The Things They Cannot Say

BOOK: The Things They Cannot Say
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The Things They Cannot Say

Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War

Kevin Sites


This book is dedicated to my wife, Anita, and the rest of the “party of five,” Tina, Cami and Vae, for giving me the gift of being necessary.

Author's Note

The service ranks, units and campaign deployments listed in the table of contents and the chapter headings reflect the timeline only for the stories depicted in this book. Some of those profiled are still serving in the military and have risen to higher ranks and have fought in additional conflicts. Those promotions and deployments are noted in their postscripts.

Unless otherwise noted, e-mail, social network messages and texts are presented as they were written by their senders.

I welcome your thoughts on the book as well as contributions of new stories from service members around the world that may be collected and published on a companion website. Please send them to me at [email protected].


Hospital Pictures No(1)

A soldier looked at

me with blue hawk-eyes

With kindly glances sorrow had made wise

And talked till all I'd ever read in books

Melted to ashes in his burning looks.

—Ivor Gurney, British soldier (World War I), poet, composer

From Ivor Gurney:
War's Embers

(Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1919)

Self-portrait of the author, Lake Erie (2010)

Introduction: The Killer in Me

In combat, inattention to detail can kill people.

—Karl Marlantes,
What It Is Like to Go to War

'm a journalist, not a soldier, but I've killed in combat. This is how I did it: I looked into the eyes of my victim as he begged for his life, lying before me covered in nothing but a ripped shirt, white underwear and his own dried blood, then I shrugged my shoulders, turned and walked away. I killed him with my indifference as much as the twenty-three 5.56 NATO rounds that tracked his spine as he tried to crawl away that few minutes or few hours after I left him in that mosque in south Fallujah.
I killed him without wielding a weapon, without being present and without knowing that I had killed him until three years later. It was only in that discovery, reading a heavily redacted Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) document about the incident, that I learned what I had done. Only in that moment, when the shaky, stacked soapboxes of my belief system came tumbling down, did the other face of war reveal itself to me fully. Until then, I had been happily chasing the dragon, my addiction to war, mostly immune to its consequences. No longer.

ike so many once-young journalists, I was a danger dilettante. In 1986, at the age of twenty-three, I traveled to Nicaragua as a passionate but clueless freelance reporter and photographer for an alternative newspaper to cover the U.S.-backed covert war against the leftist Sandinista government. I had $150 in my pocket, ten rolls of film in a quart-sized Ziploc bag, and a tenuous grasp of even rudimentary Spanish. I was looking for that shortcut to foreign-correspondent street cred, hoping to luck into a firefight, maybe get a bullet graze, but obviously understanding nothing. My research about conducting myself properly in a war zone consisted of watching Oliver Stone's
three times. Once in country I headed to the infamous La Cita bar at Managua's Hotel Intercontinental and used my meager cash to buy bottles of the local
, Victoria, for new friends staying at the hotel. After enough rounds, I convinced them to allow me to crash on the floor of their room. Once oriented in the capital, I used a credit card to rent a battered, old Toyota Sentra and drove north from Managua to the front lines with a Canadian military academy professor named Hal, who was kind enough to act as my interpreter and wise enough to realize that I was likely to get myself killed without his help.

I remember weaving through rutted mountain roads on Christmas Eve when two Sandinista soldiers walking along the road stopped us to ask for a ride. Their green jungle boonie caps dripped water from the cowboy-style brims as they loaded into the cramped backseat. I eyeballed the iconic curve of the banana mags jutting from their AK-47s and smelled the smoke of the campfire that they had earlier tried to warm themselves with on that cold, rainy evening. “
Feliz Navidad
,” we said to each other as I shifted into first, puttering into the cloud-shrouded darkness. In that moment, I felt I had transcended my small-town Ohio upbringing and had become part of the larger world, one that was comprised of excitement, danger and men with guns. While I never saw combat there, only its aftermath, villagers burying their dead following an attack, it was that first taste that would eventually help make war my heroin. I wanted to feel forever unburdened by the mundane realities of normal life, the way it was so perfectly illustrated by Kathryn Bigelow in her film
The Hurt Locker
when bomb tech First Sergeant William James is more disturbed by the sight of a well-stocked grocery store cereal aisle at home than of a massive roadside bomb engineered from daisy-chained 155 mm artillery shells in Iraq.

While it would be a decade before I got another real war “fix,” this time as a producer for NBC News, my high returned easily and quite literally as my feet dangled outside the open door of a Navy Seahawk helicopter hovering over a U.S. destroyer in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, part of the U.S.-led post–Gulf War no-fly zone enforcement in Iraq. What kind of lucky bastard, I wondered, gets paid to be shuttled back and forth between battleships and aircraft carriers?

A few years after that I watched the start of the war in Kosovo, videotaping million-dollar Tomahawks launched at the Serbian capital of Belgrade from the deck of the guided-missile cruiser the USS
Philippine Sea
. The killing I “witnessed” up to and through Kosovo had always been at a distance. I saw weapons “release” but never their immediate impact. That changed for me during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

illing turns everything on its head. Watching people being killed, especially those you know, is a memory that can't be erased. But actually doing the killing or being fully complicit in it is a lifelong sentence to contemplate the nature of one's own character, endlessly asking, “Am I good, or am I evil?” and slowly growing mad at the equivocation of this trick question whose answer is definitively yes.

When someone kills in war there's a psychological triage that occurs. The individual must find meaning in the act. Because killing is the ultimate refutation of our own humanity, there must be a justification, to prevent the mind from defaulting to the judgment of murderer.

It's Private Joker trying to explain to the angry colonel in Stanley Kubrick's
Full Metal Jacket
, a 1987 film about the war in Vietnam, as to why he's wearing a peace symbol on his body armor while he's written “Born to Kill” on his helmet:

Private Joker:
I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.

