Mary Wareham writes: When it comes to banning “killer robots,” the United States is going to take some convincing. That was one major take-away from April’s multilateral meeting on the matter where a US delegation joined 90 other nations at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss what to do about the development of “lethal autonomous weapons systems.”
In November 2012, the US became the first nation to articulate a detailed policy on killer robots, citing a long list of concerns and obstacles that would have to be overcome before developing and acquiring them. It has been careful, however, to stress that Department of Defense Directive 3000.09 “neither encourages nor prohibits the development” of future autonomous weapons systems.
Indeed, it appears that of all nations, the US is the farthest along in moving toward fully autonomous weapons. Last November, The New York Times reviewed several examples of missile systems with various degrees and forms of human control under development or in use by the US, Israel, Norway, and the UK.
Despite its investment in “semi-autonomous” weapons, the US has been one of the strongest supporters of international talks on questions relating to the emerging technology of lethal autonomous weapons systems held by the Convention on Conventional Weapons. The US participated actively in the meetings in May 2014 and April 2015. But the US’s eagerness to engage in talks about such weapons should fool no one into believing it supports a ban. At the discussions last month it was one of only two nations (the other was Israel) saying that the door should remain open for future development and acquisition of these weapons. [Continue reading…]
In an interview with the Atlantic, Sean McFate says: The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.
Look at what’s going on in Nigeria right now. If those mercenaries hired by Nigeria that killed Boko Haram are actually succeeding — and it looks like they are, according to reports — and there’s not a whole lot of backlash in the international community, I can imagine somebody saying, well let’s do this against al-Shabab [in Somalia]. And I could also imagine private military actors showing up and saying, you know, when you hired those mercenaries in Nigeria, they were really effective but they were really expensive. I can do the exact same thing they did at one-tenth the price by using this fleet of 200 drones that are armed. So I can see a situation of arms escalation, trying to get to price points that make sense for consumers, if you will. I hate to commodify conflict that way, but that’s kind of what this industry’s about.
[Private armies] also can maybe do things that the national army maybe can’t do. So they offer plausible deniability to policymakers. They can go and commit human-rights violations, frankly. This is a common attraction about hiring private military companies or mercenaries — that they can get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re a national government. [Continue reading…]
Sally Satel writes: The evil hour descended on David Morris in the summer of 2009. The former marine and war reporter was in a theater watching a movie with his then girlfriend and suddenly found himself pacing the lobby with no memory of having left his seat. Later, his girlfriend explained that Morris had fled after an explosion occurred onscreen.
He began having dreams of his buddies being ripped apart. When awake, he would imagine innocent items—an apple or a container of Chinese takeout—blowing up. Pathological vigilance took root: “Preparing for bed was like getting ready for a night patrol.” The dreams persisted. “Part of me,” he admits, “was ashamed of the dreams, of the realization that I was trapped inside a cliché: the veteran so obsessed with his own past that even his unconscious made love to it every night.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is the subject of two new books, one by Morris and another by war reporter Mac McClelland. The symptoms are crippling: relentless nightmares, unbidden waking images, hyperarousal, sleeplessness, and phobias. As a diagnosis, it has existed colloquially for generations—“shell shock” is one name that survives in the modern idiom—and it has particular resonance because of this generation’s wars. (Most soldiers are spared it, though the public tends to think they are not. A 2012 poll found that most people believe that most post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD. The actual rate has been estimated at between two and 17 percent.)
Morris thinks the symptoms—a body and mind reacting in fear long after the threat to life and limb is gone—hardly encompass the experience of PTSD. Historically, we might have sought out not only shrinks but also “poetry, our families, or the clergy for solace post horror.” Profitably, Morris turns to everyone: the Greeks, the great poets of World War I, historians, anthropologists, and yes, psychiatrists and psychologists.
From such wide consultation comes a masterful synthesis. The Evil Hours interweaves memoir with a cultural history of war’s psychic aftermath. Morris chronicles the development of PTSD as an official diagnosis and its earlier incarnations in other wars. From Homer’s Odyssey to the venerated war poets, from the crusade for recognition by organized psychiatry to the modern science of fear and resilience, Morris gives a sweeping view of the condition, illuminated by meditation on sacrifice and danger and, in his words, “the enigma of survival.” [Continue reading…]
Torie Rose DeGhett writes: The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
Jarecke took the picture just before a ceasefire officially ended Operation Desert Storm — the U.S.-led military action that drove Saddam Hussein and his troops out of Kuwait, which they had annexed and occupied the previous August. The image and its anonymous subject might have come to symbolize the Gulf War. Instead, it went unpublished in the United States, not because of military obstruction but because of editorial choices.
