- Interview by
- Chandler Dandridge
Nadia Abu El-Haj’s new book, Combat Trauma, explores shifting clinical and public understandings of soldier trauma from the Vietnam War era to the post-9/11 present. The book examines how the figure of the traumatized soldier frames an ethical commonsense about what American civilians owe those who fought in the military and how that consensus ultimately forecloses on the possibility of antiwar critique.
Abu El-Haj is a professor of anthropology at Barnard College and codirector of the Center of Palestine Studies at Columbia University. She sat down with American psychotherapist and Jacobin contributor Chandler Dandridge to discuss the radical origins of the concept of soldier trauma and its subsequent absorption into the pro-war status quo.
After devoting your first two books to Israel and Palestine, Combat Trauma appears to chart new territory for you. What made you want to write about American militarism in the post-9/11 era?
My two previous books are interested in colonial and imperial formations on the one hand and disciplinary forms of knowledge that give you a heuristic into those formations on the other. Whether it was archeology or genetics or now psychiatry, I explore disciplines as a way of thinking about broader political and ethical questions of power, colonialism, and imperialism. So there is an intellectual and methodological thread here.
But it was also very personal. I lived in war zones as a child and teenager. I lived in Beirut. I spent a lot of time in the West Bank. And then I spent some time in Baghdad in the ’80s. I had an experience of war and occupation as a civilian in the war zone.
So when the post-9/11 wars started, it was unbearable to watch it unfold from here. It was so striking to see what it means for a country to have the power and privilege to go to war thousands of miles away in a way in which the costs are just not borne by the American public.
Within a year or two, I started encountering articles on soldiers who were traumatized, and the accounts were all of being traumatized by seeing their buddies blown up or something like that. Having done a post-doc in the history of science, I knew the literature on the history of trauma. And in particular, I knew the writings on the Vietnam War that had a very different understanding of soldier trauma. And then as the years went on, the figure of the traumatized soldier became so prominent in the press and popular culture that it became a way for me to think about how these wars appear on the American front.
The book outlines the transition from what was once called “post-Vietnam syndrome” into what we now know ubiquitously as PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. How has the professional formulation of PTSD changed the trajectory of the traumatized soldier?
It’s changed profoundly. I start with the Vietnam period for a particular reason, which is partly in response to a scholarly literature on the origins of PTSD. The war in Vietnam and then the incorporation of the category of PTSD into the DSM-III marks a turning point when trauma becomes both acceptable and a condition of victims. But scholarly literature misses something really important about that earlier formulation. Today, a lot of work around trauma and war dismisses the possibility of trauma as a language through which one can capture the political stakes of these wars. Trauma is purely clinical and it detaches itself from any broader conversations about collective responsibility or collective experiences.
That wasn’t always the case. Within the movement against the Vietnam War, the concept of “post-Vietnam syndrome” emerged. It was developed by a group of radical psychiatrists and Vietnam veterans who were part of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). And the syndrome was simultaneously a psychiatric and political conception. The veterans understood themselves to have been traumatized by what they did; not by having been victimized, but by having committed atrocities on a regular basis. In other words, trauma was born in transgression. And understanding and healing trauma was inseparable from articulating a political critique of the war.
We then enter the [Ronald] Reagan Revolution where it seems the administration was especially interested in restoring the image of the American soldier and the military. How did this contribute to the further depoliticization of combat trauma?
Various things converge in the 1980s to shift the understanding of trauma and to depoliticize it. As part of the rise of the conservative movement, Reagan sought to rewrite the war in Vietnam. One crucial piece to rewrite was that the US did not lose the war on the battlefields. It lost on the home front. The antiwar movement deprived the fighting force of their ability to do the job. Part of that reconstruction is a reconstruction of the treatment of Vietnam veterans upon their return. So, it’s not just that the war was lost on the battlefield. It was that trauma was produced by a homecoming as well, because of the ways in which the Vietnam veteran was demonized. So you have a political shift that’s inseparable from the trauma conversation.
There are then other things going on at the same time. There’s obviously the feminist movement that really gains much more ground on questions of rape and incest in terms of both public recognition and juridical rights. They rely on the work of the antiwar psychiatrists to formulate their understanding of PTSD. They needed the victim not just for political but also for forensic reasons, because the argument was always, “Are women really innocent of rape?”
And then there was also this conservative movement called the “Victims of Crime Movement” that the Reagan administration championed. And their argument becomes that the streets are dangerous; normal (white) Americans can’t walk the streets without being at risk of murder and rape. That movement also picked up the language of trauma, the trauma of the innocent, victimized citizen who was preyed upon by the (black) criminal in the public domain.
