Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Only the Faithless Suffer

In past years for Armistice Day, we've looked at how denying loss can tragically lead to more loss. We've examined how eagerly a blind rage can be embraced. This year, I wanted to look at willful blindness. (It turns out that the Beltway establishment and the Religious Right are quite similar in that regard.)

The Morality of Drone Strikes

First, let's consider Joe Klein and his remarks in late October on the drone strikes Obama has authorized in Afghanistan. The drone conversation starts roughly 7:15 in and goes until about 13:00:

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Some of the key lines (emphasis added):

SCARBOROUGH: What we're doing with drones is remarkable: the fact that over the past eight years during the Bush years - when a lot of people brought up some legitimate questions about international law - my God, those lines have been completely eradicated by a drone policy that says: if you're between 17 and 30, and within a half-mile of a suspect, we can blow you up, and that's exactly what's happening . . . . They are focused on killing the bad guys, but it is indiscriminate as to other people who are around them at the same time . . . . it is something that will cause us problems in the coming years . . . .

KLEIN: I completely disagree with you. . . . It has been remarkably successful –

SCARBOROUGH: at killing people –

KLEIN: At decimating bad people, taking out a lot of bad people - and saving Americans lives as well, because our troops don't have to do this . . . You don't need pilots any more because you do it with a joystick in California.

SCARBOROUGH: This is offensive to me, though. Because you do it with a joystick in California - and it seems so antiseptic - it seems so clean - and yet you have 4-year-old girls being blown to bits because we have a policy that now says: 'you know what? Instead of trying to go in and take the risk and get the terrorists out of hiding in a Karachi suburb, we're just going to blow up everyone around them.

This is what bothers me. . . . We don't detain people any more: we kill them, and we kill everyone around them. . . . I hate to sound like a Code Pink guy here. I'm telling you this quote 'collateral damage' - it seems so clean with a joystick from California - this is going to cause the US problems in the future.

KLEIN: If it is misused, and there is a really major possibility of abuse if you have the wrong people running the government. But, the bottom line in the end is - whose 4-year-old get killed? What we're doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.

Digby remarks:

Am I wrong or did Klein say that he thinks killing 4 year olds is legitimate because it "limits the possibility "that 4 year old American will get killed? Holy Moley. That's so far beyond the concept of self-defense he's veering into simple pathology.

Klein tends to slip up and inadvertently spill the beans about what our foreign policy elite (of which he is one) really think. Now, I would guess that he was trying to fudge here and say that it was too bad that 4 year olds got killed but "we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." But the truth that slipped out was that he believes we are killing their 4 year olds as part of a campaign of terror. And, for him, the good news is that we can do it with a joystick in California. That's sick.

Now, I doubt very seriously that anyone's targeting 4 year olds at the moment. Even I am not that cynical. But I also don't doubt that there are people who believe that if the 4 year olds of "those people" are killed it will wear down the enemy and make them cry uncle. It sure sounds to me like Joe Klein is one of them.

Greenwald dismantles the argument, showing that Klein's formulation results in exactly the opposite of what he claims to want. I'm so repelled by the fact that anyone would blithely remark that such a "trade-off" in this situation is remotely moral that I can't get past it.

There's much more that can be said about Klein, who's very much a Beltway establishment pundit. He's currently backing Obama, but he's hardly a liberal; he seemed to make it a point of pride to "punch hippies" objecting to civil rights abuses during the Bush administration.

Ever notice how the people who say "Shit happens" are often the people doing the shitting? (Or fully supportive of it.) It's a nifty little trick, pointing to the undeniable suffering in the world, and then shrugging to suggest that their own selfish actions are somehow ordained. It conflates life's unavoidable tragedies with those that can be avoided – and ignores that working to avoid tragedies, or minimize their impact, is the entire point. The people saying such things often honestly believe in what they're saying; it's the usual cognitive dissonance for mental self-preservation. It's an attempt – conscious, unconscious, or semi-conscious – to normalize selfishness, cruelty, or just callous disregard for the horrible consequences of one's actions (and inaction).

