By Robert C. Koehler
“During basic training, we are weaponized: our souls turned into weapons.”
Jacob George’s suicide last month — a few days after President Obama announced that the US was launching its war against ISIS — opens a deep, terrible hole in the national identity. George: singer, banjo player, poet, peace warrior, vet. He served three tours in Afghanistan. He brought the war home. He tried to repair the damage.
Finally, finally, he reached for “the surefire therapy for ending the pain,” as a fellow vet told Truthdig. He was 32.
Maybe another war was just too much for him to endure. Military glory — protection of the innocent — is a broken ideal, a cynical lie. “Times for war veterans are tough because we know exactly what is going to happen with the actions that Obama talked about in his recent speech,” his friend Paul Appell told Truthdig. “Jacob and other war veterans know the pain and suffering that will be done to our fellow man no matter what terms are used to describe war, whether it is done from afar with drones and bombs or up close eye to eye.”
And wars don’t end. They go on and on and on, inside the psyches of the ones who fought and killed. War’s toxins hover in the air and the water. Landmines and unexploded bombs, planted in the earth, wait patiently to explode.
In a chapbook that George published called “Soldier’s Heart,” which contains the lyrics to a number of his songs accompanied by essays discussing the context in which they were written, he explains his song “Playground of War.” It was written when he returned to Afghanistan with a peace delegation — George was one of the first Afghan vets to do such a thing — and at one point visited, God help us, a landmine museum.
The guide, “hard-faced,” overflowing with emotion, explains, George writes, that “it would take over a hundred years of working seven days a week to clear every single landmine out of Afghanistan. He says their fathers and grandfathers used to work their fields with plows, but now they work their fields with metal detectors and wooden rods. Instead of harvesting potatoes, they harvest explosives. He tells me all kinds of things that change my life in a matter of minutes.”
This is war. War never ends. George came home with the war raging inside him and rode his bicycle across the country to promote peace. Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, he understood that veterans “can help lead the healing of the nation” In 2012, he marched in Chicago in protest of NATO and returned his medals. Marching with fellow vets, he led this cadence call: “Mama, Mama, can’t you see/What Uncle Sam has done to me?”
He called his peace work a “righteous rite of passage.” He said it was “how we transform PTSD into something beautiful.”
He also chipped the last letter off the acronym: post-traumatic stress is not a disorder, he realized, but a completely natural, sane reaction to causing harm to others. He called it a moral injury.
A fellow vet, Brock McIntosh, interviewed on “Democracy Now” shortly after George’s suicide, said: “. . . he saw a lot of killing in Afghanistan, and he also talked about seeing fear in the eyes of Afghans. And the idea that he could put fear in someone kind of haunted him. And he had lots of nightmares when he returned, and felt kind of isolated and didn’t really tell his story. But over the last few years, he’s had the opportunity to tell his story and to build long-lasting relationships, not only with other veterans who are like-minded, but also with Afghans.”
In “Soldier’s Heart,” George talked about the dehumanization process that begins in basic training. Young people’s souls are “turned into weapons.” This is an image I can’t move beyond. It’s an insight into the nature of war that cannot be allowed to remain trapped inside every used up vet — that our deepest hunger to do good, to contribute to the good of the world, is commandeered by selfish and cynical interests and planted back into the soil of our being like a landmine.
“Through my personal healing from PTSD, I’ve discovered it’s not possible to dehumanize others without dehumanizing the self,” he wrote in “Soldier’s Heart.”
George, unable to find a place in the society he thought he was leaving home to protect, spoke primarily to all the other returning vets trapped in the same existential hell. What he came to realize was that only by surrendering the rest of his life to the elimination of war could be himself find any peace. In doing so, he made a spiritual transition, from soldier to warrior.
“You see,” he wrote, “a soldier follows orders, a soldier is loyal, and a soldier is technically and tactically proficient. A warrior isn’t so good at following orders. The warrior follows the heart. A warrior has empathic understanding with the enemy, so much so that the very thought of causing pain or harm to the enemy causes pain to the warrior.”
And now one more warrior lets go just as another war begins.
“We have been at war for 12 years. We have spent trillions of dollars,” Bernie Sanders said recently on CNN. “What I do not want, and I fear very much, is the United States getting sucked into a quagmire and being involved in perpetual warfare year after year after year. That is my fear.”
I’m sure that was Jacob George’s fear as well. I’m sure he felt it in his soul.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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