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.