and Cheney and their cadre of bellicose neoconservatives from invading Iraq, though the draft never prevented Korea and Vietnam.

Her best chapters deal with women. “Women who suffer from PTSD are even more invisible than male veterans who struggle with the disorder. Our society doesn’t realize how many women are serving in the military and that they may be wives and mothers. They are expected to resume their roles and to act as if nothing happened when they were overseas.”

Families, she wisely points out, suffer immense pain, citing the largely under-reported suicides and near-suicides of spouses. She quotes a New England Journal of Medicine study which “established a link between the incidents of army wives attempting suicide and the number of deployments by their spouses.” There are also many family members who will spend the remainder of their lives caring for badly maimed husbands, sons and daughters. Bouvard cites one parental couple suffering from “permanent grieving” because of caring for and worrying about their PTSD and brain-damaged son. There are also the shattered marriages and new widows and widowers, their children possibly scarred for life.

Many veterans perhaps ill with PTSD have become homeless, jobless, and even addicted to crime, leading some outsiders to think of them as mental cases. I think of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor who, alluding to his nightmarish experiences in his magisterial book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

The price exacted from our servicemen and women—not to mention the deaths and misery of Iraq and Afghan civilians—is incalculable. In time, these veterans will be forgotten. Other than their immediate families who really remembers Korea’s 33,000 dead and Vietnam’s 58,000 dead? And all those shell-shocked and severely wounded veterans of our earlier wars and interventions?

For all its undeniable virtues, The Invisible Wounds of War has a serious flaw, as expressed in Bouvard’s opening sentence. “This book does not take a position for or against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But why not? How else make a case against recurrent wars and the damage it inflicts on our troops and their families? Far too many of our wars have been based on lies and the mythology of American exceptionalism. Failing to even ask why we were dragged into pointless wars and then writing a poignant book about its victims leave us asking “why?” A recent gem found in the New York Times is a good start. Referring to the many veterans awaiting benefits while their claims pile up in the VA’s inundated offices, a former VA official now with the VFW was quoted as saying, “War is expensive. If we understood that, we would be more careful about sending people to combat.”

I once commuted to work with a neighbor who had been an Air Force captain in Vietnam. One of his assignments when he returned to the States was to visit homes to tell people their family members had been killed or grievously wounded. Since I had served in the army but never experienced combat, I asked him to elaborate. No, he answered, I’m sorry I even mentioned it, adding, however, that he’d never allow his two sons to join the military. The pain of delivering news of death was too much for him. If that sentiment ever catches on who, then, will want to fight our inevitable future wars?

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