The reading I did yesterday – a beautiful, sunlit, Oregon-late-spring-day that also included my sister’s even more beautiful wedding – describes various aspects of where we are now, if “we” is taken variously and loosely. It consisted of Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism by Jennifer Percy (2014), a non-fiction book that read like fiction, and “Box Sets,” a New Yorker short story by Roddy Doyle.
The short story describes the life of a young, unemployed Irishman and his loving, employed girlfriend. A lot of their free time is spent with friends arguing about which reality series from the Golden Age of Television is better – “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” “The Wire” or “The Bridge.” Our hero is trying to catch up on some of these, and feels behind the curve. The friends are also semi-elitist, even though they’re not rich, in that they buy cookbooks about the street food of various embattled cities and cook and serve it to each other. The story, in other words, describes the safe, at-least-one-step-removed-from-reality (or the reality of many) I said I felt I was living in my last post. I was mourning the lack of face-to-face, real community in the digital age; “Box Sets” shows how television and certain kinds of cookbooks allow the American and European middle-class to experience the current reality of crime and war from the safety of their realtively privileged homes.
Demon Camp, a non-fiction book, is the result of many hours the fiction-writer author spent with a veteran of the American wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Machine gunner Caleb Daniels was a member of the Special Operations helicopter team sent to rescue survivors of a 2005 Seal team mission gone wrong in Afghanistan: Operation Red Wings in which 11 SEALs and eight soldiers died, depicted in the recent film “Lone Survivor.” Caleb wasn’t on the rescue mission, which also ended in disaster, with all its members killed by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired directly into their helicopter. This was just by chance, but he suffers from severe survivor guilt, having, as so commonly happens, bonded more deeply with his fellow soldiers than with anyone else he’s ever known. He’s regularly visited by their ghosts, which doesn’t bother him so much, but he’s also haunted by an evil presence he calls “the Black Thing” or “the Destroyer” that seems to want to kill him or get him to kill himself. Believing that this is some kind of supernatural demon, he seeks “deliverance” at a Christian exorcism camp.
As the book jacket says, “Percy spends time with these soldiers and exorcists and their followers. Finding their beliefs both repellent and magnetic, she enters a world of fanaticism that is alternately terrifying and welcoming.” Then she smacks the reader in the face with it, with no filtering or analysis. All you can tell about her thinking or personal reaction is that there’s no mention of Caleb Daniels in the acknowledgements section – no “thank you” for all the hours he spent with her – but the book is partially dedicated to Caleb’s buddy, Kip Jacoby, who died in the fire-bombed helicopter. Percy seems to be saying that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which Caleb claims not to have, takes many forms. A reviewer of the book also suggests that America as a whole suffers from PTSD.
Poor Caleb; poor America. What about the PTSD in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two countries America gratuitously and illegally invaded in 2001 and 2003, destroying one and furthering the destruction (if that were possible) in the other? Afghans have been engulfed in war as a result of foreign invasions for 35 years, since the Soviets began trying to use force to alter their politics in 1979. Yet any time Caleb Daniels refers to Iraqis or Afghans it’s as evil, enemy “others” out to get him. He joined the military at 17 to try to escape an unhappy family and love life and a boring hometown with no economic future. His society failed him in many ways, in other words, then sent him overseas to harm others. The Seal mission his team was trying to rescue had been sent to assassinate a Taliban leader. What was the purpose of this? The Taliban had nothing to do with 9-11; it’s an entirely Afghan – in fact, almost entirely Pashto – movement that has nothing to do with the United States, except that it wants US forces and drones out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These young American men aren’t fighting for the “rights” or welfare of the American civilians they often despise for not doing that work themselves. They’re fighting for the monetary profit the greedy American and international elite hope (or hoped) to make from Iraqi oil and a proposed natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan. They may also be fighting because war may be the only thing keeping the American economy afloat, and weapons manufacturers have powerful lobbies in Washington. These horrible wars have nothing to do with politics or any noble ideals, and the monstrous lie that they do is killing what’s left of our sick national soul.
Caleb Daniels and others like him know this on some level – that they’ve committed murders and crimes and suffered death and horrendous physical and mental wounds for no good reason. No wonder Black Things follow them around. Yes, in some ways they were innocent (how can a 17-year-old make a moral decision this weighty?) and heavily propagandized. But ultimately we’re all responsible for our actions, and there are actions that can’t be lived with.
The sickness starts here, in the lies eating away the American heart and heartland. And more lies, more insanity, more negativity, like Christian “exorcisms” are only going to make things worse. Veterans and other survivors have kids, too. Caleb’s 5-year-old son Isaac said he wanted to go to Iraq. He packed himself into a cardboard box with newspaper and waited patiently when Caleb told him that’s the only way he’d get there.
You can almost compare Caleb and his cohorts to the young men who go into their high schools or former elementary schools and kill and injure a lot of innocent people before killing themselves, or saying they wish they were dead. They’re also spreading a Black Thing. If that’s how bad it is, and you can’t get help from people who aren’t sick themselves – which in most cases, I believe, you can, if you try, and if you’re honest about what’s happening inside you – then go ahead: kill yourself. Don’t take other people, especially little kids, down with you. This shit has to stop somewhere.
P.S. We’ll have to help our veterans ourselves; the Veterans’ Administration keeps them on waiting lists and gives them drugs that make their problems worse. In many instances vets only trust other vets, but they can train us. Check out Iraq Veterans Against the War at http://www.ivaw.org, or just Google “veterans against war,” if you want to get involved or make a contribution.