So you have all these different political projects that converge around the notion of trauma, and gradually the concept moves farther and farther away from its original understanding, not just as a political critique, but as the possibility of being traumatized by having been a perpetrator of violence rather than a victim.
The post-9/11 wars have given us an entirely new category of soldier: the drone operator. I am wondering if you could talk a bit about the concept of combat trauma when it comes to the drone operator.
The traumatization of the drone operator is really interesting, because it does not use the language of perpetration and transgression. But there’s no way you can frame it other than that the issue is the drone operator is perpetrating violence. The drone operator is killing. So they talk about killing at a distance and what that means. (Although the relation is very intimate and the question of distance is complicated here because, on the one hand, you’re geographically distant, but visually you see the person you kill in the community they live in as you are tracking them in a way that a soldier on the ground may not.) Clearly, the drone operator’s trauma cannot be about fear of death, exposure to bodily harm. About being victimized. But discussions of drone operator trauma do not enter explicitly into the language of perpetration.
You’ve often been watching this person for a long time. It’s theorized as the tension between, I’m clocking in a 9 to 5 job doing war and then I go home and pick up my kids from soccer. And the disjunction is just kind of an impossible thing to live. And there is talk about killing. But again, in a kind of neutered language. Because the question is never whether the killing is legitimate.
Since Vietnam there has been a robust care system set up around veterans. I am wondering if you could talk about how this so-called “care industry” functions and how it “conscripts citizens,” to steal a heading from one of the book’s sections.
It is important to separate the federal government’s response from the private sector’s. The care industry is part of a whole transformation from Reagan to [Bill] Clinton to George W. Bush where cuts were made to federal welfare. It’s the neoliberal turn. You shrink the size of the welfare state and outsource a lot of the work that would have been done by the welfare state to nonprofits. It’s not the role of the state to care for its citizens in the same way. The retraction of the welfare state is when you see the expansion of this whole nonprofit world taking up a lot of the work of care.
When it comes to veterans and the VA [or the US Department of Veterans Affairs], there are problems that I think are both paradigm problems and fiscal problems. There’s been a shift away from psychodynamic therapy in which Vietnam veterans who still went to the VA were being treated therapeutically for years on end, toward the introduction of evidence-based medicine where it’s about supposedly measurable outcomes and short-term care, which is a lot cheaper. It has to show improvement. The paradigm shift has reduced the amount of care that is available to veterans in ways that I think could never possibly capture the actual depth of the problem here.
But the care industry, as I see it, is much more the nonfederal part. When you outsource the care, it’s not framed as an institutional federal responsibility. It’s framed as an obligation of citizens who didn’t go to war toward those that did. And it depends on this very stark dividing line between the civilian and the soldier. And here “the civilian” refers to the American citizen who apparently doesn’t know violence, which is an extraordinary statement given the society we live in. But there is a sense of being ignorant and an innocent of violence, of war. And that care industry is about healing. It’s about reintegration. But it’s done in a language that is stripped of any political critique.
As I write in the book, I’ve been to all these conferences where people are being trained in how to treat trauma and they tend to be liberals. They tend to be people who were definitely against the Iraq War, if not the war in Afghanistan. But there’s still a sense of that not being something we have the right to speak about. The treatment and reintegration of veterans has nothing to do with taking a political stance on the wars. More than that, taking a political stance on the wars can be seen as not supporting the troops. So, working with soldiers and veterans is framed as a profoundly moral obligation, stripped of any political entailments. And what that ends up doing is sidelining one’s position on the wars as somehow tangential to reintegrating and healing troops, or even, to conversations about the wars, because so much of the focus is on healing American troops. That’s what the war appears to be. In the American public arena, the war appears as the wounded or, I think even much more profoundly, the traumatized soldier.
There was one session in this conference where veterans got up to speak to the audience. And the chaplain, a former military chaplain who introduced the veterans, told us, “Put down your pens. You are here to listen. They have decided to grace us with sharing their experiences and our job is to listen.” Our only job is to listen because the whole question of reintegration and healing is framed as a project of listening without judgment. Now again, one understands that in the context of a psychiatrist’s office. But there’s a broader call here, that’s a political call as well, to “support the troops.” Two out of the four veterans themselves levied incredible critiques of the war, but in people’s responses nobody picked up on that. They wanted to talk about the suffering.
The book touches upon figures like ex-Marine Tyler Boudreau who have become critical of US militarism in the Middle East. What do you think distinguishes the post-9/11 soldier who reckons with their trauma through political critique?