It’s hard to calculate the consequences of a photograph’s absence. But sanitized images of warfare, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues, make it “easier … to accept bloodless language” such as 1991 references to “surgical strikes” or modern-day terminology like “kinetic warfare.” The Vietnam War, in contrast, was notable for its catalog of chilling and iconic war photography. Some images, like Ron Haeberle’s pictures of the My Lai massacre, were initially kept from the public, but other violent images — Nick Ut’s scene of child napalm victims and Eddie Adams’s photo of a Vietcong man’s execution — won Pulitzer Prizes and had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the war. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: Governments in the Mideast and Africa, in desperate efforts to gain battlefield ground, are using barrel bombs against their enemies, launching the cheap, quickly manufactured weapons as a crude counter to roadside blasts and suicide explosions that insurgents have deployed for years.
New evidence of their use in Iraq, after being dropped on civilians in Syria and Sudan, has raised concerns that governments in unstable nations will embrace them.
Described as “flying IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices, barrel bombs have the power to wipe out a row of buildings in a single blast. They can kill large numbers of people, including those not targeted.
“It’s fair to say that a lot of governments are losing control of the counterinsurgency,” said Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re also watching what they see in Syria, and they feel like their air power is what is making the difference.” [Continue reading…]
Kelley Vlahos writes: Popular culture reveres the U.S. military as an institution of pride and strength, as keeper of the American moral center. But a recent series of scandals suggests that, instead, ethical corrosion may be eating away at its very core.
Sarah Palin was in top rhetorical form when she told an assembled crowd of thousands on the National Mall in 2010 that soldiers were “a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for … for these men and women, honor was never lost.” But behind the partisan politics in which Democrats and Republicans have used the military as props, padded its budgets, and publicly deferred to its leadership in myriad ways over 12 years of war, there lies a complicated breakdown in its culture, military experts tell TAC. Without reform, they believe institution is headed for more embarrassment and transgression.
“I’m not surprised at all—one [scandal] relates to the other,” charges Donald Vandergriff, a retired Army officer who often lectures on leadership and reform, including in the service academies. A West Point grad and former deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University, he wrote The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, in 2002.
“The [military] system that’s evolved over the last 100 years does not test moral courage, it does not test strength of character, or the ability to tell the truth regardless of harm to one’s career,” Vandergriff added. “We don’t do things like that. We are looking at people who follow the process, fall in line, don’t cause waves, aren’t open to innovation, and these personality traits leave them open to scandal.” [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Roman Tritz’s memories of the past six decades are blurred by age and delusion. But one thing he remembers clearly is the fight he put up the day the orderlies came for him.
“They got the notion they were going to come to give me a lobotomy,” says Mr. Tritz, a World War II bomber pilot. “To hell with them.”
The orderlies at the veterans hospital pinned Mr. Tritz to the floor, he recalls. He fought so hard that eventually they gave up. But the orderlies came for him again on Wednesday, July 1, 1953, a few weeks before his 30th birthday.
This time, the doctors got their way.
The U.S. government lobotomized roughly 2,000 mentally ill veterans—and likely hundreds more—during and after World War II, according to a cache of forgotten memos, letters and government reports unearthed by The Wall Street Journal. Besieged by psychologically damaged troops returning from the battlefields of North Africa, Europe and the Pacific, the Veterans Administration performed the brain-altering operation on former servicemen it diagnosed as depressives, psychotics and schizophrenics, and occasionally on people identified as homosexuals.
The VA doctors considered themselves conservative in using lobotomy. Nevertheless, desperate for effective psychiatric treatments, they carried out the surgery at VA hospitals spanning the country, from Oregon to Massachusetts, Alabama to South Dakota.
Roman Tritz talks about the scars from his lobotomy.
The VA’s practice, described in depth here for the first time, sometimes brought veterans relief from their inner demons. Often, however, the surgery left them little more than overgrown children, unable to care for themselves. Many suffered seizures, amnesia and loss of motor skills. Some died from the operation itself.
Mr. Tritz, 90 years old, is one of the few still alive to describe the experience. “It isn’t so good up here,” he says, rubbing the two shallow divots on the sides of his forehead, bracketing wisps of white hair.