The conceit of people such as Joe Klein is that they are making the hard choices, that they are the realists – but this is, of course, self-aggrandizing bullshit. It's also evil, not matter how fashionable it may be in certain circles. Klein doesn't make the case that killing four-year old Afghani children is necessary. (Of course it's not, and even if one ignores the grotesque immorality of it for a moment, blowback does greater harm than any such killing could possibly achieve.) Klein has posed a theoretical "tough choice" without offering any evidence that it actually exists; he thus swiftly glosses over reality to present his fantasy as a pressing, urgent actual situation. This is the same game many a torture apologist has played, whether out of sincere fear or disingenuously. As Rear Admiral John Hutson testified in 2007, "Torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough." As we've discussed before, there is nothing "hard" or "tough" in letting someone else suffer, certainly not in the context of war, torture and abuse. That's the easy path. Klein has merely invented a shoddy rationalization to help him live with himself. He wants the answer he's invented – because it means he bears no responsibility, and he doesn't have to do anything. It's a kind of bourgeois imperialism or the usual ruling class corruption, all with the familiar pseudo-tough macho posturing of the chickenhawk. It's self-serving, willful blindness that seeks to excuse and normalize unnecessary suffering. Americans: Do not question the empire, or lose faith. Afghanis: I have made the hard choice to let you suffer.

The Conservative Mindset

We'll look at how religious conservatives in the Bush administration harmed patients suffering from PTSD, but I think a brief detour to explain the underlying mentality might help. Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) provides a perfect example; a 2011 Blog Against Theocracy post looked at remarks Shimkus made during March 2009 hearings of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment:

The key remarks are:

The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.

Shimkus has said plenty of other dumb things. However, these particular remarks were both dumb and theocratic, and therefore of greater concern. They're problematic – or dangerous – for at least three reasons.

One, environmental and energy policies for the United States should not be dictated by any religious text. The same goes for all public policy, but the problem is especially glaring for any policy involving science. (We'll deal with some caveats in a bit.) Shimkus was pushing a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Passing a law that said, "You can't regulate pollution because the Bible says so" would not pass constitutional muster.

Two, Shimkus is on shaky religious grounds as well. The passage he cites only refers to what the God of the Bible will or will not do - human beings are quite capable of destroying the planet all on their own. (More specifically, human beings are quite capable of destroying humanity, but the planet would survive.) Additionally, Shimkus is picking and choosing what he wants from the Bible in his Appeal to Religious Authority. He's not asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban eating shellfish, or asking Congress to abolish a few amendments to bring back slavery, or trying to outlaw certain types of clothing, or otherwise trying to enforce many other precepts in the Bible.

Three, assuming Shimkus is sincere in his stated beliefs, his religion makes him a less reflective, less responsible human being. He has spouted beliefs that dictate that he, and other human beings, and the government of the United States of America, do not need to act responsibly when it comes to energy and the environment, because God will sweep in to save the day.

This third point is the key one for our purposes. Obviously, reflective religious people exist, but some people, such as Shimkus, use religion to shut down reflection – and absolve themselves of responsibility.

This is hardly a rare trait. While obviously not all conservatives are theocrats, and not all conservatives think this way regardless of the specific rationale, a core conservative tenet –directed at those Other People – can be expressed as:

1. Your misfortune is your own fault.

2. Therefore, I don't need to do anything to intervene.

The thing is, in reality, precept #2 actually leads to #1, not the other way around; it's a rationalization for conservatives' preferred (in)action, hierarchy, notion of the natural order, simple and comforting view of the world, and so on. Numerous studies have shown that conservatives (especially the more authoritarian conservatives) prefer a simpler world view or even black-and-white thinking, free from ambiguity or nuance. This "moral" stance justifies them doing nothing to help the fellow man or woman (just as the Gospels teach).

Denying PTSD

One of the more striking accounts about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) being denied comes from "God, the Army, and PTSD" by Tara McKelvey for Boston Review in 2009. The piece looks at Faith Under Fire, a memoir by Army chaplain Roger Benimoff, who served in Iraq and suffered from PTSD. Do read the whole thing, but here's some background (emphasis added):

During the Iraq war, however, the great difficulty veterans experienced in getting psychiatric care—greater than before—was not a product of cost-cutting, but of conviction: many Bush administration officials believed that soldiers who supported the war would not face psychological problems, and if they did, they would find comfort in faith. In a resigned tone, one prominent researcher who worked for the VA, and asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, explained that high-ranking officials believed that “Jesus fixes everything.” Benimoff and the others who returned with devastating psychological injuries found a faith-based bureau within the VA. At veterans’ hospitals, chaplains were conducting spirituality assessments of patients.

The story of the mistreatment of returning veterans from Iraq is well known and shocking. But the role of religious ideology in that mistreatment—how, inside the government, it was a potent tool in the betrayal of an overwhelmingly Christian Army—is much less known.

“I couldn’t stand to hear that phrase any longer—‘God was watching over me,’” Benimoff wrote.

He wasn’t watching over the good men I knew in Iraq. Faith was the center of my life yet it failed to explain why I came home and those soldiers did not. The phrase was a Christian nicety, a cliché that when put to the test didn’t fit reality.

