Mass Casualites and Civilianized
Michael Anthony has published two memoirs of his experiences as a medic in Iraq. The first of these two books, Mass Casualties, subtitled A Young Medic’s True Story of Death, Deception, and Dishonor in Iraq, is written in the form of a diary and draws heavily upon the journals Anthony kept during his overseas deployment. The second book—Civilianized, A Young Veteran’s Memoir—was published seven years later, after Anthony had, among other things, survived a suicide pact with himself and earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University.
The reason I mention this latter fact is because the second book—which deals with the challenges Anthony faced after returning from his deployment—is the more solid narrative, whereas the earlier book is more of a patchwork of anecdotes in which the dates of the diary entries and time itself—the twelve months of deployment—provide the narrative thread by which the reader might be pulled along.
But I don’t intend this as a criticism. Although I originally started reading Mass Casualties long before Civilianized was published I never got very far, owing more to the demands of my own work (including the necessity of feeding that work with relevant reading and research material) than any shortcomings on Anthony’s part. But this turned out to be a fortuitous means of reading the latter story, that of the young medic’s return to the States, before finishing the earlier story of his deployment abroad. Fortuitous precisely because discovering in Civilianized how fucked up Anthony felt—so desperate that he too, like so many of our young veterans, seriously considered killing himself—casts an extremely insightful light upon the ironic innocence of the young man who wrote the earlier book.
At 0100 Hours of Week 4, Day 6, of Anthony’s ninth month of deployment in Iraq—the time it takes an embryo to grow into a fully formed fetus—he is lying in his bed, staring at his computer when he comes across a quote that he notes in his journal:
Not all scars show, not all wounds heal. Sometimes you can’t always see the pain someone feels.
Just shy of a month later, as part of the “out-processing” protocol—the official preparations for the return to the States and civilian life—Anthony and his comrades are tested for PTSD as well as any disease they might have caught in-country. Later Anthony wonders
if someone feels an emotion but doesn’t allow himself to express it…well, where does it go? If a man gives another man a present but the other man doesn’t accept it, who does it belong to? If our mind, body, and heart send a message of what we’re feeling but we refuse to accept it, where does it go? Bottled up until you become emotionally constipated? Some people become depressive, abusive, stressed, or destructive, and some people develop PTSD.
Having read Civilianized first I know that this is precisely what’s going to happen to young Anthony, even though he doesn’t realize it or imagine that it could possibly happen to him. When he cries into his pillow a few nights later he thinks these tears should take care of it—whatever it is—and he worries more about his roommates having heard him than anything he might have bottled up inside of him and stored so deeply that gaining access to it and liberating himself from this trauma will almost cost him his life. But my knowing that this is indeed the case leant tremendous poignancy to the reading of Mass Casualties which, otherwise, features more of the tragicomic episodes and antics and ironies that viewers of the television series M.A.S.H. became accustomed to after the last of our soldiers returned from the Vietnam War.
Almost four months into his tour in Iraq Michael Anthony wrote in the journal he kept:
When I graduated high school the keynote speaker told us the next few years would be the best years of our life. Yet here I am, six thousand miles from home and fighting a war. Of course, I don’t regret my choice. But only when my tour’s over will I find out if it was the right one.
At the beginning of Civilianized he paints a vivid portrait of himself, eight months later:
I was also high on Vicodin. In Iraq, everyone had aches and pains, and since Vicodin was the most prescribed painkiller, it was hard to avoid some level of addiction. I had popped two before the bar, and I’d had four shots and six beers; I could barely feel my arms and legs. In fact, there was only one thing I could feel, the only thing on my mind besides drinking and taking pills: anger. An anger that surged and subsided, but never disappeared.
In Iraq, I felt alive. More alive than I ever had before. The rush from constant near-death experiences was like no other. Running for my life toward a cement bunker. Looking Death in the eye and saying, “Not today.” It made me feel. That intensity, that passion, that adrenaline, I wanted it back—and the only way for me get even a fraction of that feeling back was to fight. I had to fight someone big, someone ferocious, someone who would make me feel fear at least.
