discomfort (2007-15)

Pressure Cooker

The dangers of coming down off of Iraq

by Steve Dupree

Here is your quiz for the day: What would happen to a balloon that you inflated normally and then moved into a vacuum? For the physics-challenged among you, I'll help. With the balloon inflated at normal atmospheric pressure (or actually, slightly greater) and sealed, the move into a vacuum would cause all of the pressure to be on the inside of the balloon and none to be on the outside. The balloon would expand rapidly and then burst.

In the Navy, there is a standard instruction given to those who might have to escape from a deeply submerged vehicle, a crashed plane or sunken boat. They tell you to take a deep breath and then head for the surface, exhaling constantly as you ascend. That is because you take in the breath at an increased pressure, and if you do not exhale as the external pressure lessens, you will play like a balloon. You will expand and burst and, most likely, die. I can almost hear you asking why this is important information for you. Fear not, I'm getting to that.

This column is about war. More specifically, it is about the effect of war on people. Though it may not have occurred to you, this war will affect you. If you are lucky, it will be a minor effect, but you may not want to bet your lunch money on that turnout.

For those in the war zone, be they combatants or civilian inhabitants of the war zone, war is pressure. In the case of our soldiers, sent to fight in a land that most of them understand nothing of, the pressure is intense. Most of our team does not speak the language. There are few, if any, visual cues to allow them to differentiate between Iraqi allies and insurgent foes.

They do not know who will try to kill them next. The insurgents recruit males of almost any age. They will utilize women, or simply disguise themselves as such. Mistakes are made. The result of those mistakes is frequently the creation of more enemies, whether they join the ranks of the insurgents or not. All of that leads to more pressure. Our guys are forced to make choices in situations in which they can never know whether it was the right one or not. The enemy will charge that it was the morally wrong choice no matter what. Sometimes, all of the forensic evidence says that the wrong choice was made.

Sleep is difficult, and the dreams make it undesirable. The people the combatants spend the most time with, their fellow soldiers, depend on them for their very lives, and they have no choice but to reciprocate. It is tremendous pressure. They learn to deal with that pressure, to internalize it and to confront it with a gun and perhaps other weaponry.

One day, most of them will come home. Suddenly, the external pressure will be gone. Like turning off a switch, people will quit trying to kill them. Instantly, the soldiers will no longer have to guess what the people around them are saying. No longer will they have to visually analyze kids that are approaching them to determine if they are carrying explosives. The pressure will be gone. On the outside . Inside, nothing's changed. Therein lies the problem.

Your neighbor, the kid at the service counter of one shop or another, your boss, the guy in the car next to you or maybe the one that's oncoming, hell, the lady praying next to you at church, any of them or all of them might be a war veteran who suddenly has all of his or her pressure on the inside. Will they explode? Will they take you with them? Who knows?  

Most of them (hopefully) will find non-destructive ways of bleeding off the internal pressure. But it really will not take that many who do not cope well to destroy a family or even a community. Will your community be one of those? Will mine? I can't read the future and most likely, neither can you. It is pretty much Satan's lottery.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been a factor in every post-war I know of. When I was a kid, we were told those guys walking around talking and yelling to themselves were "shell shocked" WWII or Korea vets. Vietnam vets make up a significant percentage of the homeless, and many of them simply never adjusted at all. If the worst thing that happens from this conflict is that those Iraq war veterans' families are ruined by their peaceful inability to deal with what they saw and did, the cost is still too high. If their inability to cope is not peaceful, the cost becomes indescribable.

We see frequent assessments of the monetary costs of this war. Unless we are far luckier than I think we will be, the money is just the bare beginning of the cost.