Tag Archives: war

Dear Imprudence: The Questions You Don’t Get To Ask

A concerned family member writes to Miss Manners:

Dear Miss Manners:

My brother served in Iraq a couple of years ago. He suffers from PTSD and was wounded. The physical wound is not one you can see, but people (family especially) will still ask him what it was like to fight in the war and even go so far as to ask if he killed anyone.

It never ceases to amaze me the way that people feel entitled to information about other people. They love to ask questions about your disability, and when a person happens to be a veteran and has seen combat, one of the first questions that comes up, almost without fail (unless that inquiring person happens to be a veteran or the family member/close friend of a veteran), is whether or not that particular veteran has killed some body.

Have you ever killed anyone?

I just can not fathom having to live with the reality of having lived through that burden, let alone having to deal w/ having to relive any of the emotions attached to that each time a thoughtless person asks “Have you ever killed anyone?”.

The letter writer wants to avoid having to stay away from a family function to keep zir brother safe from such carelessness from other family members, and honestly that breaks my heart. A PWD should not have to completely cut themselves off from friends, family, and other outside contacts to avoid triggering situations, but the reality is, this is overwhelmingly the way that it usually works.

I know for a fact that there are many veterans living in isolation because of PTSD, and yes, several of them are women, because of people who aren’t veterans, who can’t grasp what that must have been like (and not even all of us, as veterans can know what that is like), who can’t abstain from getting too nosy and triggering their PTSD. Why can’t we just have the same conversations as everyone else? Not everything in our lives revolves around our disabilities and our experiences in The Sandbox. Not everything is about the worst thing that has ever happened to us.

I like the way Miss Manners answers this letter:

Can you do this without creating consternation and even more curiosity about his condition?

She cautions the letter writer to caution the family to avoid the topic of war without creating a more awkward situation that might cause the family to avoid zir brother as if he is a ticking time bomb.

[He] will probably tell us about the war eventually, but right now it’s his least favorite topic, and I know he’d appreciate our staying off the subject.

This is the perfect way to describe this.

This is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, the Forgotten War, many call it. My grandfather is a proud veteran and a Purple Heart recipient. He didn’t like to talk about the war with us, even when I was a shining eyed, curious young girl, who was almost never denied anything she asked of her grandfather. It was painful for him to remember, and the only time I ever saw him reminisce was when we traveled to Des Moines for his unit’s reunion many years ago.

But after I joined the Navy he sent me a letter at my A-School sharing a moment of understanding for what I was doing, and later, when my partner and I PSC-ed to Korea, he sat and talked to us for hours about what he remembered of the country. He told us harsh and sometimes beautiful stories of his memories. He told his of his marching from Pusan all the way to far North, of being picked up by Navy ships, transported back to Pusan and doing it again, after salvaging boots from the dead to cover their own bleeding feet. He tells it better, and I hope to get it recorded the next time I see him. But he told it to us in his own time, when it didn’t hurt him anymore.

I remember when The Kid’s Tae Kwon Do instructor told us of his memory of being a child during the war. A child in her class said that he was too young to do something or another well. The Master told us a story, of being eight, and of being held by his mother in a drainage tunnel and being told to not make a sound while North Korean soldiers ran over head. He was able to barely breathe, soundlessly, and stand against the side, like you see in movies, as they flashed their lights looking for people. He shared that story with us freely, and I remember the look on his face, as if he could still feel the chills of fear, like he was back there for a moment, but stronger now, sixty years later.

We have no right to ask them to regale us with the details of the horrible things they had to do to get by, to make a living for their families, to live, all because they were told it was the right thing to do. Or because they had to survive. They had a moment to think, but they have a lifetime to live with that decision.

People who live through wars will tell their stories when they are ready, because the pain will give them a moment of release, it will subside for a moment, or forget to pound them with the aggressive flashback or terror.

We, as people who have never lived through that, have no right to inflict that upon them.

The Balkans: They Call It Balkan Syndrome: War, Terrible Legacies, and Pointing Fingers

The Balkans are a hub between East and West. This diverse region of Europe has rippled with conflict for centuries and like other areas repeatedly subjected to violent conflict and military actions, a significant legacy has been left behind. Rates of disability are higher in war torn regions for all the obvious reasons, support is often lacking, and in places like the Balkans the issue is complicated by the consequences of decades and centuries of conflicts between not just enemy nations, but friends and neighbors; as in Rwanda, people are struggling with the psychological aftermath of turning on each other. The toll of war in the Balkans has been immense.