While in a medical unit in Iraq the young Michael Anthony read in his free time: “I had gotten into all sorts of philosophy stuff towards the end of my deployment.” And that led him to discover Nietzsche and Sartre and Rousseau and “got me thinking, for some reason—about time, about life and death, and about, I don’t know, meaning.” But being immersed, while abroad on active duty, in an existential agony—“We’d been fighting wars for ten thousand years, and I’m not sure anyone could make a convincing case that it meant anything at all—that only intensified once he’d come home, led Anthony to feel that “after a handful of books…I was no closer to any deeper” understanding of the meaning in anything.
This, it seems, sums up the deployment experience: the near-constant fear for your life, and that of the others you come to cherish and love, followed by a homecoming that is almost equally traumatizing because while away, serving your country in some capacity that involves this often present threat of sudden death, you fear that you will never go home again and then find, upon returning to that country you have served and the home you left to go off to war, that it’s almost as if everything you did and suffered through over there doesn’t matter at all, since “the world goes on without us.”
Anthony’s anger and sense of nihilism—both of which derive, in large part, from his observation of the hypocrisies, infidelities and other deceits he witnesses within his unit, and from the lack of justice and merit, for example, in the coveted medals awarded to men and women he cannot honestly regard as heroes—lead him to the resolution, after a brawl in San Diego, to give himself another three months to live. It is that three month timeframe that provides the backbone of the narrative arc of Civilianized.
And within those three months there is necessarily a visit to a PTSD clinic. The clinic is run by a couple of well-meaning university students of psychology and the attendees include veterans from every war since and including the Vietnam debacle. All of these men have found adjusting to civilian life hard, if not impossible. Something young Anthony anticipates about a month before his tour ends.
I’m scared. I’m really scared. More scared than thinking I might go to jail [for disobeying an order], more scared than all the nights I spent hunched over in a bunker as mortars landed all around me.
I’m scared about the future. What happens when I get home? I’m twenty-one, and I don’t know what I want in my life. Sure I can go back to college, but that’s only delaying the inevitable. I think about all the people in my unit. I see people who are respected in society. They’re doctors, nurses, pharmacists, anesthesiologists, and since we’re reservists some of them also have different jobs in the civilian world. They’re police officers, teachers, and firefighters. But they don’t have respect for themselves and one another. I’m scared because I don’t want to end up like any of these people, and I really don’t know how to prevent it.
I’m twenty-one years old and I have lived on my own since I was eighteen. During surgical training I assisted in delivering almost a dozen babies. I left home to go to war. I’ve seen people die and grown men cry. I’ve cowered in a bunker for hours at a time, fearing for my life. I’ve gone days without sleep and have assisted in hundreds of surgeries. I’ve survived all of this, but I’m still afraid to go back to the real world. In the Army and in Iraq I don’t have to worry about anything; three square meals a day are provided, and I’ve got shelter over my head and a steady paycheck. I don’t have to worry about what I’ll do on any given day because I already know—I work. All decisions are made for me. The only thing I have to worry about is the possibly of dying.
It’s strange, discordant, to think that a young man in his prime, living what are supposed to be the best years of his life, enjoying what should be the height of independence—no longer a child, subject to the control of his parents, and not yet a parent himself, responsible for anyone else—should be so terrified of the freedom of choosing and deciding for himself what he will do next. But having made himself the property of the United States Army for a contractual period of his life, during which time that freedom was surrendered, has ironically both made young Anthony a man and filled him again with the fears of childhood.
But none of it [the Bronze Stars being awarded to sycophants and other unworthies] matters to me, I’ll tell you what matters to me: I survived a war; I survived a year outside of my comfort zone without any friends or family. The goddamn Army made me a man.
I suppose the real question is, at what cost? Stunned by his friend Gunner’s attempt at suicide, Anthony breaks his pact with himself and instead of killing himself three months after he returns from Iraq he decides to tell the story of what he saw over there. This decision provides him with a mission, and that purpose helps him to overcome the oppressive sense of nothingness and his inability to feel anything at all.
Nothing happened overnight, but it only took that one night [when Anthony started writing his first memoir] for things to begin to change. After a short struggle, I stopped drinking. I stopped taking Vicodin and Ambien, and I quit smoking. Then I quit smoking again, and then I stopped smoking three more times.
This is something we learn in the epilogue to Civilianized. Along with the “brutal facts” of Anthony’s homecoming, the suicides and other challenges that all returning soldiers face everywhere. Leaving that question of whether or not it was worth it forever unanswered.
Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Erik S. Hansen. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons