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Interview With Peter Van Buren: Moral Injury In A State Of Endless War

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On this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure,” former State Department employee Peter Van Buren joins the show to discuss his new book, “Hooper’s War.”

Van Buren blew the whistle on malfeasance and corruption related to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. He is also the author of “Ghosts of Tom Joad,” and, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”

Hooper’s War” is a raw novel, caustic in tone and sober in its treatment of war and the forever rot that war creates within us. It revolves around a character who is a World War II veteran, and its content carries even greater resonance as Americans mark another Memorial Day.

During the interview, Van Buren highlights what influenced his story. The show delves into the concept of moral injury.

We discuss myths about wars that are told, particularly how those who served in World War II were the “Greatest Generation.” Later, Van Buren addresses finding ways to heal by making amends with those veterans once dehumanized as well as endless war and what the book’s main character, Hooper, might think about the present day.

As Van Buren describes, his book “deals with the issue of moral injury in war, the concept that people set off to fight America’s endless wars come home broken, their moral fiber challenged.”

Moral injury, according to Van Buren, is well-established in military circles. It is an acknowledged illness by the Veterans Administration. In fact, the term was coined in the 1980s by Veteran Affairs psychologist Jonathan Shay.

“As complex moral beings with a sense of right and wrong, that sense of right and wrong can be bent and eventually broken in war,” Van Buren adds. This can happen when transgressing moral boundaries or when people fail to do something that also crosses a moral line (such as failing to stop an atrocity).

“It’s very difficult to describe what 100,000 deaths look like so what I wanted to do in my book is talk about what one death looked like—what happens in someone’s mind when they watch someone die, when they feel culpability for that single death in the midst of this horrific scenario, where there’s 100,000 corpses all around you.”

In regards to myths, Van Buren contends that myths are “very much a part of causing moral injury because it’s the conflict between the grossness of reality and the cleanliness of those types of myths that cause people to realize that they have been buffaloed. That they have been taken advantage. That they have sacrificed a lifetime of comfort with themselves in the dark for these myths.”

One of the most persuasive myths that comes out of World War II, which is central to “Hooper’s War,” is that by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and taking away countless the United States did the Japanese a favor. The war ended earlier than it would have if the U.S. had not dropped bombs.

Separately, Van Buren asserts the myth of the “Greatest Generation” has been “responsible for an extraordinary amount of suffering.”

“What you find is, sure, it’s great to be called up at the Memorial Day ceremony as the oldest surviving veteran in the crowd and the member of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ defeated fascism, band of brothers, marched across Europe, all those good things. And there’s truth to that, of course” Van Buren says.

“But war is what it is, and when you send people out to commit acts of violence, when you force them into morally ambiguous situations, where you take an 18 year-old and you give him the power of life and death over others and the responsibility for preserving the life with them and you don’t expect mistakes to be made, if you don’t expect bad people to be made horrible, you’re not being fair.”

Van Buren argues, “When you place that burden of ‘Greatest Generation,’ you’re telling people you shut up about this. We’ve got a story going here.”

On the subject of endless war, “We have set in motion, following 9/11, an endless cycle of war, where it is impossible for the United States to ‘win,’ which means it’s impossible for anything to really end. And I don’t think ending is what anyone is particularly looking for. You’re talking about tamping down a fire that you know will inevitably flare back up, and you have conditioned a society based around this multi-ambiguous fear of terrorism.”

Van Buren believes the main character in his book, Hooper, has figured out at the end of his life he was used. He has a great sense of loathing when it comes to the clever manipulation that transformed him and others into killers.

To listen to the interview, click on the above player or go here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."