Lethal Warriors

If you'd like to know the toll that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can take on the lives of innocent Americans here in the States, look no further than the case of Erica Ham: one early morning in Colorado Springs while the nineteen-year-old woman walked toward a bus stop she was purposely struck from behind by a car. Her body rested on the hood of the vehicle, until an occupant of the vehicle dragged her to the ground, punched her repeatedly in the face, stabbed her in the left eye and in the lungs, stole her backpack, and left her to die; as she fell into shock and stumbled to her feet, looking for help, another assailant pointed a pistol at her and told her to stay on the ground.


The perpetrators of this senseless, near-deadly assault were members of an Army unit from Fort Carson, Colorado that saw some of the worst fighting in Baghdad during 2005 and 2006. The 506th Infantry Regiment were the storied Nazi killers of World War Two, whose combat feats and shared suffering had inspired the monicker "Band of Brothers." A reconstituted version of the unit took on the nickname "Lethal Warriors." And they brought their lethality home to Colorado Springs.


In Lethal Warriors David Philipps does an uncompromising, even heroic, job of unraveling the root causes, the meaning, and the implications of the violence these young men visited on Erica Ham and the destruction that other men from their unit practiced on the population of Colorado Springs. He links the extreme carnage the men witnessed, as well as the illegal acts many participated in there, with a subsequent condition of moral impairment. Returning soldiers were ready to booze up, drug up, and armor themselves against all threats real and imagined. The city of Colorado Springs and the command structure at Fort Carson were totally unprepared for the tsunami that returned with these warriors. The numbers alone provide a shock: "Arrests of military personnel in the city shot up 65% between 2005 and 2006."


But the significance of the book isn't only to reveal the problems facing these returned soldiers. Philipps wants to dispel the popular myth that the Vietnam War was the first conflict which saw combat veterans suffering the severe and debilitating psychological wounds that, left untreated, have the potential to wreak havoc on the civilian populace. The cycle, as a few statistics show, is as old as the idea of the demobilized soldier: after a post-Civil War uptick in New York City crime, the Times noted that it was caused by "rough material turned loose upon society by the close of the war." The chapter "Casualties of War" follows this thread and provides an engrossing and enlightening distillation of the last thirty years of PTSD research and theory. That chapter alone—in which Philipps matches his keen journalistic eye to a storyteller's timing and a social historian's breadth of research—is worth the price of admission.


In a world where this account of the history of combat trauma is little understood, the "bad apple" theory is instead often used to dismiss the toxic aftermath of front-line service. And some of the men Philipps portrays in the book had had trouble with the law before joining the Army and/or came from fractured families. But the overwhelming evidence from an epidemiological research project of Fort Carson soldiers supports the fact that, while these men might have become scofflaws, their experiences at war hard-wired them for violence and criminality: "war nudged guys that might have struggled with minor crime into something major."


The list of villains in this book is long: the criminals themselves; the sergeants and commanders that ridiculed psychologically damaged soldiers; the overall Army culture of machismo and the undermanned Army sent to fight by clueless politicians; doctors who pumped kids full of psychotropics in order to keep them in the fight; social workers who facilitated the illegal and amoral general discharges of combat-injured warriors who should've received medical discharges.


But there are a few heroes: Georg-Andreas Pogany, a former special forces interrogator and tireless advocate for soldiers' rights and mental health services; and the tragic-heroic General Mark Graham, who'd lost his own two sons to the Army—one a suicide while enrolled in ROTC, another a greatly admired lieutenant killed in the streets of Iraq while at battle. Graham has done radical things to protect the mental health of combat soldiers, including the design and implementation of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program.


Still, as long as we wage wars, young men will return from battlefields scarred and hurting, prone to violence, damaged, frail, and at loose ends. Lethal Warriors is a new and brilliant perspective on these men and of the long-term costs that our warring costs us all.

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