War Stories

by Terry Stephan

Journalist Kevin Sites (GJ89) has spent the last decade of his 20-year career covering wars and conflicts around the globe for ABC, CNN, NBC and Yahoo! News. A pioneer in the practice of “backpack journalism,” Sites has often worked alone and used digital technology to report his stories in print, online and on video.

Kevin Sites EMT

Journalist Kevin Sites (wearing hat at right), who is also an emergency medical technician, palpates for subcutaneous emphysema (air bubbles under the skin from a chest wound) at a combat field hospital at a U.S. forward operating base in southern Afghanistan 2010. The Afghan security contractor was wounded in an ambush. Photo by Ben Brody.

His new book, The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won’t Tell You About What They’ve Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War (Harper Perennial, 2013), chronicles the experiences of 11 veterans and their struggles on and off the battlefield. He also describes his personal experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder and the story of an Iraqi man whose death at the hands of U.S. troops caused Sites to examine his own sense of humanity and responsibility.

Sites, an associate professor in the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, spoke with Northwestern magazine’s Terry Stephan (GJ78) at the Washington, D.C., office of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in February.

When you were in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, you videotaped a Marine shooting and killing a wounded insurgent inside a mosque. The man was unarmed and had already surrendered. Another insurgent who was still alive tried to speak with you after the incident, but instead of staying with him, you left to show your video to the Marine’s commander. Sometime after you walked out of the mosque, that man was killed also. How did that affect you?

Not being aware of the circumstances, I unwittingly became complicit in a murder. And no matter what I say — that I didn’t mean to do it, that it was just an accident — the consequence is a man is dead. So I can’t take that back. But this man’s death said something to me about my role as a journalist. It said, ‘You might be ultimately aware of your surroundings as a reporter, but you’re woefully unaware of your surroundings as a human being.’ I never thought I would be in a moral dilemma of this magnitude, that I would have to actually accept my complicity in someone’s death.

So I began to think about this, and it really rocked my world. You start to believe that you really can’t be forgiven for something like that. Because you can’t take it back. And I began to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The stress began to manifest itself through self-destructive behavior — risk taking, alcohol abuse.

Did you write the book for the soldiers or for yourself or both?

Well, the idea for the book was inspired by my desire to understand what I was going through. But it lead to one of those very fulfilling journeys, because the research and the interviews with veterans that I did helped to provide some sense of relief from the things that I was experiencing. And I didn’t want to keep those insights to myself. I wanted to share them as a professional communicator and help people like returning veterans, who don’t naturally have a platform to speak or write, to tell their stories.

I wanted to know what were the experiences soldiers brought back from war that they couldn’t share with society. As a journalist I have a mandate to talk about these things. But the soldiers, they don’t. They almost have a mandate not to talk about it, to keep it all inside, to be that strong Marine and not show any signs of weakness, to not talk about killing even though it’s actually a part of the job. While killing is essential to the job, the conventional wisdom is that you don’t speak about it.


You talk about storytelling as a way that these soldiers try to come to grips with their war experiences. What’s different about storytelling as opposed to just blowing off steam or wanting to get something off your chest?

Storytelling can be considered a more ritualized process. There’s thought about the narrative — where did it begin, what was the turning point, who was I before and who did I become after and what, ultimately, did that transformation mean?

Not to imbue it with some sense of mysticism, but storytelling, at least to me, requires introspection. You’re looking for the lesson of the experience, and the hope is that in its sharing you’re able to impart some meaning — create a bridge to another human being who can say, ‘Yes, I understand that there’s something that I can connect to in your story’ — while still finding a place for myself in it and my own interpretation.

Talking is talking. Yes, you can get something off your chest, but it could be a moment of anger, confusion or happiness. Talking is communication but on a simpler level. Some people can tell stories just talking. But not all of us can do that.

In the context of the book, storytelling is about understanding the narrative of each combatant’s war experiences — understanding how they view those experiences, what judgments they come to personally — and perhaps finding a way to expand that narrative so someone who’s not a soldier or Marine can find a bridge to its meaning and perhaps share in it, both its burden and, yes, even in war, sometimes its wonder.

In 2012 there were 349 suicides by veterans, almost one per day. That outpaced the number of combat deaths in Afghanistan, which was 295. So the consequences of not beginning this healing process are very dire.

In your interview with Vietnam War veteran and Army specialist Joe Caley, he said, “It’s not what I did in the war, it’s what the war did to me.” Is that a truism or a coping mechanism?

Boy, I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. Caley was drafted during the Vietnam War; he never wanted to be there and didn’t think he’d have to fight. So I think he was thoroughly unprepared to do it, and in his case, what the war did to him is probably very much a truism.