The what?

Private Joker:
The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.

In his book
What It Is Like to Go to War
former Vietnam War infantry officer and Rhodes scholar Karl Marlantes ruminates on the killing he did and the dying he watched on his deployment to that nation during America's ten-year conflict there. He learned, in the years after his service, that coming to terms with death is essential, but it has also become increasingly difficult in our age of modern warfare, where death, for many of those meting it out in Iraq and Afghanistan, has become an abstraction.

“Today a soldier can go out on patrol, kill someone or have one of his friends killed and call his girlfriend that night and talk about anything except what just happened. And if society itself tries to blur that as much as possible, by conscious well-intended efforts to provide all the ‘comforts of home' and modern transportation and communication, what chance does your average eighteen-year-old have of not being confused?”

Marlantes believes that grief and mourning for those a solider has killed as well as for the friends and comrades he's lost is key to the transformation that enables the warrior to find peace in the aftermath of battle. The absence of that grieving, which is often blocked by the numbing devices of alcohol, drugs, violence and empty sex, leave the warrior mired in the past, living in the midst of his “sins” and in endless judgment of himself, hopeless and without salvation. And with more than two million Americans having served in one or both of the decade-long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, if society does not address that problem, it could have crippling social and economic consequences for the United States, including substance abuse, domestic violence, crime and the staggering medical and mental health care costs of providing for those veterans after their return and into old age.

“What is at stake is not just the psyche of each young fighter, but of our humanity,” according to Marlantes. He continues:

So ask the twenty-year-old combat veteran at the gas station how he felt about killing someone. His probable angry answer, if he's honest: “Not a fucking thing.” Ask him when he's sixty and if he's not too drunk to answer, it might come out very differently, but only by luck of circumstance—who was there to help him with the feelings during those four long decades after he came home from war. It is critical for young people who return from combat that someone is there to help them, before they turn to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. We cannot expect normal eighteen-year-olds to kill someone and contain it in a healthy way. They must be helped to sort out what will be healthy grief about taking a life because it is part of the sorrow of war. The drugs, alcohol and suicides are ways of avoiding guilt and fear of grief. Grief itself is a healthy response.

But grieving by its very nature requires remembering the past, recalling difficult memories and confronting the ugly truths of what the soldier has seen, done or failed to do in war. Denial becomes the mistaken coping mechanism for both the warrior and society.

A psychologist deeply immersed in the world of returning war veterans, Dr. Edward Tick, writes in his book
War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
that denial, rather than protecting us, widens that chasm in our mind about the good and evil of our nature and helps perpetuate our delusion that we really are only one or the other and cannot possibly harbor within ourselves both forces.

“What are we denying about our warmaking? We deny our own complex human nature,” writes Tick, “including our capacities for greed, evil and doing harm, clinging instead to the belief in our own innocence and goodness.”

Headlines from the war front reinforce this notion. When we learn of a U.S. Army “kill team” staging fake ambushes to kill Afghan civilians for a thrill, or Marines videotaping themselves urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban and then posting the clip to YouTube, paratroopers staging macabre photos with the body parts of suicide bombers, or an Army staff sergeant leaving his combat outpost in the middle of the night in southern Afghanistan and proceeding to kill sixteen civilians, including nine children, our first reaction is, “That can't be our people. We're the good guys.” And as Tick and other experts point out, the next step in the process for communal and individual self-preservation is to try to forget the incidents ever happened. The attorney for the man accused of the massacre of Afghan civilians says that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales himself has no recollection of his killing spree.

Understanding the grim mystery of war and surviving its aftermath seems more easily distilled once you scrub away the blood, dirt and disbelief, and expose it to the relentless logic of open and curious minds.

This is what we must know:

What is it like to kill? What is it like to be wounded or to die? What is it like to watch others wounded or killed in combat? And ultimately, how does one successfully cross the bridge from conflict back to peacetime society?

Though as I've revealed, I'm not a soldier, I've spent most of the last decade in war zones and the rest of the time trying to understand my experiences there and make sense of them. I have both carried the wounded and walked away from the dying. But more than anything else, I've had to watch and bear witness. I've seen the killing of human beings at nearly every point on the spectrum of our existence, from small children to wrinkled octogenarians. I've watched killing from great distances, bombs dropped from the sky. I've watched killing within the distance of an embrace, one man executing another. And these images, both as I captured them and as I contemplated them after, have changed me forever. They continue to define me and imbue me with a sense of importance and even swagger, while they also kill me slowly in the moments when I fully consider my complicity.

While I wrote this book with a desire to find answers to the questions above, it has been a hugely difficult and at times fruitless quest. My goal was to contact many of the soldiers and Marines whom I've reported on in the past and to trace the arc from that moment of our first meeting to where they are now. Perhaps I would learn that they've experienced some of the same reentry problems as me; it was quite possible they were also grappling with war-fractured narratives of their current lives. I wanted to talk to and learn from them, but I also had information that might help them: I discovered through writing my first book,
In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars
, and the speaking engagements that surrounded it, that sharing the burden of my wars and the mistakes I made in them helped me, at least initially, to understand and to heal. Surely, if I could get them to tell me their own war stories, it might do the same for them. In my research, I found support for my theory. It was, the experts confirmed, about storytelling, finding a way to release warriors from the bonds of their own silence and help them say the things they felt they could not say.

“A large part of treating PTSD is simply getting the veteran to remember and talk about what happened to him,” writes Marlantes in
What It Is Like to Go to War
. And once the talking begins there's a shift that makes the burden more manageable.

BOOK: The Things They Cannot Say
10.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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