Distant Wars, Constant GhostsBy SHANNON P. MEEHAN
SINCE the two recent
In 2007, I was an Army lieutenant leading a group on a house-clearing mission in Baquba,
The feelings of disbelief that initially filled me quickly transformed into feelings of rage and self-loathing. The following weeks, months and years would prove that my life was forever changed.
Captain Shannon P. Meehan (Ret.) was a leader of a tank platoon for the 1st Cavalry Division of the U. S. Army. He is the author of “Beyond Duty,” written with Roger Thompson, a chronicle of his experiences in Iraq.
In fact, it’s been nearly three years, and I still cannot remove from my mind the image of that family gathered together in the final moments of their lives. I can’t shake it. It simply lingers.
I know that many soldiers struggle long after they leave the battlefield to cope with civilian deaths. It does not matter whether they were responsible for those deaths, whether it was a mistake of the command, of the weaponry, or even the fault of the enemy, who in parts of both Iraq and
For many soldiers, what follows a killing is a struggle of the mind. We become aware that what we’ve seen has changed us. We can’t unlearn it, and we continue to think of those innocent children. It is not possible to forget.
Killing enemy combatants comes with its own emotional costs. On the surface, we feel as soldiers that killing the enemy should not affect us — it is our job, after all. But it is still killing, and on a subconscious level, it changes you. You’ve killed. You’ve taken life. What I found, though, is that you feel the shock and weight of it only when you kill an enemy for the first time, when you move from zero to one. Once you’ve crossed that line, there is little difference in killing 10 or 20 or 30 more after that.
War erodes one’s regard for human life. Soldiers cause or witness so many deaths and disappearances that it becomes routine. It becomes an accepted part of existence. After a while, you can begin to lose regard for your own life as well. So many around you have already died, why should it matter if you go next? This is why so many soldiers self-destruct when they return from a deployment.
I know something about this. The deaths that I caused also killed any regard I had for my own life. I felt that I did not deserve something that I had taken from them. I fell into a downward spiral, doubting if I even deserved to be alive. The value, or regard, I once had for my own life dissipated.
Five weeks ago, my first child, a son, was born. Not surprisingly, my thoughts often race back to the children I killed. With the birth of my son, I received the same gift I destroyed.
The fact that soldiers are trained and expected to kill as part of their job is something that few people wish to talk about. Many men and women coming back from war don’t risk telling the stories that have so profoundly changed their lives.
In recent months I’ve been trying to honor the lives I took by writing and speaking in public about my experience, to show that those deaths are not tucked neatly away in a foreign land. They may seem distant, but they are not. Soldiers bring the ghosts home with them, and it’s everyone else’s job to hear about them, no matter how painful it may be.
John.. I don't feel much sympathy for USA troops. They volunteered and it was their choice. You got off easy, Meehan. Because of the USA, thousands (millions, does anyone even care anymore???) of Iraqis, Afghans, and now Pakistanis have been killed or wounded (arms and legs gone, etc.) No one ever cares about them much. In fact, here we are feeling sorry for people who killed innocent people! Even Saddam's troops--they were innocent. They never attacked the USA, never wanted to. And yet the USA slaughtered them like cattle, and Americans were cheering! Who are Americans going to cheer for next? Iranians? Yemenis? Who is on the kill list?
Anonymous.. A very powerful piece. The story sheds light on what soldiers are dealing with everyday, both on the frontline and when they return home. It gives me a whole new admiration for those who fight for our country. We unfortunately only think about the casualties and lives as statistics or numbers, not as lives or bloodshed that the soldiers will have on their hands or minds, or souls.
Anon.. A fine essay. A friend of mine many years ago, a Vietnam vet, killed a number of Vietnamese children by accident while he was on his tour of duty. A few years later, he took his own life after his return to the states. This is what the bureaucratic types, the CIA ''operatives'' (a perfect word} call collateral damage. It's damage all right, but it's not all that collateral.
Kenneth Kraszewski.. Surely by 2007 you were aware that the invasion of Iraq was not to capture Saddam Hussein's weapons, nor to enact vengeance on those that carried out the 9/11 attacks. You must have noticed the Iraqis charred and shredded in the 2003 "shock and awe" campaign. Are you surprised you are haunted by participating in such abominations? This is your conscience. This is how it feels to be complicit in evil.
Anonymous.. I have been carrying these ghosts for more than 30 years and I regret to inform Capt Meehan that the burden does not grow lighter with time. I too, was just doing my job but the picture that I see most often is that of a naked 11 year old girl, horribly burned running down a road in an effort to escape even more horror. If I could give Capt. Meehan a word of advice it would be that you simply have to come to terms with the fact that it is in the past and cannot be changed. Cry if you must but realize that your worth is not diminished, that by reaching the point you are now, you are one of the "good guys" who perhaps can help prevent unnecessary wars.
