AS YOU WERE: THE MILITARY REVIEW, Vol. 12 Released

Military Experience and the Arts is proud to announce the release of As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 12 on Memorial Day, 2020. This edition contains fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork from more than fifty writers, poets, and artists. There are debut works as well as the latest from more experienced artists. Several have worked with our editors to refine their works and enhance their skills and understanding in their chosen genres.

Together, the works contain material from WWI, WWII, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Global War on Terror. There are voices and visions from the perspectives of veterans, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and neighbors and colleagues. Engaging with these works helps us bridge the gap between military and civilian cultures. Indeed, these works prove that those bridges are  built by creative expression.

We invite you to check out As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 12 and share this edition. Thank you!

Release of BLUE NOSTALGIA, Vol. 4

MEA is proud to present a new edition of Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, our fourth installment of the title. Blue Nostalgia is a unique publication in that it contains stories of veterans’ and family members’ stories of how they face the challenges of post-traumatic stress as well has how they grow in spite it – or even because of it.

Volume 4 contains works from the perspective of family members of WWII veterans as well as from Vietnam and  Cold War veterans. They have in common the bravery to share their deeply personal  stories in order to educate the public and let other veterans and families know that they are not alone.

Read Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, Vol. 4 by clicking on the titles in this post or by navigating drop down menu under “Publications.”

Cover image: “Where to Go From Here,” woodcut print by Brandie Dziegiel

Living With Killing: Lifting the Weight of Moral Injury

by David P. Ervin

In “What’s It Like to Kill Someone?” Travis Switalski delved into the depths of an important question. He answered it adeptly, employing the kind of candidness that makes that conversation enlightening and worthwhile. It’s a dialogue that we are afraid to have with ourselves, much less with the vast majority of the society in which we live. It is a necessary one. And, of course, like any provocative piece of writing, he also raised another important question.

What’s it like to live with killing in war?

We live with it by going through a crucible of sorts, navigating our way through some dark psychological terrain. As Switalski wrote, calculated indoctrination and reflexes enable us to cross the threshold initially. Then the abstract justifies it for a time. For in doing this deed we have followed the rules of war. We have preserved the safety of our fellow soldiers. We’ve fulfilled our duty. Overall, we’ve participated in an act of violence that’s morally sanctioned by the state, something done to advance an endeavor intended to liberate others and protect our country. For a while, those metrics apply – long enough, at least, drive on and finish the mission.

But after a while those aren’t the means by which we measure ourselves and our conduct. We don’t look to them in the middle of the night to comfort ourselves.

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In order to kill we tapped into something in ourselves that is frightening and grotesque. When the context of training, duty, and politics is stripped away, we feel we’ve perpetrated something that is terribly wrong. We deprived people of something far more precious than any number of abstract ideals. We deprived them of their life. We know that despite the goal of providing people with freedom we showered them with violence, misery, and bloodshed. It’s enough to shatter our beliefs about the world and our place in it, and it does. Killing can create a phenomenon known as ‘moral injury.’ It’s defined as the psychological impact of transgressing core human values and beliefs.

That is the part we don’t live with. Dealing with a moral injury fosters a plethora of damaging behaviors and beliefs. Overall, we consciously stop believing we deserve life, especially any semblance of a good one. It can be a major catalyst of suicide. Even if not taken to that extreme, it impacts us in more subtle ways. We sabotage relationships and isolate ourselves from the world because we feel our souls are somehow poisoned. We have a peculiar tendency to believe that anything good that happens in our life is a mistake that requires correction. We think any good fortune is an anomaly because the world is an inherently malevolent place. You could say that it darkens our horizons.

But it doesn’t have to.

Someone once told me that, “You should be the best man you can be because that is the most real way that you can provide justice in an unjust world.” Those words have resonated deeply, and I think of them often. There is more truth in that statement than there is in the belief that we don’t deserve to see the brighter side of life. And there is, in fact, a way to cement that more positive mindset.

The real atonement for perpetrating and witnessing such horrors is to transcend them. They can – and probably should – define us for the rest of our lives, but how we shape that definition is up to us. We can regain our belief in the goodness in ourselves and in others by being a good person and serving selflessly. There is a multitude of ways to do so. We can be helpful to our neighbors, generous with our time, and magnanimous in our daily conduct. We can volunteer in the community or simply be a comfort to someone going through rough times. By engaging in the type of altruism that makes the world a better place we can see that it is not all so dark. We can carve out a small place in it that we know is good.

By guiding others to a brighter place we’ve helped create, maybe one day we’ll find ourselves in it. Of course, even if we don’t, we’ll know that in our time we’ve given the world something more than misery and bloodshed. Above all, we’ll know that there’s something good in ourselves to give.

The Kill Switch

Somehow it’s a dirty little secret that the entire purpose of war is to kill human beings. That vastly important fact is becoming more well-known thanks to the work of authors and journalists like Phil Zabriskie, a former foreign correspondent for Time who has also written for National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine, and other notable outlets. He’s more than a war correspondent, though. He’s made a study of the subject of combat. He fine tuned that study with an in-depth exploration on killing in war in his latest book, a Kindle Single called The Kill Switch.

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Zabriskie delves into the phenomenon of killing with considerable skill. He expands our understanding of the concept into the societal and institutional context and contracts it into the personal. It’s perhaps the latter that gives the book its stark, chilling nature. The author chronicles the lives of several participants of the Iraq and Afghan Wars to illustrate the powerful psychological forces at work in the act of killing and the impact of the moral injury that killing causes. His coverage of these men over roughly a decade paints a clear picture of the entire process of learning to kill, applying those lessons, and attempting to find peace with that act. For instance, we learn about a Marine, Ben Nelson, who struggles with the times he killed and the times he didn’t. We learn of a Marine officer who bears the emotional burden of ordering men to kill as well as taking lives himself, and how the strict enforcement of the rules of engagement protected civilian lives as well as the combatants’ humanity. We see them in war. Then we see them in their living rooms. We see their pain with a clarity that speaks highly of Zabriskie’s expertise in recording the grim truth of war.

To his credit, Zabriskie lets the subject and those who lived it speak for themselves. But he’s packaged those voices in a concise and fast-flowing narrative, one that is buttressed by interviews with psychologists and research into relevant scholarship. It’s an engaging, educating read.

Although the book is short, it is long on authenticity and insight. Zabriskie has created a work that offers real-world examples of some of the ideas first explored by Dave Grossman. He has made a clear argument for the fact that killing is one of the most traumatic experiences of combat, and it is the very essence of war. How we treat that haunting truth – that we collectively flip a kill switch when we go to war – is up to us as a society, but Phil Zabriskie has done a remarkable job of defining it for his readers.

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(Review contributed by David P. Ervin)