The Maimed – On Eleven Years of War In Afghanistan

by on October 8, 2012 · 5 comments

in American Empire, History, Military, Peace Movement, Veterans, War and Peace, World News

Illustration by Mr. Fish

By Chris Hedges

Many of us who are here carry within us death. The smell of decayed and bloated corpses. The cries of the wounded. The shrieks of children. The sound of gunfire. The deafening blasts. The fear. The stench of cordite. The humiliation that comes when you surrender to terror and beg for life. The loss of comrades and friends. And then the aftermath. The long alienation. The numbness. The nightmares. The lack of sleep. The inability to connect to all living things, even to those we love the most. The regret. The repugnant lies mouthed around us about honor and heroism and glory. The absurdity. The waste. The futility.

It is only the maimed that finally know war. And we are the maimed. We are the broken and the lame. We ask for forgiveness. We seek redemption. We carry on our backs this awful cross of death, for the essence of war is death, and the weight of it digs into our shoulders and eats away at our souls. We drag it through life, up hills and down hills, along the roads, into the most intimate recesses of our lives. It never leaves us. Those who know us best know that there is something unspeakable and evil many of us harbor within us. This evil is intimate. It is personal. We do not speak its name. It is the evil of things done and things left undone. It is the evil of war.

We do not speak of war. War is captured only in the long, vacant stares, in the silences, in the trembling fingers, in the memories most of us keep buried deep within us, in the tears.

It is impossible to portray war. Narratives, even anti-war narratives, make the irrational rational. They make the incomprehensible comprehensible. They make the illogical logical. They make the despicable beautiful. All words and images, all discussions, all films, all evocations of war, good or bad, are an obscenity. There is nothing to say. There are only the scars and wounds. These we carry within us. These we cannot articulate. The horror. The horror.

War gives to its killers a God-like power to take life. And there are those here tonight that have felt and exercised that power. They turned other human beings into objects. And in that process of killing they became objects, machines, instruments of death, war’s victimizers and war’s victims. And they do not want to be machines again.

We wander through life with the deadness of war within us. There is no escape. There is no peace. We know an awful truth, an existential truth. War exposed the lies of patriotism and collective virtue of the nation that our churches, our schools, our press, our movies, our books, our government told us about ourselves, about who we were. And we see through these illusions. But those who speak this truth are cast out. Ghosts. Strangers in a strange land.

Who are our brothers and sisters? Who is our family? Whom have we become? We have become those whom we once despised and killed. We have become the enemy. Our mother is the mother grieving over her murdered child, and we murdered this child, in a mud-walled village of Afghanistan or a sand-filled cemetery in Fallujah. Our father is the father lying on a pallet in a hut, paralyzed by the blast from an iron fragmentation bomb. Our sister lives in poverty in a refugee camp outside Kabul, widowed, desperately poor, raising her children alone. Our brother, yes, our brother, is in the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgency and al-Qaida. And he has an automatic rifle. And he kills. And he is becoming us. War is always the same plague. It imparts the same deadly virus. It teaches us to deny another’s humanity, worth, being, and to kill and be killed.

There are days we wish we were whole. We wish we could put down this cross. We envy those who, in their innocence, believe in the innate goodness of America and the righteousness of war and celebrate what we know is despicable. And sometimes it makes us wish for death, for the peace of it. But we know too the awful truth, as James Baldwin wrote, that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” And we would rather be maimed and broken and in pain than be a monster, and some of us, once, were monsters.

I cannot heal you. You will never be healed. I cannot take away your wounds, visible and invisible. I cannot promise that it will be better. I cannot impart to you the cheerful and childish optimism that is the curse of America. I can only tell you to stand up, to pick up your cross, to keep moving. I can only tell you that you must always defy the forces that eat away at you, at the nation — this plague of war.

Towering about us are banks and other financial institutions that profit from war. War, for some, is a business. And across this country lies a labyrinth of military industries that produce nothing but instruments of death. And some of us once served these forces. It is death we defy, not our own death, but the vast enterprise of death. The dark, primeval lusts for power and personal wealth, the hypermasculine language of war and patriotism, are used to justify the slaughter of the weak and the innocent and mock justice. … And we will not use these words of war.

We cannot flee from evil. Some of us have tried through drink and drugs and self-destructiveness. Evil is always with us. It is because we know evil, our own evil, that we do not let go, do not surrender. It is because we know evil that we resist. It is because we know violence that we are nonviolent. And we know that it is not about us; war taught us that. It is about the other, lying by the side of the road. It is about reaching down in defiance of creeds and oaths, in defiance of religion and nationality, and lifting our enemy up. All acts of healing and love — and the defiance of war is an affirmation of love — allow us to shout out to the vast powers of the universe that, however broken we are, we are not yet helpless, however much we despair we are not yet without hope, however weak we may feel, we will always, always, always resist. And it is in this act of resistance that we find our salvation.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Rick Chalmers October 8, 2012 at 6:14 pm

When I browse the internet news, I usually read things that inform me while also avoiding the unpleasant truth of our times. This piece drew me in and said what I intuitively know but didn’t want to hear. War is no friend to man, only institutions.

