Matthew Hoh is a former State Department official who resigned from his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He did so in protest over US strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Hoh served in Iraq; first in 2004 and 2005 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006 and 2007 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander.
He’s the former Director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a network of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in US strategy in Afghanistan. Hoh’s articles were published in The Huffington Post, Guardian, Washington Post and USA Today (to name a few) and he also runs his website, were he often writes about the torments he went through during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly – about the despair he faced upon his return to USA, facing an everyday life as a veteran. I think his voice is truly important in times when, as Ingeborg Bachmann wrote: „War is no longer declared, only continued. The monstrous has become everyday.“
In the following interview, Matthew and I talked about war, Middle East, veteran suicides, resistance, and the paradoxes of our (Western) governments.
This month, all over the USA, people are marking Veterans Day. You write a lot about your personal experience and hardships you went through after your second deployment to Iraq, when PTSD and severe depression took over your life. Alcohol was your weapon of choice at the time, but it couldn’t kill the thoughts of suicide. How are you today, how did you manage to go through that period? Did the strength of purpose coming from you activist work help you in that period?
I appreciate you asking me about this. I am doing much better today, thanks to the help of family, friends and many talented and compassionate mental health professionals. I must also say that I have received help from strangers. Fellow veterans who have spoken openly and publically about their difficulties, PTSD, alcohol, suicide, etc, have been of tremendous assistance. Their testimony has given me the courage to confront my problems and the strength to continue an often difficult and turbulent recovery.
My activist work helps me now, because as you describe it gives me a strength of purpose. However, I actually found that I needed to distance myself from the wars for a while and I needed to concentrate on myself. I needed to make my health and recovery my priority. I think this is an issue for many veterans, as veterans, so proud of being leaders and team players, often put others first and diminish their own sufferings and hardships to their own detriment.
Talking about suicide – we don’t have full data from all the US states, and as you said in some of the interviews you did – only a couple years ago the Veterans Administration (VA) started tracking veteran suicides on a national level. The estimates are that more than two veterans who kill themselves every day are Iraq or Afghanistan veterans. It actually means that more veterans have killed themselves after coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan than have been killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Could you tell me more about that – the numbers and the dreadful presence of these demons of suicide?
Yes, that is the case. It was not until 2013 that the VA published suicide data on veterans that included data from the states rather than data only solely collected by the VA. This data is incomplete of course, as less than 40% of veterans are enrolled in the VA, and for the most recent data collected by the VA from the states, less than 30 states provided information. So we don’t really know how many veterans are killing themselves each day and this understanding, that the VA only recently began to estimate the total number of veterans suicides, belies the notion that the VA and the federal government were doing everything possible to assist veterans. This article from August in the USA Today does a good job explaining the deceit and deception that is ongoing in the VA’s handling of veteran suicides.
With regards to the numbers we do know, yes, based upon those figures, more service members have killed themselves after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed or died in those countries. We estimate two Iraq or Afghan veterans kill themselves each day, that is 730 a year. Even taking into account latency for the suicides to begin to manifest and occur in the first few years of the wars, we still have a greater number of suicides than we do numbers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan (currently 6,841 Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq). Of course, even if we stopped our role in the wars today, and brought all of our troops home, we would still be coping with the suicide problem of veterans for as long as this generation lives. The suicides are not going to stop because the wars stop.
There is one other number that is startling and very foreboding and that is the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among service members. TBIs have essentially tripled since 2000. There is a well known connection between TBI and suicide. This may be most well known in the American public because of the relationship that has been seen between American football players and suicide later in life. With TBIs, onset of symptoms and problems often experience a delay in emerging. Additionally, for many years during the wars, there was a requirement for service members to self report in order for a TBI to be recorded and care to be provided; self reporting is something service members are notorious for not doing, ie admitting they are hurt, weak or sick. So I believe that TBIs are under-reported and that what we know is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of future issues with veterans’ mental health needs and care.
Barack Obama recently talked about the increased troop deployment to Iraq, saying it marks a new phase against Islamic State militants. He said “we” need ground troops and it is time for an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one. The language of “striking back” and “hitting harder” is ever-present, and it seems that we are stuck in a circle of associating courage with warfare, agreeing on a change achieved through violence. You fought in Iraq and served in Afghanistan, and you’ve seen war firsthand. What do you think about the latest news about increased troops on the ground?
I think this is a massive mistake and will lead to the widening and deepening of the war in Iraq and the war in Syria. It is a foolish decision by the President and I think it has more to do with assuaging his critics in the US than it does with dealing with the wars in Iraq and Syria.
We are seeing that the American bombing campaign has pushed Sunnis into further alignment with the Islamic State and this was to be expected while not providing any incentive for the governments in Iraq or Syria to make political concessions or pursue any line of negotiation with the insurgents and the populations they represent in order to bring about a ceasefire or political settlement. Further, American involvement plays right into the propaganda and recruiting messages of the Islamic State. We have seen an increase in young men (and some women) heading to Syria and Iraq in order to defend their faith, their lands, and their people from Western attack. The same recruitment messages the United States used to enlist young Muslim men to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s is now being used to provide recruits to the Islamic State.
Finally, along with the counter-productive and short-sighted nature of the folly of introducing American troops into Iraq and Syria, there is also a moral component to this that is very, very important. The United States, under President Barack Obama, just as it did under President George W. Bush, is killing thousands of people in Muslim countries throughout the broader Middle East out of a fear and panic still emanating from the attacks of September 11, 2001, attacks conducted by an exceptionally small group of terrorists in retaliation for American policy and presence in the Middle East. Over the course of the last 13 years, American hysteria has led to the death, maiming and displacing of millions of people from North Africa to Afghanistan. This is a stain on the soul of America that has not even begun to be addressed by the US.
