, , , ,

While this book is dated, being published in 2003, it remains relevant in the clarity it brings to the facts of war.  Most striking in Chris Hedges‘ introduction are a paragraph about the book content and a closing about how hard it might be to read.  I highly recommend it for anyone seeking to join the U.S. Military or National Guard.



I think the review by Goodreads was quite accurate:

Utterly lacking in rhetoric or dogma, this manual relies instead on bare fact, frank description, and a spare question-and-answer format. Hedges allows U.S. military documentation of the brutalizing physical and psychological consequences of combat to speak for itself. …
This profound and devastating portrayal of the horrors to which we subject our armed forces stands as a ringing indictment of the glorification of war and the concealment of its barbarity.

Some of the things I learned (again, based on this 2003 edition):

  • From 1940-1996 (war & peace cycles, arms race of the cold war), America spent $16.23 Trillion on military ($5.82T on nukes), versus $1.7T on health care and $1.24T on international affairs. [So… if we’d spent all the money we spent on military/war instead on programs for our citizens, this could have become a pretty nice place to live.  Reminds me of Vonnegut, aptly enough as we discuss war, who noted, “The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”]
  • The U.S. is the world’s largest arms manufacturer, supplying almost half of all arms sold in the world market.  [This might be why they hate us…]
  • One is more likely to abuse your spouse if in the military.  The Pentagon has disclosed that an average of one child or spouse dies each week at the hands of a relative in the military.  [Wonder what the current statistics show…]
  • Artillery shells can kill you by heat, blast effect, or shrapnel, which sprays ~200′ in all directions and can strike at twice the velocity of an AK-47 round (1,798 meters/sec or almost 6000 feet/second).
  • Explosions create pressure waves moving at 6000 miles/hour.  In enclosed spaces, even a hand grenade can cause serious internal injury.
  • Pressure can rupture air sacs in your lungs meaning, even if you think you are fine, you have have respiratory stress up to 48 hours later that can be fatal. Your organs can rupture even if your skin is not broken.
  • Land mines of 30-grams will blow off your foot or damage it so it will require amputation.  A 150-gram land mine will shred your legs to midthigh.
  • Fragmentation mines are often interconnected in a series of three to six mines and have explosion velocity of about 1000 meters/second (3280 feet/second).
  • Hand grenades can be lethal to a radius of 150 feet, explosing a thousand fragments at 2000 meters/second.
  • If you are hit by an explosive that does not detonate, and the surgeon thinks you can survive and the round will not detonate, it will be removed.  [Else, you just sit there until you die?  They shoot you in the head?  This left me guessing…]
  • Incendiary devices are quite awful.  Magnesium and thermite burns are small but deep.  Phosphorus can burn for hours and has toxic effects on liver, kidneys, and heart. Napalm burns more of the body and often suffocates its victims as it burns for a long time creating toxic vapors.
  • Dumdum bullets were so devastating that they were outlawed in 1899 at the Hague Conference.  New M16A2 bullets are even more damaging.
  • Exit wound from a 5.56 mm (0.22″) dumdum bullet can leave an exit wound of 4″ diameter.
  • Guns are the most effective weapon as they most likely take a soldier from the battlefield.  1/3 of hit soldiers die, 1/3 are removed from battlefield (many permanently discharged) and 1/3 return to battle quickly.
  • There are many Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) from nuclear to biological to chemical (often referred to as NBC).
  • Nukes can kill you in many ways from the blast, to thermal radiation, to initial and residual nuclear radiation, to electrical power surge.  Typically you will die within 2 weeks from nuclear exposure.
  • The only nation to ever use a nuclear bomb was the U.S.  In fact, we detonated TWO bombs in short order on Hiroshima (4/6/45) and Nagasaki (4/9/45) killing 64,000 and 39,000, respectively.
  • Botulinum nerve toxin is the most toxic substance known to science, though sarin nerve gas can kill within minutes (asphyxiation, sweating, drooling, vomiting, dimming of vision, heart failure, epileptic seizures).
  • When you kill someone, you likely go through several emotional reactions, generally sequential but not universal: freeze up (unable to pull trigger), kill with possible exhilaration due to adrenaline (which can create a “killing addiction”), followed by remorse/revulsion, and finally rationalization and acceptance.  If you cannot rationalize your killing it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • About 2% of the population are considered “natural killers” (3-4% of men and 1% of women) and these typically account for up to 50% of the killing done by a military unit.
  • It is harder to kill when you are afraid because, when afraid or angry, you think not with the forebrain but with the midbrain, which harbors a deep instinct against killing one’s own kind.
    • “The military combats this with repeated training.  You will be rewarded for being able to overcome this instinct. It is the same principle used to train dogs.” ~ p. 77
  • Most military personnel are NOT decorated for bravery.  Only 1.8 M decorations were awarded in WWII for a force as large as 8.3 M in May 1945.
  • If an officer gives a command that you believe is illegal, you must refuse to execute it.  However, refusing to follow a lawful order in combat, even if you believe it will get you killed, can result in a court-martial, or military trial.  [Court-martial is a jury of 12 officers, not your peers, while a special court-martial is just in front of a judge.  This contribution is from Dan.]
  • Troops kill officers in every war, usually for recklessness or incompetence.  This is referred to as “fragging” since Vietnam where at least 600 officers were murdered by their own troops.  An additional 1400 officer deaths could not be explained suggesting that 20-25% of all officers in Vietnam were killed by enlisted men.  [Makes one wonder why the government is so loathe to take care of military folks once they return.  We have trained them to kill efficiently and effectively…]
  • 77% of all combat vehicles lost int he Gulf War were destroyed by friendly fire, or weapon fire coming from one’s own forces.
  • Combat stress, a negative reaction to combat, occurs in 15-30% of soldiers during and immediately after combat.  This condition may result in negative behaviors such as raping, torturing, or killing noncombatants (civilians, chaplains, or medical personnel) or prisoners.  Alternatively, you may resort to drug or alcohol abuse, refuse to fight, or injure yourself.
  • A combat high is when a large amount of adrenaline is released into your system and is equated with getting an injection of morphine – “you float around, joking, having a great time, totally oblivious to the dangers around you”, an intense experience… “if you live to tell about it.”
  • Chapter 7 covers capture, torture and rape, though I was concerned that all the rape figures given were of women: In Kosovo, approximately 20,000 women were raped between 1992 and 1994. In Rwanda, between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 genocide.”  [What about the men that were raped???]  Also interesting to note that, while rape is a war crime, the UN notes: “Rape remains the least condemned war crime.”  It was only declared a crime against humanity in 1993…
  • It was noted that in peacetime, US military personnel are less likely to commit rape than male civilians of the same age.  [Not sure I believe that, except that perhaps it is a result of being segregated by sex in the service.  Again, why is rape assumed to be only against women?  A 2014 RAND study found that women in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were 1.7 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women in the Air Force (as reported here) and reported this:

