With reference to “Every Man in the Village is a Liar”
I was walking the dog around the lake, when my puppy stopped to rub noses with another puppy that looked like its twin. After some discussion, the rather eccentric walker, who had bought his puppy in Rochester, told me that he was actually doing some research into water quality at Blackburn Lake. He had retrained since returning from the army, during which he had one regret: he had to kill a six year old Taliban boy who was carrying a bomb. He said it was not only him or us; the young boy was endangering several battalions. But as for the rest, he believed the Taliban got what they deserved and in fact, the allies should have gone in earlier and blasted them all.
To “kill or be killed” is often a common theme of many a war survivor’s experience. But is it really so simple?
This retrained water quality marine seemed to have survived without too much problem. He even protested that he didn’t believe in that post-traumatic stuff. He said they were soldiers after all. They were trained to kill.
In many ways, his story echoes Jonathon – a trained child killer. Whilst many around him were severely traumatised, he had the capacity to use his experience to advantage. He survived and in some ways ensured that he became mentally stronger.
At 10 years of age, Jonathan Okwir was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and trained as a child soldier. He was separated from family; forced to kill or be killed and endured two years in a hostile, brutal environment in which girls were raped, boys assaulted and turned into trained killers. Returning to school, they often struggled to adapt; they were stigmatised and persecuted, feared and abhorred. Most would have been warped. Not Jonathon, who soon became top of his class. Amazingly, he showed signs of courage and ingenuity; he showed an ability to rise above difference and adversity; he earned the respect and admiration of others, shone as a natural leader and pursued a fundamental right to an education, all the while never forgetting his mother. Drawing upon his difficult experiences, he enlightened others becoming an important speaker.
But war is not always so clean, so quick and so efficient. The scars often linger.
In the Prologue to her collection of essays, “Every Man in this Village is a Liar”, Megan Stack draws attention to her Uncle John’s war experiences in Beirut. He survived the war, but did not survive the battle. When the bomb in Beirut exploded, 305 people died around him, but John made it back to New York, but few years later shot himself in the head and Megan attended the funeral. This was her first exposure to the battle scars of war which become a predominant theme throughout her journalistic experiences in the war conflicts in the Middle East. She illustrates just how difficult it is to survive the war and often the psychological battles become more horrendous even than the physical. Likewise, Megan survives numerous wars as a correspondent, but it takes its toll.
Although she is able to dodge the bullets driving through a battle-scarred Lebanon at the height of sectarian violence, Megan eventually becomes anxious and stressed. There were signs all along. IN 2004, at the height of anti-American sentiment during the Iraq war, Megan cannot stop fainting when she visits the victims in a hospital outside Baghdad after a suicide bomb. She admits the stress was intolerable. “My body was shutting down in protest at the parade of broken humans. (102) Raheem reminds her of the need to be “strong” (“We see this every day.”) but Megan admits that it was not the first time she had started fainting, and “it would keep happening for months to come”. After 10 years in the field as a war correspondent, Megan realises personally that you can survive and not survive. She has survived physically and enjoys the clean sheets and distance from the danger, but she knows that she will always be emotionally involved and psychological scarred by the violence.
As are most of the people she interviews and the people she works with.
We know that many of the policemen and the translators and the media personnel who work with or beside the Americans are marked people. They become targets of the militias. As Stack comments, the worst job in Iraq is a police officer; they are “marked men, working for the occupation”, trying to eke out a living. (101)
Such wars are also littered with examples of those who do not survive – especially not physically. For example, Ahmed Shawkat, a journalist and a Shabak Kurd who ran a newspaper and wrote a book on Mosul’s founding (Kurds are an ethnic and cultural minority). He had death threats and was one day shot while on the roof using his satellite phone.
However his example also shows that while many lose the physical battle they, like Atwar Bahjat, win the psychological battle. Courageously, Atwar Bahjat, (Every Man in This Village is a Liar), a journalist at Al-Jazeera, a Middle-Eastern news organisation, pestered to be able to cover the war in Iraq, but paid dearly for her persistence. But she did not compromise her beliefs and wins the principled war.
Atwar Bahjat’s story is that of Iraq. “Her murder reeked of the hopelessness of a lost cause.”. Her body and soul fed “to appease the nihilistic blood thirst of a slow-motion national collapse”. AS Stack writes, she was a woman, who courageously, kept “company with the country all down the darkest days”. (195) She also, knowing that she was a target, preached tolerance. She was just one of 66 journalists (47 of whom were Iraqi, and 11 Arabiya employees like Atwar) who had been slaughtered during the civil war. (shot by US forces, gunned down by their countrymen, crushed by bombs”. She died at the height of sectarian violence. Just before her death, Sunni militants had set off bombs in the gold-domed shrine at Samarra, a place of pilgrimage for the Shiites. “Civil war had never felt so manifest”. The funeral cavalcade was even targeted by a homemade bomb laid along the road, “planted to strike the mourners as they left the cemetery”.
Likewise, Australia also has its share of victims, both in a position of power and those who had none. Since his return, he has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and depression and spent time in psychiatric wards. Australia’s Major General John Cantwell, who was on track to become the Chief of Army in the Defence Department, found himself in a psychiatric ward instead of rising to the top of his field because of his inability to cope with the insurmountable grief, horror and guilt arising from his war experiences, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Major Cantwell fought in Iraq in 1991 and in 2006. In 2010 he commanded the Australian troops in Afghanistan. He states that he feels a sense of betrayal towards the men for whose lives he was responsible and who ended up maimed or killed. He now feels “redundant, without purpose” and desperate because he can no longer help. He is forever traumatised: Walking down the street in Melbourne, signs of war trigger his trauma. For example, a plastic garbage bag rustling in the wind recalls an improvised explosive device (IED). “I freeze, then force myself to calm down”. Whenever he uses antiseptic chemicals at home, he recalls dead bodies in the mortuary. “I try hard not to dwell on the troubled past, but it invades my consciousness without prompting. “The real me – the person who has led soldiers in battle – watches aghast at the blubbering fool I have become”. Ever since his return, he is on a cocktail of drugs for depression, anxiety and pain that he believes have left him “dull-witted”
Sometimes, the battle rages, although it is hard to define the enemy. Laxmi was 11 years old vivacious and attractive. She was pursued by the 32-year old friend of her brother. After she refused an invitation of marriage, rejected, and full of hatred, he followed her one day through the streets, tapped her on the shoulder, and threw acid on her face and neck. Physically shattered, Laxmi will forever be burdened by pain, skin infections and self-doubts. However, all was not lost. She summoned the strength to channel her courage into changing laws in India. At that time, rejected men were able to buy acid from the grocery store for 30 rupees. Laxmi filed a public interest petition in India’s highest court to demand that the government restrict the sale of acid. She won a landmark judgement in 2013. Now, acid is only sold if one has a special permit. Overcoming physical and psychological scars Laxmi was determined to draw attention to the plight of victims who suffer because of men’s arrogance and their vulnerable egos. As her partner says, “I fell in love with her because of her bravery. I love people like her who are so alive and want to change the world and not just live their own life. She fought for justice despite her own ordeal.
Whether or not one survives physical or mentally is perhaps a quirk of fate. Or perhaps it’s a matter of one’s mettle. Perhaps it’s just luck: pure and simple. For Megan Stack it is critical to realise that “in the end survival is not a meagre redemption.” IN other words, just because you survive does not mean that your actions have been justified.
(Return to Megan Stack Notes)