Returning to the previous question and the language charging politically-driven violence, being aware of the power of language and media presentations, I feel we (the public) are very often sure we know what Iraq war (and other wars too) is all about, but we are actually fed with very well selected and often distorted fragments of a broad story. Our knowledge, if we stick to mainstream media, is reduced to always repeating phrases uttered by politicians. That is how panic is created, and fear is born. I see that as a great danger for every society.
You talked about the dissonance, the disconnect between the policy that was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., statements that were being made, and the reality of the war on the ground in Iraq. The same narrative was present in Afghanistan in 2009 and that was when you decided you could no longer take part in it. Could you tell me more about that dissonance, which is, I believe, a formative tissue of all the wars we are seeing in the Middle East? And, in relation to that, how do we communicate those discrepancies to the mainstream public?
There is a tremendous dissonance between the narrative of those conducting the wars in the Middle East from the outside, the US and NATO, and those actually experiencing the wars in their homes, villages, cities, etc. To those in the West the wars are about protecting the West from terrorism, however to those in the Middle East these wars are about sectarian violence, whether it be religious or ethnic based, that has created a cycle of violence that builds on itself in a manner uncontrollable by any individual, group or nation. This has culminated in the Islamic State. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein, thought to have been an organization that outside powers could use for their own purposes, the destruction of the Assad regime in Syria, and it is a parasite of war, it gains strength and purpose as the cycle of violence spirals, recruiting outsiders with its propaganda of defending the Muslim community from outside attack, while gaining alliances with Sunnis who find no other alternative than aligning with the Islamic State.
These wars have many causes, but for those of us in the West, we cannot and should not ignore our responsibility and culpability. For decades the West, led by the United States, has pushed sectarian differences to keep dictators in power or to foster revolt and revolution in an attempt to create a power structure and political order amenable to Western interests. This culminated with the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which has set forth the cataclysm that the broader Middle East finds itself enduring. Interestingly, the only nations that appear to be without the instability and violence characteristic of the Middle East are those Gulf Kingdoms that are despotic, but in line with US political interests and goals in the region. This understanding and discussion of the causes of Middle East violence is completely absent from US and Western discourse. Rather, the discussion is focused on terrorism or a line of belief that goes “those people have been killing each other for thousands of years”. Both these narratives, about keeping ourselves safe from terror or that the people of the Middle East are just crazy and full of bloodlust, are two narratives that fail to measure up to the actual ongoing wars, tragedies and events.
In one of your articles for Huffington Post, writing about recent events in Iraq, you write how “Certainly atrocities have occurred in northern Iraq and battles have waged there, but what makes this summer and its dead different than the 500,000 dead, millions wounded and the one in eight Iraqis forcibly chased from their homes since 2003? What is causing the U.S. to get involved, again, and at this time? Oil.” Could you tell me more about that, about the issues of U.S. involvement at this moment in time?
The reference I was making in that article was to the decision by the United States in August to begin attacking Islamic State and Sunni forces, with the attendant and inevitable killing of innocents, as a result of Sunni incursion into Kurdish territory, and, importantly, Sunni threatening of Kurdish oil and gas fields.
In June, this year, when the Iraqi Army collapsed in Northern Iraq, Sunni and Kurdish forces filled the void left behind. Most attention in the West was devoted to the Sunni capture of key cities along the Tigris and a push towards Baghdad, and little acknowledgement was made to the fact that Kurdish forces expanded Kurdish controlled territory in northern Iraq by 40%. This included Kurdish capture of a majority of the oil and gas fields in the north of Iraq, as well as the Kurds gaining complete control of Kirkuk, a traditional Kurdish capital (at least according to the Kurds), and the oil capital of North Iraq.
Control of the oil and gas in the north by the Kurds was not just a gain to the Kurdish Regional Government and their many western benefactors, but was also a serious economic threat to the Sunnis, hence the push by the Sunnis and the Islamic State to capture oil and gas fields.
The threatening of Kurdish oil fields alarmed many in the West, including members of the US government and Congress, who besieged by policy experts supported by the oil and gas industry, as well as a $1.5 million annual Kurdish lobbying effort in Washington, DC, panicked at the threat posed by the Islamic State and the Sunnis. Alongside this push for the oil fields, the Islamic State publically beheaded American hostages and began a murderous campaign against the Yezidi minority. These two later “humanitarian” concerns were the focus of much media attention and public statements for the need for America to go to war again in Iraq. However, I believe it was the threat posed to the Kurdish oil fields that posed the impetus for American involvement. I think this is proven by the location of most of the targets struck by American bombers in August and September and their relation to the oil fields as opposed to the location of humanitarian concerns or atrocities.
Veteran Thomas Young died two weeks ago. He finished his last letter (The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran) writing: “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.” Do you think Bush, Cheney or Obama will ever be held responsible for what they did and what they do? Is there a way to redeem ourselves from all the moral outrage that was and is done?
Sadly, no I do not think Bush or Obama will be held responsible in any formal way. I do think history will judge them and that the folly of their actions, along with the moral failing of American policy in the Middle East, will be recognized. Whether or not that keeps the United States from perpetuating such madness and horror in the future is another matter.
The way we redeem ourselves is to fight for acknowledgement of the truth of these wars and to put ourselves in positions to speak against not just the current wars, but future wars. If for no other purpose we do this than to give a voice to the millions of the voiceless men, women and children who have suffered, horrifically and unjustly, in these wars, than that is purpose enough.
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For more on Matthew Hoh and his activism, visit his website.