    An estimated 20,300 active-component members were sexually assaulted in the past year, out of approximately 1.3 million active-component service members

    • This includes approximately 1.0 percent of men and 4.9 percent of women.]
  • The last words of most dying soldiers are calls for a mother (wife or girlfriend).  [See women?  They do need us! 😀 ]
  • There is a possibility that your body will not be recovered (if you die over water or geographic, climactic, or political conditions prevent it).  Or if the enemy steals it.  And, if they do, they will likely take anything of value from your body, including possibly an ear or finger, even though mutilating the dead is a violation of the general laws of warfare. [Is it funny to anyone else that there are “general laws of warfare”?  I mean, how can we have some level of civility on something that is brutally focused on killing in the name of righteousness?]
  • The process of notifying the family includes instruction to not physically touch the family members in any way unless they suffer shock or faint.
  • Your body will be prepared for burial by trimming the nails, shaving the face, suturing wounds, restoring distorted features, disinfecting your orifices and stuffing them with cotton (destroying maggots and other insect larvae), removing gas from your head, chest and abdomen, draining your fluids and replacing them with preservatives.
  • Prior to being sent to the one person who receives your personal effects, these items are reviewed to remove anything the officer in charge believes will cause “embarrassment or added sorrow, including anything obscene, unsanitary, multilated, burned, or bloodstained.  All letters, papers, photos, and videotapes are screened.  [Wonder how they determine which are photos of your girlfriend and your wife…  Or husband and boyfriend, as the case may be.]
  • A bonus to military service?  “The U.S. government pays for your body’s transportation, religious services, grave site, and other burial expenses. It provides a free tombstone.”  Per the Department of Veterans Affairs: “Veterans discharged from active duty under conditions other than dishonorable; Service members who die while on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training; and spouses and dependent children of Veterans and active duty service members, may be eligible for VA burial and memorial benefits.”
  • Post combat procedures should include a discussion of what happened during the war including performance of ceremonies or rituals to simulate the “long march home” thus giving time to process the war experience prior to returning to civilian life.  [Found this online: “During and after the U.S. invasion of Panama and the Persian Gulf War, U.S. Army mental health teams conducted a number of unit debriefings, although there was no formal doctrinal mandate or training program. With the deployment to Somalia in January 1994 of U.S. Army division mental health and combat stress control detachment teams, critical event debriefings became common practice. They were conducted following deaths in a unit from enemy action, accident or suicide, or after other distressing events involving deaths of civilians or mass casualties of multinational force allies at U.S. medical facilities.”]
  • The return home is typically awkward as the family adjusts to the soldier’s return.  There are greater risks for physical disorders as well as drug-related disorders and alcoholism, depression, hysteria, and hypochondria in combat veterans.
  • This 2003 assessment indicated only a slight increase for combat vets in committing suicide.  [More recent studies are conflicted.  One showed similar percentages of military and civilian suicide rates with “no link to combat deployment and suicides”:

    Those figures translate into a suicide rate of 17.78 per 100,000 person years for those who did not deploy and 18.86 per 100,000 person years for those who did — a difference that is not considered statistically significant.

    Multiple deployments appeared to influence the rate somewhat, with those who deployed more than once experiencing a rate of 19.92 per 100,000.