I think people like Tyler Boudreau came to their political critique through their experiences. They go off to war thinking they’re fighting the good fight. And then they encounter a war that makes no sense to them, how it’s being fought is unacceptable to them.
I know somebody who was involved in the first siege of Fallujah. He was a working-class kid and he went off to war and he really believed in it. And then they decimate Fallujah and he cannot reconcile what they did militarily with what he was led to believe the war was about. I think that happens to a lot of people. But I think there’s a difference between disappointment and politicization, and there’s a lot more disillusionment than politicization.
The turn to politicization? Why some individuals and not others? I don’t have an answer, but what’s interesting is that there is no question that someone like Boudreau and other veterans have the right to speak critically and politically about the war because they were there. But the rest of American citizens? Well, you didn’t go. You didn’t sacrifice. You can’t really critique.
I think in complex ways the liberal to left public has gotten on board with that call for silence, because so much of the conversation actually remains about American soldiers and their suffering. What do we owe the soldier? And in the scholarly world, so many books and ethnographies about the war are all about American soldiers or veterans. Part of that is access. But I don’t think that’s the only thing.
So that was part of my challenge. How can I write a book that stays in the US but doesn’t stay inside this American nationalist imaginary?
I’m thinking of the post-9/11 soldier-turned-politician. It’s almost impossible to imagine a critical figure like even a John Kerry running for office today.
I think there are veterans who are critical of the war running for office. But not in the way the VVAW was. It is very different to say the war was badly run, or that the Iraq War was started on a lie and that we shouldn’t have been there, than it is to say this is an imperial war and we really have to reconsider the US’s role in the world. That was the VVAW’s politics, or at least many of its most vocal members’. Those are very different kinds of statements.
Even on the Left, antiwar sentiment is so muted. Not that there was a large antiwar movement under [Barack] Obama, but there was still a sense of a conversation happening.
How can you claim to be in a progressive movement that is opposing the rise of the Right and not think it’s even worth talking about or demanding the end of American military intervention? What makes that possible? I think it’s this kind of hagiography around the American soldier and, in particular, around the figure of the traumatized soldier. I don’t think the wars have been absent in the public domain. As I argue, I think they’ve been incredibly ubiquitous. But the soldier stands in for the war. The traumatized soldier is the war.
In the book’s epilogue you write about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan followed shortly by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How do you see these two events contributing to a critique of US foreign policy?
There hasn’t been a sustained political critique of the “war on terror” and US empire. And for one thing, it’s not over. The spectacle with which Afghanistan fell to the Taliban was an incredible smack in the face to the US military. Again, it didn’t lead people to say, “Wow, maybe the war was illegitimate from the start, or at least not the smartest response or the most moral response to 9/11.” But it did lead to this sense of American failure. And there was certainly at that moment, and it was really only a moment, suddenly a conversation about, “Oh my God, all these people who worked with us and fought for us and we’re abandoning them.” There’s a moral failure built into that military failure.
Then the war in Ukraine begins. And let me be clear: it’s an illegitimate war. It’s a war crime. Russia can’t be invading Ukraine. But that’s not the question — as if the US has not invaded sovereign nations for no good reason. Ukraine: it’s like the good fight that the Americans ultimately didn’t find in Afghanistan and Iraq. You’re fighting on behalf of Ukrainians who are fighting for democracy and the liberal order. The US can now be the moral leader again. It can organize the arms shipments and get the Europeans on the same page. And, in fact, it can do it without putting any of its own soldiers at risk.
What really struck me from an American perspective was, briefly, there had been some critical kind of reckoning. I mean, whatever that means with the fall of Afghanistan, right? And then it just gets taken over by this war in Ukraine and the US comes out looking rosy again. Partly that’s because the Russian military fought the way it did in Syria. Nobody cared as much when it was in Syria, but the Russian military doesn’t even have a pretense to a liberal way of war. It flattens cities to get what it wants. The American military has a pretense to limiting civilian casualties unless absolutely necessary, so American generals can stand up and lecture Russians on war crimes.
After the fall of Saigon, there was a kind of forced reckoning with the war and its failures. That’s what Reagan responded to. He had to reconstitute a military that was deeply delegitimized. But the military was never delegitimized by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because somehow the failures were not their responsibility. It was always only the politicians’ responsibility.
I feel like there’s never going to be any sort of reckoning. We’ve just kind of whitewashed over it all. I’m not sure there would have been, but there’s not even a possibility now. Because America’s virtue as a democratic leader of the world, fighting the good fight, has just been reconstituted kind of seamlessly.