After each mass shooting, the NRA and their Congressional lackeys have been making sure the conversation is increasingly focused on the deficiencies of our mental health care system rather than on the pervasive accessibility to guns in the United States. Ironically, this is coming from the same crowd that is selling the notion of a privatized VA and who can’t wait to eviscerate Obamacare — which started to make mental health resources far more available in the general population than they’d been previously.
Both things are true — the country is awash in guns, and there are too many people who don’t have access to help for their mental health issues. But when it comes to veterans, a lot of other things are true as well.
We train young men to to kill and then ask them not to feel bad about it. We teach them that questioning an order is a crime as grave as any crime they might be ordered to commit, and when they are emotionally incapable of completing the moral calculus involved in reconciling those two ideas, we label their psychological reaction a “disorder.”
A close friend who was an army sniper in Iraq told me his first kill was a 16-year-old shepherd who was deemed a Taliban fighter. My friend was not asked to judge whether or not the intelligence about the boy was correct — his commander gave him an order and he obeyed it.
“I had been perfectly trained by then to think of the men to my left and right as the only other human beings whose humanity I was required to consider. If I thought of that kid as anything other than a target, I would have been unable to pull the trigger.”
But he thought about the teenager anyway, of course, just four tours of duty later.
My friend’s long recovery from stepping on an IED was haunted by even worse memories of other deaths of civilians he witnessed and sometimes caused, just by following orders. (Like speeding a convoy through a town and running over a 5-year-old.) I asked him how he learned to live with it.
“I finally realized the only thing worse than feeling guilty was not feeling guilty. I had to learn to be grateful for my capacity to feel guilt at all.”
My friend’s theory was that more PTSD was caused by the effort to deny there was anything to feel bad about than by simply feeling bad about it.
We need to drop the “D” from PTSD. There is nothing “disordered” about feeling overwhelmed by memories of violence and mayhem. Struggling with the stress of the actual trauma caused by war is hard enough; we don’t need to make it worse by viewing it as a mental illness.
If you feel conflicted about having participated in violence, no matter what the reasons you had to do so, there is nothing wrong with you. Unlike the men who sent you to war, it just means you have a conscience.