The VA’s use of lobotomy, in which doctors severed connections between parts of the brain then thought to control emotions, was known in medical circles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and is occasionally cited in medical texts. But the VA’s practice, never widely publicized, long ago slipped from public view. Even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it possesses no records detailing the creation and breadth of its lobotomy program.
When told about the program recently, the VA issued a written response: “In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, VA and other physicians throughout the United States and the world debated the utility of lobotomies. The procedure became available to severely ill patients who had not improved with other treatments. Within a few years, the procedure disappeared within VA, and across the United States, as safer and more effective treatments were developed.”
Musty files warehoused in the National Archives show VA doctors resorting to brain surgery as they struggled with a vexing question that absorbs America to this day: How best to treat the psychological crises that afflict soldiers returning from combat.
Between April 1, 1947, and Sept. 30, 1950, VA doctors lobotomized 1,464 veterans at 50 hospitals authorized to perform the surgery, according to agency documents rediscovered by the Journal. Scores of records from 22 of those hospitals list another 466 lobotomies performed outside that time period, bringing the total documented operations to 1,930. Gaps in the records suggest that hundreds of additional operations likely took place at other VA facilities. The vast majority of the patients were men, although some female veterans underwent VA lobotomies, as well.
Lobotomies faded from use after the first major antipsychotic drug, Thorazine, hit the market in the mid-1950s, revolutionizing mental-health care.
The forgotten lobotomy files, military records and interviews with veterans’ relatives reveal the details of lives gone terribly wrong. There was Joe Brzoza, who was lobotomized four years after surviving artillery barrages on the beaches at Anzio, Italy, and spent his remaining days chain-smoking in VA psychiatric wards. Eugene Kainulainen, whose breakdown during the North African campaign the military attributed partly to a childhood tendency toward “temper tantrums and [being] fussy about food.” Melbert Peters, a bomber crewman given two lobotomies—one most likely performed with a pick-like instrument inserted through his eye sockets.
And Mr. Tritz, the son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer who flew a B-17 Flying Fortress on 34 combat missions over Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.
“They just wanted to ruin my head, it seemed to me,” says Mr. Tritz. “Somebody wanted to.”
The VA documents subvert an article of faith of postwar American mythology: That returning soldiers put down their guns, shed their uniforms and stoically forged ahead into the optimistic 1950s. Mr. Tritz and the mentally ill veterans who shared his fate lived a struggle all but unknown except to the families who still bear lobotomy’s scars. [Continue reading…]
Another week, another revelation about spying by the National Security Agency. This time, it was the NSA’s infiltration of online video games and virtual realms like World of Warcraft and Second Life. And it was hardly a shock. More than a decade ago, TomDispatch began reporting on the U.S. military’s collaborations with the video game industry, including a virtual world known as There. As the years went by, the military became ever more enmeshed in the digital world. In 2008, while covering the 26th Army Science Conference, I spoke to the chief of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command about a new recruiting initiative he was setting up in the fantasy realm of Second Life. General William Wallace was over the moon about the possibility of engaging with the “four million young people” who had signed onto that virtual online environment.
While the Army was making an overt play for new recruits in the digital universe, the NSA was secretly targeting virtual worlds for clandestine activities. A top-secret 2008 NSA document, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, cast online games as a “target-rich communication network.” They were imagined (with little evidence) to be potential terrorist havens and so, as one document gushed, “an opportunity!”
In the time since I spoke to General Wallace, virtual worlds have bloomed. The number of Second Life accounts, for example, has grown to 36 million registered users, according to its creator, Linden Labs. And it seems, as the Times and ProPublica reported, that a surprising number of those new visitors were from the U.S. Intelligence Community. Second Life, in fact, became so thick with spies from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the FBI that it was necessary to create what one of the leaked documents called a “deconfliction” group to keep them from duplicating their efforts, spying on one another, and so turning their online push into a digital snarl.
And yet, after all that virtual snooping, there is no evidence that the untold millions of dollars spent infiltrating digital spies into worlds of pixies, scantily-clad lion-women, and pony skeleton avatars (no, I’m not making these up) has uncovered any terrorists or foiled any al-Qaeda plots. It has, however, allowed the U.S. government to penetrate the lives of the young (and increasingly, the not-so-young) in new and intrusive ways.
Today, Ann Jones, author of the acclaimed new Dispatch Book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, examines another way the U.S. military targets America’s youth — via a completely non-virtual, off-line, old school social network: the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps. It’s a startling look at the sort of everyday military indoctrination that may be happening, possibly in your very neighborhood, and almost as quietly as government agents slip in and out of their favorite digital fantasy worlds.