Everybody’s war experiences are unique and complex, and we run into problems when we think that one person speaks for a whole group. For him, that was very true. You know, so many Vietnam vets kept these things under wraps for 30 years, and they’re only now starting to speak about them, partly because they see that soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are beginning to talk about them. Some of the older vets are just enraged by the fact that we went to war again, and they want to help those soldiers. And so a lot of them are getting involved in helping with the re-entry of these young veterans into peacetime society by doing things like sponsoring them in Alcoholics Anonymous, counseling them at VA centers, working with them at shelters if they’re homeless. This kind of intergenerational warrior-to-warrior communication is critical in assisting returning vets in their transition home.

Your profiles and interviews focus a lot on the concept of “moral injury.” Can you explain what that is and why it’s important to the healing process for these soldiers?

In 2009 the Department of Veterans Affairs completed a study called “Moral Injury in the Context of War,” a potentially groundbreaking study in the sense that it takes some of the conventional wisdom about post-traumatic stress disorder and post-combat issues and really turns it on its head. Our understanding of PTSD from a clinical perspective has been that it’s triggered by witnessing a traumatic event that resonates so deeply that it prevents a person from leading a normal life in the aftermath. And so it is the witnessing of the event that causes the problems.

But with the concept of moral injury, VA researchers are positing a thesis that what we do in war, namely killing, rather than what we witness, may be a more reliable indicator of postwar readjustment issues.

The VA started looking at the connection between killing and post-traumatic stress and found that those soldiers who were involved in killings or who witnessed killings were experiencing a higher degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA ended up doing more than 3,000 interviews with returning combatants, and they began to learn that it wasn’t necessarily so much witnessing the trauma of war that impacted the soldiers, but it was the feelings of guilt they had about what they did or witnessed. And the guilt stemmed from two things: the guilt from killing, whether justified in the line of duty or killing a civilian by accident or killing one of your own guys by accident or killing in a war crime — so any kind of killing; the second point was surviving, survivor’s guilt. Their friends died, but they didn’t.

So those two feelings of guilt seem to be even stronger indicators for post-traumatic stress than the idea of witnessing trauma. It seems we’re very resilient about what we see. We’re not so resilient about what we do. When we do something that goes against our moral compass — and killing goes against a lot of moral compasses out there, unless you’re a sociopath — we do feel some empathy.

So that idea of participating in something that goes against your moral compass really screws you up. It makes you feel bad, makes you feel guilt and shame. And when you go through the process of reintegrating into society, you’re carrying the shame. You haven’t done anything with it. You haven’t been forgiven. In fact, in some cases people are patting you on the back and saying ‘good job.’ So that complicates your feelings even more.

Is this idea of moral injury and how to treat it gaining momentum?

It’s getting traction. It hasn’t been widely disseminated. But since the VA study came out, there’ve been some recent articles on moral injury, and more research is being done by the VA. Some in the military bristle at the term because when you say moral injury they think that you’re somehow impugning the role of the military or the action of fighting as immoral. But I don’t believe that’s the case at all.

When a democracy like the United States funds a standing army through public taxes, that indicates an implicit consent by society that they may be used to kill in defense of the nation. As a society we’ve already concluded that the role itself is both necessary and moral. But for the individual service members — the ones who have to pull the trigger — that shared moral burden may not always be apparent or even comforting, especially in the aftermath of war.

If anything I think our faith in humanity should be bolstered by the fact that killing in war makes most warriors at least circumspect when considering the act, and that the unpleasant feeling of questioning their own character in the aftermath is actually an indication of their desire for morality rather than the opposite.

The surprising thing for me in writing the book was that I never had access to the VA study. I didn’t know about it until after I finished the book. And then when I went back and looked at all of the profiles that I had done of the veterans, I realized that most of them exhibited some sense of moral injury. Anecdotally the veterans’ stories really supported the thesis of the VA study. So I sent the book to all of the psychiatrists and researchers involved in the study and I hope they’re going to use it. I want them to see that, even outside the clinical setting, there’s this process of guilt that these guys feel and they’re trying to assuage themselves of.

If you were at Camp David and could take a long walk with President Obama, what would you say to him about these issues?

I think the president, and certainly his wife, Michelle, have taken a huge interest in veterans affairs. They realize how critical this is for the health of our nation. You can’t have more than 2 million soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and not realize that you have a responsibility to them for the rest of their lives. My father was a World War II veteran and a Korean War veteran. He’s still getting service from the VA medical service, not necessarily related to a war injury. The country has incurred a debt to him.

And so now we have these service members who have serious issues from war, both psychological and physical, and we have a debt that is so great to them that we’ll be paying it forever. So we have to figure a way to ensure their holistic health — their physical health and their mental health. And I think the president understands what a serious issue this is.

Jonathan Shay, the VA psychiatrist who wrote Achilles in Vietnam, told me during our interview, “When you put a gun in some kid’s hand and send him off to war you incur an infinite debt to him for what he has done to his soul.”

So that is what we have to live by and with.

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Read more about Kevin Sites' reporting for "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone" in our profile "Multimedia Journalist Covers Hot Sites," fall 2006.

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