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God is Not Here: A Soldier's Struggle with…

God is Not Here: A Soldier's Struggle with Torture, Trauma, and the Moral…

by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Russell Edmonds

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This is an account of a soldier’s moral injury that incurred while serving as an advisor in Iraq and his subsequent struggle to understand it. Lt. Colonel Bill Russell Edmonds was assigned to advise an Iraqi intelligence officer in the interrogation and tracking of insurgents in 2005-6. He was ill prepared for this task and largely isolated from his fellow soldiers. He was essentially set adrift from the cohesion most soldiers feel in war zones as well as from his loved ones at home because of the poor means of communication that existed at his site. His breakdown came five years after returning from Iraq and seems to have been due to his inability to come to terms with a moral dilemma he experienced there.

The narrative follows two timelines: Iraq in 2005 and Germany in 2011. It is primarily an internal dialogue with few factual details. His muddled thinking is readily apparent in the narrative. This had three themes: problems with his girlfriend, Amy; torture of captive insurgents to obtain confessions; and the realization that the behavior of American troops toward Iraqis was making the insurgency worse. Edmonds concludes that the moral injury he suffered was due to a dissonance between his core moral values and the torture he witnessed there. This is difficult to assess because he only describes two incidents of torture, although it is likely that torture was highly prevalent because obtaining a confession was the key to the Iraqi legal system. Without it, captives would be released. Edmonds questions what constitutes torture and feels a dilemma between his desire to prevent insurgents from killing people and the brutal practices that were most effective at obtaining confessions. Curiously, Edmonds seems to presume all captives are guilty and the confession is just a necessary formality for sending them to prison. Also he totally ignores the abundant evidence indicating that intelligence obtained by torture is often unreliable. Indeed, it was not clear that Edmonds had much interest in obtaining intelligence at all, but just in removing these captives from the battlefield.

It seems clear that Edmonds did experience a collapse of his belief system and moral framework while deployed in Iraq and that this moral injury was minimized by the Army. However, the source may not have been torture, but the dissonance between his self-image as a good soldier and his belief that the American conduct of the counterinsurgency was misguided and in fact making it worse. Once he began to see the American involvement in Iraq in this light Edmonds became morally lost. It seems that there were only two possible solutions for him to resolve this dilemma: either openly protest up the chain of command or leave the Army. Sadly, he did neither. It is worth noting that this type of moral dilemma was highly prevalent during the Vietnam war but then soldiers could be more honest about it because most participated in that war against their wills as opposed to Iraq where all were volunteers. ( )
  ozzer | Jul 22, 2015 |
“God Is Not Here” shows how not to send a soldier to war; the experience is searing and often brutal, and only a well-led, well-trained, cohesive unit can help servicemen and servicewomen do their duty and survive both mentally and physically. Firsthand accounts like this one, however flawed, form an essential part of the documentation for historians and others to build upon. And in contrast to the Vietnam era, Americans have embraced rather than shunned their veterans, though as Edmonds’s account so tellingly demonstrates, much more remains to be done.
added by ozzer | editNew York Times, Linda Robinson (May 19, 2015)
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