COMPASSION FATIGUE |
May 12, 2008
Name: CAPT Beau Cleland
Posting date: 5/12/08
Stationed in: Iraq
I sometimes wonder if I'm getting callous about death and suffering, like some crotchety old veteran in the movies or something. You tell me.
We are searching a neighborhood, and an old woman approaches us with four or five other female family members. They are squatting in this nice house while the owners are gone (dead?), but fear they will be evicted soon. They have no male relatives, no food, and nowhere to go, since their house was blown up by either the US or al Qaeda. She produces some snapshots of a completely demolished house to show us.
I have absolutely no idea what I could possibly do for them, so I vaguely direct them to a US FOB in that part of the city and tell them to ask for the civil affairs people there. I feel slightly sad, but really my predominant emotion is tiredness.
A man with his face wrapped in fresh bandages stumbles up to my humvee while we are cordoning a neighborhood with our Iraqi Army unit. He knocks on the window, so I open it and have my interpreter ask what he wants. He starts wailing and crying that the local police in the area beat him and stole his money, and could I please fix the situation for him.
He's clearly drunk and weaving around, and again I have no idea what I can do for this guy. I make vague promises to let "someone" know -- probably the MPs who babysit the local cops, but I really don't think they can or will do anything about it. He persists in crying and begging, and I get annoyed instead of sympathetic, and motion for the IA soldiers to shoo him away. He almost gets shooed with a rifle butt until some people from his neighborhood take him away -- and slap him around. Tough day for that dude. I just feel a little sick.
I'm covering on radio watch while the rest of the team is out getting a truck fixed. There is lots of contact as we build a wall down a contested street and the enemy tries their best to stop us. Tanks, Bradleys, helicopters, artillery, CAS -- the whole gamut is getting used like crazy as Real War(tm) returns for a period to the streets of Sadr City. So as this stuff goes on, the guy on duty notes significant radio traffic. Here's what I write that day (paraphrased and edited for OPSEC, naturally):
1400: Red 1 reports contact, SAF and RPG. 4 x EKIA (enemy killed-in-action) at grid x. Engaged with main gun and coax.
1418: AWT (air-weapons team) engages RPG team with Hellfire at building 44. 2 x EKIA
1424: Ironclaw 22 reports IED strike. 0 x casualties, 2 x flat tire
And so on. For several hours I make similar notes, then I write this:
1604: Red 3 reports 1 x MAM (military-age male) running in front of tank towards barrier with a black duffel bag. Engaged with coax, 1 x EKIA. Suspected IED in bag.
1610: IA positions on RTE Beer receiving heavy PKC and RPG fire. 2 x WIA. Evaced to hospital.
And here it came....
1627: EOD reports possible IED is cleared. Bag contained cigarettes. Smoking kills.
I just made a joke about a (possibly) innocent civilian being cut down by a tank because he wanted to get some cigarettes and was too dumb or lazy to go around the battle area. Then I laughed at my own joke -- I was by myself, but I enjoyed the irony even with the bitter guilt heaped on top.
I've thought about this a lot in the last couple of days, and I've come to the conclusion that this place has so much suffering, so many problems, that if I internalize them I'm just going to mess myself up mentally and emotionally. Laughing is a necessary defense mechanism against the inevitable bad feelings. I mean, I didn't kill that man. But I would have. I know I would had I been in the same situation as that gunner -- his actions were completely justified. And yet I still felt uneasy.
And so I made a joke, knowing he was probably not a combatant. But I don't think I did it to be callous. I did it to keep myself sane. Don't get me wrong, we help people all the time. Every day there's something done to aid people around here. But there's just more stuff to fix than we could possibly handle and still be able to do our jobs. Everyone has a problem and the US Army is the magic bullet that can solve it for them. So I make myself not care when I can't afford to, or face being overwhelmed.