Sunday, February 26, 2012


                  In our previous unit on images of suffering we discussed the extent to which photos have the capacity to haunt us. Sontag argues that this recurrent haunting is so persistent because photos are still frames—unlike in a film where images are fleeting, a photo places acute emphasis on a single moment in time; that moment burns onto our memory. This haunting, I feel, is contingent upon feelings of guilt; when one looks at a photo portraying suffering, both acknowledging and situating themselves within the power structures the photo illustrates, one then confronts feelings of guilt. Guilt for past actions is the common thread woven through the readings/podcast for today, a guilt that our soldiers experience upon return from the warfront. Like the viewer of photos of suffering, these soldiers bear witness to violent images that prove indelible—as Travis Twiggs reflected, “‘I wish that I could erase that…from my memory…but I can’t’”.

                  The VA psychologist interviewed in the “This American Life” podcast explains that there are two types of trauma—that which arises from bad things that occur to you (he uses the examples of shelling and IEDs) and that which arises from the bad things you do unto others. The psychologists argues that it is this latter subset that underwrites PTSD; soldiers that are exposed to the high stress, extremely violent atmosphere created in war are unable to leave that experience behind and instead carry those memories with them back to the civilian sector. I found John’s story in which he “disassociated” and attacked his family unbelievably difficult to fathom. Just the slightest build up of tension caused John to lose his grasp on what was the reality, and suddenly he had a knife pressed against his fiancée’s throat. As John looked back on this break in perception, he admitted that he was not the least bit surprised by his behavior, and it was because of this that you must limit your time around the people you care for most. While listening I tried to imagine what it is like to be John’s fiancée, or Kellee Twiggs, to imagine what it feels like to be the spouse anxiously waiting for a loved one to return from a tour, and instead welcome home a stranger. I could not wish that on anyone.

                  Throughout each of the stories I noticed that the guilt associated with PTSD was interlaced in the degrees of control and powers structures held by soldiers and the military at large. Guilt is a feeling that completely consumes an individual and renders them helpless, that permeates the being to its very core—the “soul”. When John disassociated, he lost total control over his actions, as his violence was a manifestation of his guilt. As members of the military, soldiers measure their self worth and competency on their strength in the face of pressure, on their ability to give and take orders. The chain of command in the military is oriented such that those that carried out the torture at GTMO and Abu Ghraib are expected to follow orders without batting an eye. PTSD, then, becomes challenging for a soldier as the guilt they are feeling both second-guesses their previous actions but also their integrity as a soldier; does this guilt I feel make me less of a soldier? Travis Twiggs wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette, “I got to the point where I believed PTSD was nothing more than an acronym for weak Marines”.  That is what I think I found most sad surrounding the trauma and guilt in the readings for today—not only is it abominable that the torture and violence occurred in the first place, it really is troublesome that soldiers are made to feel incompetent if they do experience the most human and natural response to witnessing it, guilt. It was in this regard that my feelings really resonated with Cindy Chavez (Adam Gray’s mother) in her statement, “How does one come out of that and become a normal person? They live it and relive it and relive it. To me the government has robbed them blind of a big chunk of their soul because they were instructed to do something that was inhumane” (185). Soldiers are haunted both by their actions while at war, and by their lost humanity that debases their competency as a soldier. 


  1. The readings for this week, for me, were really hard to get through. As Kate brings up in her post, Sontag argues that photos are inescapable because they are still frames. Not just photographs, but a streaming video of what they saw, and what they did haunt the soldiers in Phillips, Finnegan and This American Life. Ultimately that has made them vulnerable. We spoke at length about the extent to which we are vulnerable, those that are captured in pictures of suffering are vulnerable, but now one must consider what it means to make oneself vulnerable. As Kate also brought up, members of the military judge themselves based on their ability to serve those above them in accordance with serving our country. At the time, they did not think or did not consider the ways in which they were simultaneously hurting themselves while hurting others abroad. Yet, these men have come home and are vulnerable themselves. They are vulnerable because they have hurt others, which in turn have hurt them, and then they return and hurt their loved ones because of their inability to grasp who they are and what they have done. It is hard to read such things, and I believe it raises a question about what our government is most concerned with. Not only are our military personnel violating people’s humanity abroad, but they are bringing home soldiers in need of help, and in turn hurting those that love them back home. These soldiers are taking innocent lives abroad and in cases such as Adam Gray’s, taking their own lives back home because of the vulnerability and guilt that has been brought upon them. At the end of this American Life, the narrator says, “John wants to apologize, see if Dominique will have him back.” This makes me ask the question, if we were to put these men back in GTMO or Abu Ghraib, would they still act in the same manner, knowing the way it would hurt them upon their return? And on a basic level, do these soldiers want to apologize to those they have hurt over seas in the same way John wants to apologize to Dominique? There is remorse and guilt but how can we help them come to terms with it when they are so far removed but not removed as they are reliving these traumatic events each day? And lastly how do we consider the trauma our own military personnel are experiencing in relation to those they violated abroad, because as we’ve said, we all live in relation to one another?