After recently shining much needed light on what happens to America’s veterans once they return from this country’s war zones, Jones turns her perceptive gaze on one way the military gets hold of young men and women in the first place. If you thought only countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Chad had child soldiers, think again. Nick Turse
America’s child soldiers
JROTC and the militarizing of America
By Ann Jones
Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.
It turned out, however, that Congress — in its rare moment of concern for the next generation — had it all wrong. In its greater wisdom, the White House found countries like Chad and Yemen so vital to the national interest of the United States that it preferred to overlook what happened to the children in their midst.
As required by CSPA, this year the State Department once again listed 10 countries that use child soldiers: Burma (Myanmar), the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Seven of them were scheduled to receive millions of dollars in U.S. military aid as well as what’s called “U.S. Foreign Military Financing.” That’s a shell game aimed at supporting the Pentagon and American weapons makers by handing millions of taxpayer dollars over to such dodgy “allies,” who must then turn around and buy “services” from the Pentagon or “materiel” from the usual merchants of death. You know the crowd: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and so on.
Here was a chance for Washington to teach a set of countries to cherish their young people, not lead them to the slaughter. But in October, as it has done every year since CSPA became law, the White House again granted whole or partial “waivers” to five countries on the State Department’s “do not aid” list: Chad, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.
Too bad for the young — and the future — of those countries. But look at it this way: Why should Washington help the children of Sudan or Yemen escape war when it spares no expense right here at home to press our own impressionable, idealistic, ambitious American kids into military “service”?
John Arquilla writes: Today marks the bicentennial of the culminating catastrophe that befell the Grande Armée as it retreated from Russia. This past weekend one of the French Emperor’s descendants, Charles Napoleon, traveled to Minsk in Belarus to attend ceremonies commemorating the disaster at the nearby Beresina River crossing, where thousands died — many by drowning — in a final, panicked rout in freezing weather. Bonaparte had marched deep into Russia with nearly half a million soldiers; he returned with less than 25,000.
Given that Napoleon was the great captain of his time — perhaps of all time — and that his armies had conquered and held most of Europe, the tragic events on the Beresina demand explanation. His defeat is something of a puzzle, too, as the Grande Armée won the campaign’s pitched battles fought at Smolensk and Borodino. Harsh winter weather, the commonly assumed culprit, cannot explain the result either; the first frost didn’t arrive to bedevil the retreat until just a few weeks before the Beresina crossing.
The answer to the puzzle is that Napoleon and his forces were beaten by what a young Russian hussar, Denis Davydov, called his “indestructible swarm” of Cossacks and other raiders who constantly harried the French columns on the march. They also struck relentlessly, repeatedly, and to fatal effect at the Grande Armée‘s supply lines. As David Chandler, an eminent historian of Napoleon’s campaigns, put it: “raids of Cossacks and partisan bands did more harm to the Emperor than all the endeavors of the regular field armies of Holy Russia.”
Davydov, who probably inspired Tolstoy’s character “Denisov” in War and Peace, had lobbied his superiors hard for the creation of a small force of behind-the-lines raiders. General Pyotr Bagration, not long before his death in battle at Borodino, gave Davydov permission to launch his swarm — though he detached only a single troop of riders to accompany him. This was all that Davydov needed, though, as he picked up Cossacks, freed Russian soldiers taken prisoner, and recruited willing peasants along the way. Soon the French knew no rest. In Davydov’s own words, they “had no choice but to retreat, preceded and surrounded by partisans.”
The Beresina bicentennial provides us a moment to contemplate one of history’s greatest military debacles from an alternative point of view: as an outcome driven not by the clash of hundreds of thousands of troops massed tightly on some constricted battlefield, but rather as the result of constant pinprick attacks from all directions, mounted by a relative handful of irregulars. Who acted like a swarm of bees.
Davydov’s concept of operations portended an entirely different approach to military affairs, one that would grow ever more valuable with the advance of technology. The Russian partisans of 1812 attacked French wagon convoys. Fifty years later, in the Civil War, Confederate raiders disrupted rail lines, imposing near-fatal delays on the advance of Federal forces. In World War I, T.E. Lawrence and his Arab irregulars swarmed the 800-mile-long rail line from Damascus to Medina, contributing mightily to the eventual Turkish collapse. At sea in World War II, U-boat wolf packs swarmed Allied convoys, nearly winning the war for Hitler.
