by David Wood
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
Review by Christian Perring on Mar 14th 2017
What Have We Done? Is about the psychology and morality of being a combat soldier in contemporary war. It has many stories and reflections on their meaning. It overlaps strongly with Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers, by Nancy Sherman, although it does not mention that academic book. Wood is a war reporter who has been embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has seen some of what soldiers on the frontline experience, and he has interviewed many others who have told him what they have gone through, both while on duty and also after returning home. Wood's main point is that soldiers in modern wars are required to do terrible things such as killing child soldiers and killing people who turn out to be completely innocent. They have also seen many of their own friends killed and injured. This makes it very hard for them to live with themselves and return to ordinary life when they return home.
Wood emphasizes that the moral injury experienced by soldiers is not the same as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He spends some time setting out the problems of defining trauma as a psychological disorder, and shows how it does not capture some of the serious psychological problems that veterans can face after being in combat. He interviews some of those who have tried to define and defend the category of moral injury and explains some of their published work. He gives some evidence that conventional treatments have little success for many soldiers experiencing problems on their return to the USA. On top of that, many of the available veteran services are overwhelmed and so cannot even provide the treatments that they have available. So there is an urgent need to fine solutions to the psychological problems experienced by many of the veterans.
Part of the problem is the difficulty we have in openly discussing the experiences of soldiers and acknowledging the horror of what they have had to do. This difficulty is made worse by the worry that there was no good reason for the USA to be sending soldiers into Iraq in the first place, and many have doubts about the justification of being in Afghanistan. This makes it harder to argue that the ends justify the means, since the whole enterprise may have been without justification, and furthermore, has probably provoked more terrorism than it stopped. Under those circumstances, it is hard for soldiers to reassure themselves they have been part of a just war.
The similarity between the problems of UK troops returning home from the First World War and the experience of contemporary US soldiers is striking, in that they could not talk to civilians about what they had seen. There was a total mismatch between the horrors of war and the civility of ordinary life. The soldiers found it very hard to make the transition back, when people didn't want to hear about the awfulness of the war carried out in their name, and would not understand even if they did try to listen. So the returning combatant is isolated and can't find meaning in their new life. They struggled with the terrible things they had not only seen, but also had done themselves. While there is no simple solution to this sort of problem, Wood argues that it involves bringing people back into some sort of community that can acknowledge what the soldiers have done in a public way, and be able to listen to their experience. It might be useful to have some sort of ritual element. Simply holding a parade for returning warriors is not helpful. Woods also argues that training for soldiers should do more to prepare them for the moral challenges of what they will need to do, since it hardly mentions these issues. His discussion of the moral element of soldier training is particularly nuanced.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by David Pittu, with the introduction and one chapter read by Wood himself. It's a committed performance that conveys the seriousness of the issues and does not flinch from the horrors that soldiers have experiences and committed.
© 2017 Christian Perring
Christian Perring lives and teaches in New York.