Things had already begun to change dramatically at the VA by early 2005, shortly after Roger Benimoff left for his second deployment to Iraq. Many appointees at the agency were disturbed that so many Iraq veterans showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In part the concern grew from skepticism about the diagnosis itself, which some believed to be a legacy of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement. Whatever the merits of the diagnosis, it was clearly widespread and, moreover, staggeringly expensive to treat. In 2008 the RAND Corporation put a number on the problem, reporting that one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has suffered some form of mental illness, mostly PTSD and depression.

“God doesn’t like ugly,” one political appointee told Paul Sullivan, an analyst in the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, in a clumsy attempt to reduce the cost of caring for psychologically traumatized veterans. “You need to make the numbers lower.” Sullivan left the VA in 2006 and became head of Veterans for Common Sense, a group that filed a class-action lawsuit against the secretary of the VA for the shoddy treatment of veterans. It was dismissed in 2008 and is now being appealed.

These accounts are disturbing, especially given PTSD's potentially crippling effects and the history of PTSD treatment. Back in World War I, PTSD was called "shell shock," and many British doctors treated it as a failure of the will. (Luckily not all did. See the work of W.H.R. Rivers and the novel Regeneration. Meanwhile, Mrs. Dalloway provides a memorable portrait of a horrible doctor of the period.)

We should know better by now, but unfortunately, PTSD has too often been poorly treated in the past decade. Some of that poor treatment has been due to a macho military culture that frequently still sees PTSD as a personal failing versus an affliction, and some has been due to a Christian evangelical outlook that has essentially taken the same stance. See, for instance, Harper's, "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military and "U.S. Attorneys Scandal–Milwaukee," The Washington Post, "A Political Debate On Stress Disorder", The Nation, "Disposable Soldiers," as well as "AP: VA Makes It's too Easy for Veterans to File Claims ... Seriously," "Blaming the Veteran: The Politics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," the archives at They Gave Us a Republic and my own modest archives on the subject.

This is the section of the Boston Review piece that really sticks with me (emphasis added):

Sullivan was working as an analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington in early 2005 when he was called to a meeting with a top political appointee at the VA, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Michael McLendon. McLendon, an intensely focused man in a neatly pressed suit, kept a Bible on his desk at the office. Sullivan explained to McLendon and the other attendees that the rise in benefits claims the VA was noticing was caused partly by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were suffering from PTSD. “That’s too many,” McLendon said, then hit his hand on the table. “They are too young” to be filing claims, and they are doing it “too soon.” He hit the table again. The claims, he said, are “costing us too much money,” and if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.” At that point, he slammed his palm against the table a final time, making a loud smack. Everyone in the room fell silent.

“I was a little bit surprised,” Sullivan said, recalling the incident. “In that one comment, he appeared to be a religious fundamentalist.” For Sullivan, McLendon’s remarks reflected the views of many political appointees in the VA and revealed what was behind their efforts to reduce costs by restricting claims. The backlog of claims was immense, and veterans, often suffering extreme psychological stress, had to wait an average of five months for decisions on their requests. When I asked him years later about the meeting, McLendon laughed. Then his face darkened in anger. “Anybody who knows me knows I wouldn’t talk that way.”

Nevertheless, McLendon was open about the skepticism he felt toward the diagnosis of PTSD, calling it “a made-up term,” which has “taken on a life of its own.” As he spoke about the diagnosis, he pounded the table with the side of his hand more than ten times, hitting it so hard that the wooden surface shook. “Do I think they have a mental illness and should be stigmatized for the rest of their life?” he asked. “What gives a psychiatrist the right to do that?” Later, in an email about our conversation, he wrote:

[PTSD] is not a diagnosis based on empirical evidence, but rather . . . it is an artificial construct erected by a vote of selected psychiatrists. This does not mean that there are not problems that certain individuals do have [and] issues that need to be addressed. But rather, it means that we have created policies and programs that have not served veterans well.

He recommended several books on the subject, including The Selling of DSM, whose authors, Stuart Kirk and Herb Kutchins, show a deep mistrust about the disorder and the scientific rhetoric surrounding the diagnosis. McLendon’s outlook seems to have had a significant impact on the way veterans are treated upon their return from war.

McLendon and many of the other high-level officials at the VA shared political convictions that, along with doubts about the science of PTSD, made them less likely to push for additional psychiatric services for veterans. They believed in streamlined government and free markets, and they supported a prominent role for faith-based organizations. The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, R. James Nicholson, had previously served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and as ambassador to the Vatican. McLendon’s politics closely mirror his boss’s, and under Nicholson’s watch, veterans had increasing difficulty in obtaining adequate psychological care.

