Guilty Secrets: American Veterans and the War in Ukraine

As a volunteer mentor for the New York State Veteran Treatment Court, I recently attended a briefing by a former Army psychiatrist on the effect on some veterans of the news and images from the war in Ukraine. Some veterans have been “triggered” by news of the conflict, even relapsing into self-destructive behaviors like drug addiction. According to the psychiatrist, these veterans have been betrayed by the same primitive, self-protective instincts that may have kept them alive in other times. The scenes of war and combat raise levels of vigilance and anxiety from which they seek escape, sometimes through the same coping mechanisms that they’ve used in the past to self-treat their PTS.

While acknowledging the authority and validity of the doctor’s explanation, I think another cause may be at work, a human and moral cause as opposed to a primitive, reflexive one. As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom-1 (OIF1), I’ve also been reminded of my part in the invasion of Iraq by the images of Russians invading Ukraine. One invasion looks very like another. There are the columns of vehicles, the fleeing civilians, the fires and destruction, the dead. Not only are these reminders of war experience, but they may also inspire a moment of guilty identification with those Russian soldiers: under orders, far from home, and operating in the midst of an often- hostile population. These are very uncomfortable associations, and in a vulnerable person they could very well help to trigger harmful behavior. For all of us who have some experience of war, they may conjure feeling of a kind of guilty complicity.  

These complex, guilty feelings arise, I would argue, out of a paradox that has always lain close to the heart of military service. In my book Soldiers and Civilization (Naval Institute Press, 2017), I argued that the soldier was both the most and least civilized of persons. Least civilized because her defining activity, war, is destructive of civilized works and attitudes. Most civilized because the military person protects as well as destroys, is subject to a strict code of behavior and to command, is always accountable for her actions, and serves in a condition of unlimited liability. Properly understood and experienced, the soldier’s willingness to sacrifice on behalf of a greater good is the mark of a highly civilized person.

All wars are terribly destructive, even those that are just or necessary. Still, there is an important difference between invading a foreign country to impose a dictatorship and invading a country to remove one. Viewed in terms of human rights and regional stability, the aims of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were at least honorable. The invasion of Ukraine, on the other hand, while justified by the Russian government with trumped-up rationalizations, is a war of conquest that nakedly aims at subjugating a people and depriving them of their rights. The conduct of American and Russian soldiers has also been quite distinguishable. All wars also contain their share of error, incompetence, even criminality, as all are to a degree innately wicked. Our recent wars in the middle east have not been without stain, but the great majority of American service members kept their honor. Violations of the law of armed conflict were prosecuted, not rewarded, although the military’s efforts to police its own ranks were sometimes (incredibly) undercut by a blundering civilian authority. In contrast, the conduct of Russian soldiers has been routinely brutal, reflecting what seems to be a policy of terror along with a military culture characterized by undisciplined violence. 

In Soldiers and Civilization, paraphrasing a seventeenth-century writer, I wondered whether the 21st century might be another “century of the soldier.” It seems that military conflict will be at least a part of the 21st century experience. As the American armed forces prepare for the future, we must not neglect our moral culture, our structures of law and discipline: the practices and attitudes that alone distinguish the soldier from the thug or villain. We now have another example of how war can turn soldiers, most of them ordinary and basically decent, into murderers and marauders. The Russian experience also demonstrates that previously unrevealed deficits in leadership, in planning, in discipline, can be unmasked by conflict. While we remind ourselves that we are not like that, we must also remember that we are not immune or innately better than the people of other countries. It is up to members of the military profession and to our civilian masters to decide whether we will be soldiers of civilization, or yield to the primitive and destructive urges that are in all of us, and waiting to be unleashed by war.      

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