Now I Know Why the Soldier Cried

After two years of intimate conversations with Iraq War veterans, I knew too much. The soldiers' descriptions of carnage and fear and terror were things the human mind could not "unknow," their imprint unerasable.
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When I was a young journalist I developed a professional crush on New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson. She was never impressed by the waging of war but rather her commitment as a journalist was to the human beings, both soldier and civilian who were ruined by it. In her brilliant book Winners and Losers, she suggested that once people understood the true nature of the Vietnam War they were driven a little mad by the tragedy and waste.

I've been thinking about the late Ms. Emerson a lot, especially since I submitted the manuscript of What Was Asked of Us to my editor in New York. It was about that time that I realized I was beginning to circle the drain. Sadness was creeping in and taking up residence, my children complaining that I had developed a short and cranky fuse. After two years of intimate conversations with Iraq War veterans, I knew too much. The soldiers' descriptions of carnage and fear and terror were things the human mind could not "unknow," their imprint unerasable.

There was some hesitation in acknowledging this--and with good reason. On the publicity tour, a number of interviewers asked how difficult the project had been given that the troops' stories had so thoroughly transported me into the violence of the war. I always replied, "Look, forget about me. If it's this bad for me experiencing it only secondhand, imagine what it's like for the troops." I recalled Maria Kimble, a dedicated combat stress officer in Tall Afar through April of 2006, who told me, "There were mass suicide bombings where thirty people or more were killed. The soldiers had to witness it and clean up the aftermath. Could you imagine being an eighteen year old private and having to go clean up thirty bodies that were just blown apart, picking up an arm here or a leg there and ...then trying to figure out what goes with what body? It's extremely traumatic."

And yet there was more to it, too. Sometimes at night, when Lieutenant Kimble closed her eyes, she would "get a visual" of what the soldiers told her. "It affected me pretty hard," she recalled. I could relate. This sympathetic depressive reaction has become an occupational hazard for "psyche" specialists in Iraq who treat combat troops on the line, and as the war goes on, it becomes a hazard for all of us who think about what's happening in Iraq. I have my own "visuals" that replay themselves: the amputated brown foot in the little pink sandal, thousands of tiny flags marking personal effects and human remains at the scene where an improvised explosive device took out an army unit on patrol, the eyewitness account of a Navy corpsman describing a long night of checkpoint shootings during the push to Baghdad. "Civilian vehicles were not seeing the warning shots," he said. "We had to shoot to kill because we didn't know if they were suicide bombers or not."

After I gave a little talk about the war in Iraq during a recent book-signing event near Buffalo, I noticed a lone fellow across the room who seemed to be in terrible distress. Tears were pouring down his checks and his face was beyond sadness. I approached him to see if I could help and was grabbed and hugged very tightly while the man thanked me or and over. Turned out he was a counselor at the local Veteran's Administration, and was working with Iraq's returning veterans. "Thanks for telling their stories he said," "The country needs to hear them." Then he said he was Vietnam Veteran --- his sorrow made sense.

Gloria Emerson was abrupt on the telephone and incapable of submitting to an interview with a reporter who hadn't done their homework on the war. She was impatient with the country for going on about its' business without fully recognizing what it had asked of a whole generation of young men. But she was always kind to the those who had served: decades after the war she still couldn't refuse a veteran in trouble and was always ready to support their causes. It's been reported that Ms. Emerson "never got over Vietnam." I think I know why. I understand my journalistic hero better now. We've shared the visual.