In the 1990s, the Balkans exploded with a series of conflicts as the former Yugoslav republics battled amongst themselves. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened on several occasions in an attempt to bring peace to the Balkans, and they brought a little something extra with them.

Depleted uranium (DU) is a radioactive material made from recycled nuclear fuel. It’s favored by militaries because it is extremely dense, which makes it useful for developing armor penetrating rounds. DU rounds can stop tanks in their tracks and easily penetrate body armor. This makes them immensely popular when the primary goal is stopping power which can be used to bring a conflict to a close quickly. Between 1994 and 1995, the United States Air Force (USAF) alone dropped 2.3 tons of DU ammunition in the Balkans. In 1999, during Operation Allied Force, 10.2 tons of DU were delivered by the USAF to military targets.

Dropping radioactive materials willy nilly may not seem like a wise idea, but numerous military authorities argue that DU poses no threat and can provide ample studies to back up the claim. This despite the fact that DU rounds break up on impact, spreading fine radioactive powder around the areas where they are delivered. When tank penetrating rounds are used, for example, the interior of the tank is covered in radioactive material. In the Balkans, abandoned and radioactive vehicles could still be seen by the side of the road five years after Operation Allied Force was over. Children played in them. Independent research teams have demonstrated that pockets of radioactivity are still present in areas which received large payloads during conflicts in the Balkans.

DU doesn’t stay confined to the area where it was delivered. It penetrates the soil and enters the water and is carried away by the wind. Thus, a radioactive contamination problem in the Balkans is a radioactive contamination problem for neighboring areas as well. Survey teams in the Balkans and neighboring areas have identified radioactive dust in the wind, in groundwater, in surface water, and in soil. While there have been some cleanup efforts, many recommendations suggest that DU should be left in situ because it is not believed to be a risk and disturbing contaminated ground may be more dangerous than cleaning it up.

Tell that to Allied soldiers who worked in the Balkans, who are currently experiencing unusually high rates of cancers, notably lymphoma. French and Italian soldiers are experiencing cancer at rates in excess of the norm. Residents of the Balkans may be facing what has been described as a “cancer epidemic” and DU is certainly one possible cause. In Serbia, unusual rates of chromosomal variations have been documented; radiation exposure is certainly one possible cause and the fact that radiation has been found in Serbian water supplies should certainly give one room for pause, at the very least.

There’s a name for it: They call it Balkan Syndrome.

NATO studies continue to insist that DU does not pose a threat, either to the people who were involved in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans or to the residents of the region. Their studies have primarily focused on soldiers, not residents, and long-term epidemiology studies are hard to find. Things like fertility problems can be difficult to recognize in the immediate wake of a conflict. I would also note that there is a long and established history of military denial of epidemiological trends when those trends look bad for the military.

The continued use of DU munitions is problematic. The fact that cancer rates consistently rise among people exposed to such munitions certainly suggests a very strong correlation which could merit further exploration. It is also notable that reports on the danger of such munitions conflict rather wildly, depending on the source or sponsoring agency of the report, which seems to suggest that more independent oversight would be a wise idea.

For those who trust NATO’s reports and believe that DU is not an issue in the Balkans, something still needs to be done about people with disabilities in the region, including those unusually high numbers of people with cancer and congenital disabilities. And this is complicated by the fact that repeated conflicts created masses of refugees, many of whom had no homes to return to and who were set adrift by conflict as borders were moved and redrawn. Many of these same refugees also experience psychological issues related to war. While the refugee crisis has eased, the aftereffects linger.

Post traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon among survivors of the wars in the Balkans who were refugees, some of whom are also trying to care for young children and disabled family members in a culture where disability is often treated as a sign of moral failing. Some of these children are the result of systematic military rape. Providing intervention is difficult on many levels; there are language and cultural barriers, the lack of fixed and stable homes makes it difficult to follow up, it is difficult to track people for demographic purposes, and it can be challenging to ensure that children have access to consistent education. People who have been refugees are also more likely to experience poverty, which can be a significant barrier to accessing needed services.

As the Balkan states slowly join the European Union, conversations need to shift from where responsibility lies to what we want to do about it. Intervention in the Balkans can only be effective, however, if residents of the region are empowered by it and that intervention remains respectful to cultural and social traditions of the region. Is the EU up to the challenge?

Here are some organisations working in the Balkans on disability issues:

Capacity Building of Disabled People’s Organisations in the Western Balkans (CARDS Project)

Center for Independent Living Serbia (supported by CARDS)

Self-Help and Advocacy for Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities South East Europe (SHARE-SEE)

Association of Disabled Persons (UDAS), Banju Luka, Bosnia