When a 2006 Government Accountability Office report raised questions about whether soldiers were getting the psychiatric help they needed, an assistant secretary of defense disputed the report’s findings, pointing to the fact that soldiers were being referred to chaplains. During this time contracts for veterans’ services were increasingly parceled out to leaders of faith-based organizations rather than to secular ones, even though veterans’ advocates opposed any bias toward faith-based treatment and argued that replacing empirically proven, nonsectarian programs with faith-based ones was a mistake.

One last bit – the military handed out many copies of Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life overseas, but:

As Benimoff and other soldiers eventually discovered, The Purpose Driven Life was not helpful, especially as the war’s own purpose grew less clear. Since Vietnam we have learned that PTSD tends to hit people especially hard when they fight in wars of choice.

Obviously, anyone's free to have any beliefs regarding religion (including atheism) they wish. That includes both soldiers and those treating them.

However, if your job is to help soldiers, and your religious beliefs are interfering with that – that's a serious problem. It is the moral duty of the caregiver to reach out to the person suffering, not the other way around. The line that's always stuck with me is:

...if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.”

McLendon denies he said it, and perhaps other readers will find that credible; I frankly don't believe him. Everything else he says in the article, his dismissal of PTSD and the DSM, and all the other pieces linked above that point to a sort of Christian triumphalism in the military, suggest otherwise. The thinking, however unconsciously, goes something like this: If God is all-powerful, and God is just, then the good are rewarded and the wicked suffer. Ergo, if someone suffers, he must be wicked. It's their own fault if they have PTSD. It's their own fault if they're suffering. I don't need to do anything.

...if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.”

When I first read that line, it stopped me cold, as if reading about a case of child molestation. If you're read or seen accounts of PTSD, and have some inkling of how devastating it can be, how it can destroy lives, break up marriages, lead to homicides and suicides – the casual, callous disregard for suffering in those words is glaring. When I read those words, I felt (and still feel, when I think about it) a deep if quiet rage, held in check by appalled shock. I want to talk to this man, question him, demand of him, How dare you?!? I want to try to slowly explain to him how horrible his actions have been, what unnecessary harm he has caused, what preventable suffering he has allowed… But I suspect he would not understand, would not let himself understand – because that's been the whole problem from the start.

These proudly Christian men thought they were godly; instead, they're Pontius Pilate.

If you send men and women to fight, die and get wounded overseas in the name of their country – especially in an unnecessary war – the absolute least you can do is to give them adequate care when they return. It is immoral to send them into a horrific situation – and then when they respond appropriately, as human beings, to that horror – to tell them that they have somehow failed, that it is their fault.

It is absolutely unconscionable for someone in this position of power to be this ignorant of the basic realities of his profession. And who let him be there in the first place? It would be like inviting a finger painter to perform major surgery on critical patients (except with a lower fatality rate). There are forms of stupidity so willful, so harmful, so cowardly, so self-righteous and blindly cruel they become a form of evil.

McLendon stepped down in 2006 because he allowed the theft of computer data, so part of this story is moot. But unfortunately, the mentality lives on and flourishes in some arenas. Like Joe Klein, like John Shimkus, Michael McLendon invented a way to wash his hands and absolve himself from responsibility. McLendon and Shimkus believe themselves to be men of God, and Joe Klein believes himself to be a wise political advisor. They are all painfully wrong, and their being wrong is not without consequence. It will be impossible to put an end to unnecessary wars and tragedies as long as men and women in power continue to convince themselves that the suffering of others is unavoidable or somehow a good, that only the faithless suffer.


Retired Patriot said...

This is a great post Batocchio, thank you.

It is irony indeed so many of the triumphalist christians in our society cannot seem to understand that they are so far from the founding ideology of their religion. It manifests itself not only in their callous disregard of they've soldiers they destroyed. But also in their antipathy towards anyone not like them - colored, gay, muslim, whatever. So absolutely far from "love thy neighbor" that you have to wonder what so twisted their theology and why?


Marc McDonald said...

Good piece, Batocchio.
You know, war is horrible and always has been. But it seems like in the past, we set limits to just how evil war could be. And those limits, by and large, usually worked. For example, we outlawed chemical weapons after World War I. And most nations (even Hitler's Germany) respected those limits on the battlefield.
These days, we seem to be going backwards. There are no limits to anything any more. Torture, white phosphorus chemical weapons in Fallujah, drone strikes, etc.---there doesn't seem to be any limits to what the U.S. Military Industrial Complex will adhere to these days.
Amusingly though, the U.S. continues to self-righteously lecture other nations on human rights abuses at the drop of a hat. Well, we've always done that. I guess the difference is, these days, nobody is taking us seriously any more.