Throughout the Cold War, and on into the post-9/11 era, the swarm — simultaneous attack from several directions — has been the favored fighting method of insurgents and terrorists. [Continue reading…]
Chris Hedges gave this talk Sunday night in New York City at a protest denouncing the 11th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. The event, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was led by Veterans for Peace.
Many of us who are here carry within us death. The smell of decayed and bloated corpses. The cries of the wounded. The shrieks of children. The sound of gunfire. The deafening blasts. The fear. The stench of cordite. The humiliation that comes when you surrender to terror and beg for life. The loss of comrades and friends. And then the aftermath. The long alienation. The numbness. The nightmares. The lack of sleep. The inability to connect to all living things, even to those we love the most. The regret. The repugnant lies mouthed around us about honor and heroism and glory. The absurdity. The waste. The futility.
It is only the maimed that finally know war. And we are the maimed. We are the broken and the lame. We ask for forgiveness. We seek redemption. We carry on our backs this awful cross of death, for the essence of war is death, and the weight of it digs into our shoulders and eats away at our souls. We drag it through life, up hills and down hills, along the roads, into the most intimate recesses of our lives. It never leaves us. Those who know us best know that there is something unspeakable and evil many of us harbor within us. This evil is intimate. It is personal. We do not speak its name. It is the evil of things done and things left undone. It is the evil of war.
We do not speak of war. War is captured only in the long, vacant stares, in the silences, in the trembling fingers, in the memories most of us keep buried deep within us, in the tears.
It is impossible to portray war. Narratives, even anti-war narratives, make the irrational rational. They make the incomprehensible comprehensible. They make the illogical logical. They make the despicable beautiful. All words and images, all discussions, all films, all evocations of war, good or bad, are an obscenity. There is nothing to say. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: Suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war.
The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press.
The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago. The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other misbehavior.
Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.
The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.
The unpopular war in Afghanistan is winding down with the last combat troops scheduled to leave at the end of 2014. But this year has seen record numbers of soldiers being killed by Afghan troops, and there also have been several scandals involving U.S. troop misconduct.
The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.
Suicide totals have exceeded U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in earlier periods, including for the full years 2008 and 2009.
Here are some numbers to remember this Memorial Day: Although only 1 percent of Americans have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States — 18 veterans kill themselves everyday. Close to a million veterans currently have pending disability claims.
Christian Science Monitor reports: Despite the end of the Iraq war and the scheduled drawdown in Afghanistan, this Memorial Day arrives against a backdrop of deepening – and some say more troublesome – antiwar sentiment among military veterans.
One of the most vivid and replayed images of protesters at the NATO summit last weekend in Chicago was a group of some 40 vets lined up to toss their war medals over the chain link fence to protest what former naval officer Leah Bolger calls “the illegal wars of both NATO and America.”
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 33 percent of post-9/11 veterans say that neither the war in Iraq nor in Afghanistan “were worth the cost,” and this among a highly motivated cohort who chose to serve.
What this means, says retired US Army Col. Ann Wright, who resigned from a State Department post in 2006 over US policies in Iraq, is that there is a widening gap between the government, military policies, and the soldiers that carry them out.
“Military personnel know America will always have a military, but there is growing concern over the way it is being used,” says the 29-year veteran, adding that an increasing list of concerns include “the use of torture, illegal detentions, and both soldiers and the public being lied to about the actual reasons for going into combat.”
Nicholas Kristof writes: He was a 27-year-old former Marine, struggling to adjust to civilian life after two tours in Iraq. Once an A student, he now found himself unable to remember conversations, dates and routine bits of daily life. He became irritable, snapped at his children and withdrew from his family. He and his wife began divorce proceedings.
This young man took to alcohol, and a drunken car crash cost him his driver’s license. The Department of Veterans Affairs diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D. When his parents hadn’t heard from him in two days, they asked the police to check on him. The officers found his body; he had hanged himself with a belt.
That story is devastatingly common, but the autopsy of this young man’s brain may have been historic. It revealed something startling that may shed light on the epidemic of suicides and other troubles experienced by veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His brain had been physically changed by a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. That’s a degenerative condition best-known for affecting boxers, football players and other athletes who endure repeated blows to the head.
In people with C.T.E., an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.