Chris, there may be unique circumstances to your induction into the military, but given that military service is voluntary, I ask you: what were you thinking when you “wrote a check to Uncle Sam” for an amount up to your life? I ask because at 18 (1978) I was clear that I had zero interest in the military. So from my perspective I have never considered it advantageous to serve. what did you see?



avatar Goatskull October 9, 2012 at 11:39 am

People join the military for many different reasons. Regardless of why someone joins, under no circumstances should that person be looked down on simply for choosing military service. In addition we as a society should not tolerate any individual, or group, or organization that feels otherwise. I know I don’t. Bottom line, hate the war but not the warrior (simply for being a warrior). That’s not to say don’t judge an individual because of what kind of person he or she might be, but don’t look down on them purely because they wear a uniform (or did previously). This always surprises people when I tell them and I’ll never understand why (at least not here in San Diego) but there are a lot of liberals who serve. They like anyone else may have felt a desire to serve their country. Simple as that. That doesn’t mean they agree with the war(s) they’re fighting in but they signed up knowing they don’t get to pick and choose their battles. Regardless of why they joined, the immorality burden does not rest on their shoulders; it rests on those who send the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen out there.


avatar Rick Chalmers October 9, 2012 at 9:26 pm


I am not judging anyone. I don’t look down on anyone. These comments are off the topic I’m raising. The specific issue I am trying to open is this:

Given the stark, scorched earth, barren landscape of life described by the author, how does an ex soldier reconcile his bruised mental (and sometimes physical) state with the fact he volunteered for service? That one may assert that the damage sustained to the body and soul is self inflicted?

Your last two sentences take us very close to the issue:


So here you say here that some (not all) volunteers give themselves to being trained and to possibly kill other human beings for reasons they may not agree with? That is a big contract! Tell me: what are some of the possible motivations for abdicating one’s morals and principals?


I disagree. Soldiers may sign a contract with the gov that says “we the gov take your burden”, but the recruit GAVE away at least two precious and powerful aspects of living as a human: sanctity for life and a vote of conscience. There is no giving our morals to any institution that pits one human life against another, without some contradiction. A contract to serve is nothing more than a license to lie (or shift the blame) about your responsibility.

This is my point: We people are of a higher standard and better informed about living as a human than ANY government. To trust government and to give away our morals and principals to big brother is a farce, a cop out, and a travesty that leads to wiping out huge swaths of other innocent human beings that happen to be in the way of our access to resources. Think: Indians, Brits, Mexicans, Cubans, Asians and so on right on up to the past 25 years in the sand box.

While formulating this reply, I realize I do have a judgement against citizens who abdicate their morals for whatever it is they expect to personally gain through military service, or any type of work within the war machine. In spite of what I hear, I do not accept our making of war as a greater good. I believe killing others for the government serves the few. I give greater honor to the person who joins the service because he or she wants to kill someone, over someone who wants a new car or a college degree out of the deal. The killer who kills others is without contradiction or cop out.

Perhaps your initial comments that I dismissed as being off topic are actually pointing at a phenomenon within our culture where one group assesses the other for abdicating their morals for a presumed “greater good”. If my postulation is correct, then as you mentioned it, this topic is is worthy of discussion.

As for the article by Chris, I sincerely hope his ability to articulate the trauma he suffers will help him find remedy and has us all reflect on the automatic assumption that our government knows what is best for man.

Thank you Goathead,



avatar Goatskull October 10, 2012 at 11:19 am

“So here you say here that some (not all) volunteers give themselves to being trained and to possibly kill other human beings for reasons they may not agree with? That is a big contract! Tell me: what are some of the possible motivations for abdicating one’s morals and principals?”

What I meant by that is there are people (active military) who DO believe there are justifiable reason to go to war, like if we actually get invaded/attacked or there is a very high likeness that someone wants to attack us. At the same time, they may disagree with attacking another country under false pretenses (such as Iraq) but because they signed a contract they will go as ordered. One way they may justify that is because if they decide to go AWOL or even go through the legal process of requesting conscious objector status, by not going with their unit they put an extra burden on the rest of those who do go. I still hold that whether or not the conflict is justifiable, the moral burden does not rest on their shoulders, regardless of their personal feelings.
I’ll admit. I joined back in 1986 for reasons other than pure patriotism. I was having some personal issues going on in my life and on top of that the Navy seemed like a good choice because I wanted to travel the world and see places, and in that sense the Navy delivered. I suppose with that I am in the category you have less respect for. What can I say?
As to your main point, the people who DO actually experience boots on the ground combat (most Navy personnel don’t, even in wartime) seem run the full gamut as far as feelings of guilt or lack of guilt and mental trauma. A small number of those who are suffering severely seem to use arrogance and hostility towards individuals they come across who express displeasure with war and our current military policy (I’ve witnessed it first hand). In other words it’s a defense mechanism and their way of coming to terms with what they were involved with. Others have different ways of dealing with it and yet there are others who seem to be fine and successfully move on with their lives. Put 10 different people in a war situation and you’ll get 10 different individual outcomes.
I’ll admit that the original point of my post was a bit off topic but I’m rather sensitive to this issue. There are too many veterans unable to find work, winding up homeless, sinking into substance abuse and a laundry list of other problems and too many people who don’t care, and a small number of said people who actually feel these veterans deserve their fate because hey, nobody forced them to sign up. Go to Balboa hospital and look in the face of some kid with missing limbs and express that to him/her.
BTW, I’m not in any way shape or form implying that all who serve or have served in the military are heroes to be worshiped.


avatar Goatskull October 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I work for the “war machine” as a Federal employee. My specific job is in a nutshell taking care of pay and benefits for military members and their families. Like it or not, we’re always going to have a military (though likely a smaller one) and there will always be a need for people to provide services to its members.

On another note I have a question for you. You asked the author what was he thinking. Assuming you live anywhere in San Diego County and have for some period of time then you must know at least a few people who are in or have been in. Have you ever asked them that very same question? They’re not hard to find.


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