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Nick Turse: The Moral Injury of War

War for empire turns some men into monsters.

Many men do monstrous things. And some men are very nearly monsters, capable of killing without compunction or remorse. In the everyday civilian world, we generally seek to lock them up. In war, they have a chance to fully flower. And if they serve in militaries that fight serial conflicts where the laws of war are considered mere suggestions, they can be all that they can be. 

I investigated such a man once. He fought his way across Asia in the Chinese civil war, the suppression of the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. He spent 10 troubled years in the Marines before joining the Army and then was hailed as a super soldier, even as allegations of murder swirled around him. 

In March 1968, a member of Sergeant Roy Bumgarner Jr.’s scout team went to military authorities to report multiple murders of Vietnamese civilians. “I’ve got nothing against Sgt. Bumgarner except this mad urge to kill,” Private Arthur Williams told an investigating lieutenant colonel. “I don’t want him to get in trouble, but I can’t know of what is happening and say nothing. More people will be killed.” The Army did nothing. 

One morning in early 1969, Bumgarner detained an unarmed Vietnamese irrigation worker and two teenage boys tending ducklings.  Marching them to a secluded spot, he and one of his men opened fire. A military court convicted him of manslaughter, but he served no prison time, remained in Vietnam, and reenlisted approximately six months later. He became one of the last U.S. infantrymen to serve in that war. 

By the late 1960s, Bumgarner was said to have a personal body count of more than 1,500. Sometimes, his six-man “wildcat” team logged more kills than the rest of his 500-man battalion. I often wondered how many of those dead were enemies and how many just teenage duck herders and middle-aged farmers. Bumgarner died before I had a chance to ask him. His court-martial transcripts, though, don’t give the impression of a man carrying a heavy psychological burden or regretting anything he had done. 

Some men do, however, kill while in government service and pay a psychological price. We now call that “moral injury” and understand (as Homer did in writing about Achilles in the Iliad) that victimizers can also be victims. Arnold Isaacs, who covered the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun, takes us in Moral Injury and America’s Endless Conflicts to the frontlines of the battle in an attempt to overcome — or at least mitigate — the toll on the consciences of the men and women fighting America’s twenty-first-century wars: a “Moral Injury Symposium.”

If “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” can cause profound psychological damage to soldiers, imagine what Phan Thi Dan, the widow of that irrigation worker, went through when she saw her husband lying on the ground with his head blown off. She stood frozen for a moment, then fainted. On coming to, she tried to attack an American on the scene but was restrained. “When I get flashbacks, that fit of fury still arises in me,” she told me nearly four decades later. No doubt, many Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Syrians, Yemenis, and Libyans have had similar experiences at the hands of soldiers. One day, maybe we’ll convene a symposium for them and their psychological injuries, too. 

Copyright 2019 Nick Turse. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is currently a fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War. A paperback edition of his book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books) was published earlier this year.

Nick Turse
Still shot from The Vietnam War (PBS)

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