  2. Hi Kate!
    I agree with you that the soldiers coming back from war, especially from the prisons that they tortured detainees, are being torn by guilt. But, I would like to push your idea one step further by saying that they are not only torn by what they did, by the action, but by what they have become, their identity. Using torture, the soldiers do not only objectified the detainees, but also themselves. They find the torture “funny,” and they has to escalate the act so that they do not get bored. For a certain amount of time, the soldiers define themselves by the act they do upon the detainees, not their relationship with the civilized world they have back home, not their relationship they have with their mothers, their wives, or their daughters. Coming home, they face the contradiction of two identities, one is the old them, the civilized nice loving funny boys, and one is the person use water boarding on “unlawful combatants.” I speculate that these two identities are just irreconcilable, so John in This American Life episode cannot live with both at the same time, so that he has to “jump” from one to another. Forgetting himself when he is the torturing monster face is the only way he can maintain his relatively “normal” face.

    I agree with you that power is the key for the soldiers’ PTSD problem. At first, at the prison, they have so much power in their hands, yet they have only they prisoners as the only outlet for their power. Coming back home, they do not have power, but they have the tendency to use violence and force to gain control of the situation. Millantz was about to rebuild his life, joining a veteran antiwar movement and seeing therapist, but when thing got out of control or he felt threatened, he turned violence. One example was when he held the knife to his sister’s, Roslyn, throat when she shouted at him. The story of the night that John hit his fiancée, her grandmother, and his daughter is similar: John’s fiancée was arguing with John, and he lost his temper. Also, I feel like the lost of control in their lives, economically and socially, is also a factor that leads to the perpetuation and the escalation of PTSD. John wanted to rebuild his life, but Katrina toke everything from him, and nobody can stand his personality.
    At the end, Millantz’s words to his sister is still sticking to my head: “I tried so hard…to fix what I did.”
    But, should he be the one trying? Or should the government?

  3. Like Kate, I see several connections between the final chapters in Phillips’ book and concepts we discussed in the context of photographs. One of the most obvious is when he is talking about how Millantz’s friend showed him pictures that he had sent him in conjunction with the way he talked about them. Hutton said that Millantz described the acts of torture themselves as “funny as f**k” (195). Hutton told Phillips that these pictures were “almost like pornography in a way” (195). These images and the reputation of Millantz are so contradictory, which again raises the question of whether the conditions or the nature of the man encourage torture. For Millantz, one the larger internal struggles was the fact that he was supposed to be administering aid as a medic, but instead he was just making sure that people weren’t dying on his watch. The military managed to even turn that job-one that should be solely for protecting lives-into a danger.
    One other thing that surprised me about the readings we did for today was the fact that the soldiers reported being asked if they had to kill anyone over there. That to me was shocking. It seems like such an insensitive thing to ask someone who has returned home from protecting the country. I know that it’s part of their job, but like John explained on “This American Life”, it’s something that could come as almost an insult. Maybe that’s because it’s out of context? Or maybe because civilians tend to look at that as a glorious or heroic act, whereas it is the very killing and wounding of others that haunts these soldiers at night.

