What are we doing to the children of our military?
Whether or not you believe we are still helping the people of Iraq or Afghanistan, we cannot afford to ignore the emotions that wrack the breasts of the little ones whose fathers or mothers fly off to war.
As I wrote in my first blog on this site, the pressure many Americans feel to put a cheery face on the humans who comprise our military and on their families leads to the frequent glossing over of tender, suffering daughters’ and sons’ cries for help.
In a recent NBC Los Angeles story (http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local-beat/Military-Moms-Latest-Worry-An-Elementary-School-Has-Her-Son-Temporarily-Committed-to-a-Psych-Ward--115702044.html), we read of a six-year old boy whose father was being deployed by the Army to Iraq. At school, the boy drew a violent picture and said he wanted to die. According to his mother, who was about to be left alone with the child and his sibling, her son wanted to be home that day. School personnel, following a strict policy about how to respond to any student’s mention of suicide, flew into action, calling a Los Angeles County psychiatric response team, which put him in an ambulance and took him to a hospital on psychiatric hold. He spent 48 hours there. His mother says he’s now afraid to go to school, terrified that they will take him away again.
We can understand that school policy includes the requirement that children who show the least signs of suicidal thoughts must be taken seriously, but it’s important to stop and recognize that there are alternatives to the automatic psychiatrizing of this child’s fear and pain, both regarding him as mentally ill and thrusting him into the psychiatric system. Not everyone in pain is helped by getting a psychiatric label, and there are other ways to help that do not involve adding to the burdens of the person who is already suffering.
First, let’s consider: “Do we want to say this child is mentally ill and plop him into the psychiatric system?” Any six-year old who loves his father would be devastated that he is about to leave, and since any six-year-old knows that some soldiers die, so of course this child was deeply sad and terrified. That should make us want to help him, but does that make him mentally ill? And in a country at war, should we be surprised to see some children, especially children of servicemembers, producing pictures filled with violence? Consider the messages especially boys receive: “Daddy is supposed to be my hero. I should try to be like him. He is going off to fight a war. Violence looms large in my life. War is taking Daddy away. But as an Army child and especially as a boy, I’m not supposed to be sad. So what do I do when Daddy is leaving, and Daddy may die, and that breaks my heart?”
As for what else school personnel and other caring people might do: Whatever happened to listening? To trying to understand what this child’s life and indeed that specific day in his life was like — and why — and whether there are better, compassionate, even more effective ways to help than grabbing him from his mother, the one parent he thought he would go home to at the end of that school day, the person from whom he is probably best able to receive solace and understanding? A five-year-old child sitting in the office of a caring principal or school counselor will hardly manage to commit suicide right there. That he was on psychiatric hold means he was given one or more psychiatric labels that will in some form be likely to stay with him (and not helpfully) the rest of his life. As is usual these days, he was likely put on quite probably heavy psychiatric drugs whose effects on children no one has managed to learn much about, except that they are often dangerous (see Robert Whitaker’s new book, Anatomy of an Epidemic). And whose shocking decision was it to make this child’s name public?
Another heartbreaking point in the story was that his mother, understandably eager to explain that her child’s behavior was not sick, said that the violent picture he drew came from a video game. Although that is more than reasonable, it also helps gloss over the role that having one’s father heading to war could play in causing a child’s preoccupation with violence. In this case, just maybe that picture was simply and solely a memory from a video game. But at our peril do we ignore the way that a country and a parent at war can play in increasing that preoccupation.
The masking of the effects that war has on our children by treating it as mental illness is part of the larger cover-up of so many effects of war. The latter is what moved me to write When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home. And it reminds me of a lecture I attended shortly before President George W. Bush started the war in Iraq. The lecturer was the brilliant political thinker and journalist James Fallows. He told the audience he had interviewed dozens of highly-placed experts about whether or not they believed the U.S. should start that war, and he asked us what factor we would guess had distinguished those who said “yes” from those who said “no.” The answer: Those who said “no” were vastly more likely than those who said “yes” to have been to war themselves. The message was simple and powerful: Knowing what war really is makes one less likely to advocate going to war.
Related to this, in an otherwise gratifyingly positive Publishers’ Weekly review of When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home (http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-262-01554-7), the reviewer speculated that some readers might be “impatient” with my “belief that listening to veterans will somehow bring an end to war.” When I read that, I could only wish that everyone had heard Jim Fallows’s speech that day and that everyone could have the chance to hear a veteran’s story about the realities of war, for which no veteran ever told me they were — or could possibly have been — prepared. In the United States, where most of us have never been in combat, we are illiterate when it comes to knowing what war is. If every American interviewed a vet, we would educate ourselves and our nation about what is actually happening when our government goes to war. And it gives me hope that the more we listen to vets, the less likely we are when the next war comes to assent in innocent silence.