That Marine was the first Iraq veteran found to have C.T.E., but experts have since autopsied a dozen or more other veterans’ brains and have repeatedly found C.T.E. The findings raise a critical question: Could blasts from bombs or grenades have a catastrophic impact similar to those of repeated concussions in sports, and could the rash of suicides among young veterans be a result? [Continue reading…]
Imagine soldiers who couldn’t be traumatized; who could engage in the worst imaginable brutality and not only remember nothing, but remember something else, completely benign. That might just sound like dystopian science fiction, but ongoing research is laying the foundations to turn this into reality.
The first speculative steps are now being taken in an attempt to develop techniques of what is being called “therapeutic forgetting.” Military veterans suffering from PTSD are currently serving as subjects in research projects on using propranolol to mitigate the effects of wartime trauma. Some veterans’ advocates criticize the project because they see it as a “metaphor” for how the “administration, Defense Department, and Veterans Affairs officials, not to mention many Americans, are approaching the problem of war trauma during the Iraq experience.”
The argument is that terrible combat experiences are “part of a soldier’s life” and are “embedded in our national psyche, too,” and that these treatments reflect an illegitimate wish to forget the pain suffered by war veterans. Tara McKelvey, who researched veterans’ attitudes to the research project, quoted one veteran as disapproving of the project on the grounds that “problems have to be dealt with.” This comment came from a veteran who spends time “helping other veterans deal with their ghosts, and he gives talks to high school and college students about war.” McKelvey’s informant felt that the definition of who he was “comes from remembering the pain and dealing with it — not from trying to forget it.” The assumption here is that treating the pain of war pharmacologically is equivalent to minimizing, discounting, disrespecting and ultimately setting aside altogether the sacrifices made by veterans, and by society itself. People who objected to the possibility of altering emotional memories with drugs were concerned that this amounted to avoiding one’s true problems instead of “dealing” with them. An artificial record of the individual past would by the same token contribute to a skewed collective memory of the costs of war.
In addition to the work with veterans, there have been pilot studies with civilians in emergency rooms. In 2002, psychiatrist Roger Pitman of Harvard took a group of 31 volunteers from the emergency rooms at Massachusetts General Hospital, all people who had suffered some traumatic event, and for 10 days treated some with a placebo and the rest with propranolol [a beta blocker]. Those who received propranolol later had no stressful physical response to reminders of the original trauma, while almost half of the others did. Should those E.R. patients have been worried about the possible legal implications of taking the drug? Could one claim to be as good a witness once one’s memory had been altered by propranolol? And in a civil suit, could the defense argue that less harm had been done, since the plaintiff had avoided much of the emotional damage that an undrugged victim would have suffered? Attorneys did indeed ask about the implications for witness testimony, damages, and more generally, a devaluation of harm to victims of crime. One legal scholar framed this as a choice between protecting memory “authenticity” (a category he used with some skepticism) and “freedom of memory.” Protecting “authenticity” could not be done without sacrificing our freedom to control our own minds, including our acts of recall.
The anxiety provoked by the idea of “memory dampening” is so intriguing that even the President’s Council on Bioethics, convened by President George W. Bush in his first term, thought the issue important enough to reflect on it alongside discussions of cloning and stem-cell research. Editing memories could “disconnect people from reality or their true selves,” the council warned. While it did not give a definition of “selfhood,” it did give examples of how such techniques could warp us by “falsifying our perception and understanding of the world.” The potential technique “risks making shameful acts seem less shameful, or terrible acts less terrible, than they really are.”
Meanwhile, David DiSalvo notes ten brain science studies from 2011 including this:
Brain Implant Enables Memories to be Recorded and Played Back
Neural prosthetics had a big year in 2011, and no development in this area was bigger than an implant designed to record and replay memories.
Researchers had a group of rats with the implant perform a simply memory task: get a drink of water by hitting one lever in a cage, then—after a distraction—hitting another. They had to remember which lever they’d already pushed to know which one to push the second time. As the rats did this memory task, electrodes in the implants recorded signals between two areas of their brains involved in storing new information in long-term memory.
The researchers then gave the rats a drug that kept those brain areas from communicating. The rats still knew they had to press one lever then the other to get water, but couldn’t remember which lever they’d already pressed. When researchers played back the neural signals they’d recorded earlier via the implants, the rats again remembered which lever they had hit, and pressed the other one. When researchers played back the signals in rats not on the drug (thus amplifying their normal memory) the rats made fewer mistakes and remembered which lever they’d pressed even longer.
The bottom line: This is ground-level research demonstrating that neural signals involved in memory can be recorded and replayed. Progress from rats to humans will take many years, but even knowing that it’s plausible is remarkable.