  4. Kate makes a compelling comparison about the affect of violent images on both viewers of photos as well as soldiers. As we discussed in class, photographs have the ability to haunt and leave everlasting marks on viewers. However, after completing the readings today, I have grasped that many soldiers experience and witness terrifying scenes that are incomparable to the sight of a photograph. Soldiers are not only haunted, but are deeply scarred for the rest of their lives due to their experiences. As many of my classmates said, it was very difficult and painful to get through the readings for today. Seeing the lives of these soldiers after their return from war was beyond shocking to me. The soldiers came back to America after fighting the post 9/11 wars as completely different people. As seen in the Finnegan article, Travis Twiggs is an example of a man who left behind his family to fight for America to fulfill his duty of protecting the country he loved. After his return home, he suffered severe PTSD. Travis said that the only thing that could help his PTSD was to return to Iraq. He lost all social trust when he returned from war. He was so traumatized and brainwashed from fighting in the war that he had mistaken his own wife for an Iraqi. This is impossible for me to imagine. In This American Life, we hear of another story about a man’s return home. John experienced extreme feelings of guilt as a consequence of what he had done in Iraq, as Kate also mentioned in her post. Due to his feelings of guilt, he uncontrollably took out his anger on his own fiancé, fiancé’s daughter and fiancé’s mother. He brutally abused them and couldn’t even remember the extent of what happened afterwards. Seeing the affects of war and more specifically PTSD on these veterans first hand is so astounding to me that the aftermaths of war and violence have left me with great feelings of unease. These soldiers in America are often the people we deem as modern day heroes. However, many of these heroes’ lives, like Travis, are destroyed due to their duties at war. I am left wondering about the role of American soldiers during war and whether those suffering from PTSD after experiencing war can realistically ever be cured.

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  7. As others have mentioned, the readings for today really hit me hard. It’s difficult to think about the idea of soldiers like John, Travis Twiggs and Adam Gray having to survive PTSD and overwhelming guilt from a war fought for their country, while their own countrymen and trusted army officials deal with them in such a cold, and often irresponsible way. Their conditions are the result of the situations they have been put in. I feel as though leaving PTSD untreated is so likely because it is not a surface wound, but that our responsibility to fight for their treatment is akin to the responsibility to fight for the treatment of a soldier returning with no legs and a body covered in blood. Just because the horrifying scars of war are not visible does not mean they are not fundamentally life-altering.

    I think that Kate’s honing in on the theme of guilt in this week’s readings was relevant and important. However, I feel as though people have largely focused on the guilt of actions—the guilt derived from a soldier killing enemy combatants, innocent civilians or engaging in torture. But I was actually moved in a way I did not expect to be from this week’s reading. I realized that the guilt of soldiers is often not only about those who they have had to kill, but those they have let die.

    To hone in on the example of Travis Twiggs, it was the unprecedented death of two young men that he had helped to train which stuck with him and continued to haunt him. I think that this is also an important type of guilt, and one that is qualitatively different from guilt over killing the enemy. While killing “enemies” is something ordered from above, as one of the responses to this post reiterated, letting a fellow soldier die is a failure. In this case, the soldier experiencing the guilt has no way to diffuse it through appeal to the military structure or higher-ups.

    I think it affected my thought process significantly to realize this, because it put our conversations of the past couple of days in a new light. We have been talking about the idea of torture, and whether it is “worth it”—or when we allow it to exist. Would we permit torture of someone if they might be innocent but might be guilty? Someone in the class said that in principle we would probably say no, but if the result of extractable information was close to home—if, for instance, our father was in the twin towers and we had to decide whether to torture people to stop a potential attack—then she knows she would be okay with it. Well, in a sense this is the position of soldiers on the ground every day. Even if they realize that many torture victims are innocent, they have had their friends cut down around them and feel an overwhelming guilt about letting them die; they may know that there is a slim chance of extracting useful information, but if you were in their position and knew you had even a slim chance of saving one of the men standing by your side… would that change your perspective on torture?

    And how is putting soldiers in this particular predicament in some ways a result (and maybe a deliberate result) of the military structure?

    Anyhow, just a thought.