McSpinster.. Yes, his words are moving, but why is anyone surprised? You reap what you sew. This guy is a winner, according to the rules of engagement. He killed and he came home intact. If that's a victory not worth living for, then for God's sake, stand up and start saying STOP and keep saying it until it stops. Soldiers fight wars. Soldiers can and should help end them.
Publius.. The people who are jumping up and down with glee because a soldier admitted that civilians are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are missing the point - this is war. We killed tens of thousands of Frenchmen - women and children - in driving out the Nazis. The Greatest Generation has oceans of children's blood on its hands. But they did their best, and chose the lesser of two evils (Nazism being the greater evil for the morally obtuse). Saddam and the Jihadists are just as wicked and merciless as the Nazis. They are a good enemy to fight from a moral point of view. But the horror of civilian death is unavoidable. It is also unavoidable when we don't go to war - because tyrannical forces of oppression destroy human life when we do nothing. So sip your Chardonnay - and calm down.
ASL4.. I am so glad someone is talking about this--and I think this message can only come from a veteran. We in civilian society acknowledge (when we think about war at all) only that we are putting our soldiers in harm's way and should give them good equipment. We never talk about the fact that we are giving young people guns and asking them to go kill on our behalf, and witness unimaginable atrocities, and cope with months or years of constant fear and other emotional strains. We send grief counselors into schools if a 16-year-old kid is killed in a car accident and his/her peers need help dealing with that, but we expect 18-year-olds to fly halfway round the world and participate in military assaults and then come back home and resume their lives. Insane. Thank you, I wish you the very best.
michaelannb.. I do often think about what it would be like to live with the experience of having taken a life, whether that of an enemy combatant or a civilian. I remember a scene from "All Quiet on the Western Front," where the youthful German soldier has bayoneted a French enemy, and then shares a foxhole with him while he takes all night to die. It's haunted me all my life and it was only a movie! My cousin was never the same after Vietnam, gambled his life away when he came home. Thank you for your honesty and I hope you find a way to come to terms with the burdens our country has required you to assume. Speaking out could help us to understand the true cost of war.
eldorado11..Dear Captain Meehan, My Marine rifle company landed at Inchon and engaged North Koreans in the Seoul area. Later we met the first Chinese soldiers of the war in the hills of North Korea. Taking a hill as a point man I encountered two Chinese soldiers standing in a slit trench, weapons in hand, with a frightened look on their faces. Their faces are etched into my memory-they were young- as I was. I took them out with a grenade and I think about it still, and think about them still, even in this, my eightieth year. I identified with them in that instant and regretted this act of life-taking. Thou shalt not kill. We take life at our own peril.
Miranda.. Thank you for your story and the courage to tell about this particular toll of serving. I especially appreciate the way that you have taken on the important role of telling the story of the family you feel responsible for killing. Telling their story is a way of honoring them, and honoring those like them. I think the love that you hold for your son can be another way of honoring that family - recognizing the importance of these family bonds and appreciating that you have your child to care for. I hope as months and years pass, you never forget the family in Iraq, but that the pain lessens, and that the joy you find in your own family only grows.
DC.. "Soldiers bring the ghosts home with them, and it’s everyone else’s job to hear about them, no matter how painful it may be." The first clause is true enough, but the second is presumptuous and unprofessional. If writing and speaking about his experiences is therapeutic for Mr. Meehan, fine. But he should not insist the entire country must listen to him. A characteristic of the all-volunteer military is the innocence it affords to non-combatants at home. America wisely expects stoicism from its warriors. If intense self-examination is called for to heal the warrior after his experience, and/or to enable him to return effectively to the fight, so be it. But out of respect for the decision he made to enlist, and the implicit contract between America's civilians and its warriors, he should take care to overcome his demons privately.
Jay Stebley.. When I read a piece such as this, words that have the power to move by its author's tragic experience and new found compassion, I think in turn of the those who beat their chests, calling, from the comfort of home, for war, for vengeance, for any justification for inflicting death upon others. Captain Meehan has discovered what the patriotic 'chicken hawks' will never know - that war is the most extreme form of prejudice and that human beings deprived of the dignity of life through acts of war or terror, be they 3000 Americans going about their business or a family in Baquba, Iraq, are victims of ignorance and fear and its offspring, hate. It is neither justice nor the seeding of democracy that spurs wars such as the one that sent Capt. Meehan on mission - it is the most flagrant violation of human morals, a kind of sanctified murder - sadly memorialized and celebrated by men since the Iliad. One does not need either a religious upbringing or a degree in philosophy or science... to know that killing another human being is the worst betrayal of what it means to be human. Capt. Meehan has found out what John Donne meant when he wrote 'any Man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind'. He has felt that awful diminishment few of us ever will. I feel terribly sorry for the Captain but I'm happy that his son will most likely be taught - and it must be taught - by his father's experience. It was generous and courageous of him to share that with us. I only hope that his voice can be heard over the clamor for the next war.