    Among those who separated early, however, the rate difference was significant. Those who separated from the military without having deployed had a nearly rate of 26 per 100,000 person years rate and those who had deployed had a rate of 26.48 per 100,000 person years.

    The civilian rate, adjusted for age, gender and socioeconomic factors similar the the military population, is 18.8 per 100,000, according to Army and National Institutes of Mental Health calculations.
    Subgroups at highest risk, besides those who had served less than a year, included Marines who did not deploy and separated from the Corps early, with a rate of 32.6 per 100,000, and Army soldiers who deployed and separated — 28.1 per 100,000.

    while another finding significant increases in suicide risk (but overall lower risk of death in general, surprisingly enough) compared to the civilian population:

    Among deployed and non-deployed active duty Veterans who served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars between 2001 and 2007, the rate of suicide was greatest the first three years after leaving service…
    Compared to the U.S. population, both deployed and non-deployed Veterans had a higher risk of suicide, but a lower risk of death from other causes combined. Deployed Veterans also had a lower risk of suicide compared to non-deployed Veterans.]

  • The book also reports no increased likelihood for homelessness noting: “Although one third of America’s homeless are veterans, 250,000 on any given day, studies indicate that neither military service nor exposure to combat are related to an increased risk of homelessness.”  [More on homelessness below…]
  • On comradeship, it is unlikely that soldiers will stay in touch with their comrades.  It seems that while “friendship creates ‘a heightened awareness of the self’, … comradeship is predicated on ‘the suppression of self-awareness.'”    While in combat, soldiers may love each other like brothers.  But once combat is over, “when other experiences intervene and common memories dim, they gradually become strangers.”
  • Yes, you do get to keep your uniform.  However, when disposing of it, “you are to make sure no nonveteran acquires it.” [Yeah, that always happens. 🙂 ]

I found the figures on homelessness surprising as I was under the impression that a larger percentage of our homeless were ex-military.   Perhaps part of the issue is classification as the “veteran” population does not include those dishonorably discharged.  Another issue is data availability.  For example,  domestic violence providers are prohibited from providing data in accordance with the Violence Against Women Act, leading to potential underestimates of homeless women and children.  And it seems we’re having more women homeless vets since the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.

This link has housing situation information, though also dated (from 2009).

  • In 2008, foreclosures in military towns were increasing at four times the national rate.
  • About 8% of vets are paying more than half their income for housing – a high risk for homelessness.
  • While veterans make up about 10% of the adult population, they make up 30% of the homeless population.
  • Nearly 20% of Iraq/Afghanistan vets return with PTSD or mental health issues – both of these are highly correlated with a risk for homelessness.

VETERAN HOMELESSNESS resource from April 2015 noted:

  • Just under 40,000 vets are homeless with these demographics – largely male (91%), single (98%), live in a city (76%), have a mental and/or physical disability (54%) and are between the ages of 51 and 61 (43%) – so lots of Vietnam era vets.
  • While we’ve made great strides since 2010, the problem is still ongoing.  New Orleans announced in January 2015 that they’d ended veteran homelessness and since then, 3 states and 60 communities have joined them.

You can find a detailed 2017 report here.

The Financial Services Committee in DC reported 5/17/18 “It has been reported by the Department on Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that from 2008 to 2016, the number of people experiencing homelessness has declined.”  The information on this website is a bit misleading as the current Housing and Urban Development report (December 2017) reports homelessness is recently going back up, including for vets.

  • Homelessness increased for the first time in seven years. The number of people experiencing homelessness increased by a little less than one percent between 2016 and 2017. This increase reflected a nine percent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in unsheltered locations, which was partially offset by a
    three percent decline in the number of people experiencing homelessness in sheltered locations.
  • Between 2016 and 2017, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness increased for the first time since 2010. Nonetheless, homelessness among veterans dropped 45 percent since 2009. The two percent increase during the past year was almost entirely accounted for by increases among unsheltered veterans in major cities.

The good news is that families with children may be finding homes (or their kids are aging out or going out on their own as the data appears to be new for unaccompanied homeless youth).  This may be due in part to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families’ (SSVF), initiated in 2011, that aims “to rapidly re-house homeless Veteran families and prevent homelessness for those at imminent risk due to a housing crisis.”  [Though I noted that Volunteers of America is a supporter in this effort – a 501c3 which is also a “ministry”.  So much for the separation of church and state…]

There were over 500,000 homeless people in January 2017 based on the annual Point in Time figures.  Note that Part 2 of this report for 2017 will come late in 2018.  You can find a link to recent annual reports here.  While figures were much improved from 2010-2016, we’re now seeing an uptick of 1% in homeless individuals.  1% may not sound like much but we’re talking about 5,000 people.

So, I learned a lot reading this book, dated as it was.  It was a departure from Hedges normal fiery rhetoric… but as informative as ever.  I would recommend it for anyone considering joining the military service or National Guard in the U.S.  It gives an accurate description of what to expect as it answers many of the questions someone might have when considering enlistment, especially in this age of perpetual war.