  8. Kate stated, "As members of the military, soldiers measure their self worth and competency on their strength in the face of pressure, on their ability to give and take orders. The chain of command in the military is oriented such that those that carried out the torture at GTMO and Abu Ghraib are expected to follow orders without batting an eye." Throughout the readings we see the affects that Kate explains these demands have on soldiers: The way that John dissociated in This American Life, Travis Twiggs' shooting of himself and his brother, and Adam Gray's suicide. This expectation that soldiers follow orders even when they violate their conscience forces soldiers to compartmentalize military and civilian life. This compartmentalization is necessary for soldiers to make it through their tours and “follow orders without batting an eye,” even when these orders require one to torture. One has to conform to the military culture to survive, but at what cost? To compartmentalize to such a great degree can require one to forfeit their humanity and fragment a person to the degree where they have dreams of mutilating their daughter as John does in This American Life.

    Throughout history, the military has expected soldiers to serve stoically; to be proud to fight for their country and even eager to defeat the “enemy”. However, the reality of war is much different. When exposed to war, soldiers are still expected to retain their eagerness to fight, their courage and their heroism, although they are forced to face painful moral dilemmas. These feelings do not disappear when one renters civilian life. We place solders in situations where many are forced to compromise their humanity or block out their conscience to cope with what they see in war, when they return we cannot expect these effects to have disappeared. We force soldiers to compromise themselves and their lives in the name of something bigger than them, we must be careful that we are not asking them to give up their basic humanity as well.

  9. Kate does a wonderful job on bringing up some of the same question and points that I also thoughtful. She hits on this point of guilt, which after reading her post I totally agree with her. It was difficult and sad to hear the pod cast this week. John was full with guilt about what he had done to his family that he just couldn't remember what happened. He said while being interviewed I don't know if I don't remember because I don't want to or if I can't. That Idea of "haunting" that Kate also brings up is evident in todays readings as well. Again in the case of John he (now in jail) has dreams that his soon to be wife is about to be killed by and Afghanistan soldier and when he goes to save her the guys is now gone. I can sit here in front of a computer and say wow thats tough,but honestly I have no idea what that cane be like. John is just one of many soldiers who come back from war was PTSD. The things John did was not a shock to his therapist, he said that he just saw it so much and that its easy to revert to war like situations.
    To close the last thing I thought was interesting which I still don't know if I totally agree with but John at the end of the podcast compares a woman being raped to what he went through in the war. They ask him what's the similarities he said that both situations are unwanted, that in both you have no control over what's going on. The no control over the situation takes me back to last week when we talked about torture and how sometimes its out of the soldiers hand, it's orders that come down from higher ups. I believe it was Caitlin who brought up in her post about how far can soldiers go without questioning or stop what's going on. As valid as that point is I don't know if they can ever. You are taught in boot camp and throughout your service to listen to the people who are your superiors. There is no dialogue in the army or any service, you are told what to do not asked. That definitely effect who they are when they are to return into the American society.

  10. Reiterating everyone’s personal comments on the readings, these were particularly difficult in that we begin to see the negative impact of war on soldiers’ personal lives. War is many times in the United States only viewed as a constructive thing, as something which has an end point that will benefit the United States as a whole. These readings articulated the little focused on fact that war is an all around destructive event. It destroys not only the land and country in which it is being fought, but also kills people both involved and not involved in the war: soldiers and civilians. However, this death is not only physical, but emotional/mental as well; the latter is little focused on. I believe this is also partly due to (returning to my previous week’s post) the hyper-“masculinity” present in the military, a la Travis Twiggs’ piece for the Marine Corps Gazette: “I got to the point where I believed PTSD was nothing more than an acronym for weak Marines.” Soldiers need to be “strong”, but I would argue it takes a lot more strength to live with PTSD than anything else.
    I also agree with Hoa, I think that these soldiers do have to develop a double, conflicting identity. This wages an inner battle within soldiers, many times resulting in them voluntarily returning to war, as Travis did numerous times. This reminds me of what Christine said last week how soldiers do not feel the effects of what they have done until they return to the United States. In other words, putting Hoa’s and Christine’s points together, soldiers do not feel the effects of what they have done until they are reminded of their first identity, their identity as a civilian, not as a soldier.
    Taking this argument even further, I would argue that this is why war is unnatural and un-human: because people develop these inner demons and deep identity struggles with the actions they have committed during wartime.