What We Talk about When We Talk about War: War Correspondent Kevin Sites Explores What Happens to Veterans Who Have Returned from Afghanistan and Iraq
Lamb, Christina, Nieman Reports
The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War BY KEVIN SITES Harper Perennial. 295 pages
Do men and women cover wars differently, I wonder? Stereotyping is a very terrible thing for a journalist, but after 25 years as a war correspondent I have yet to meet a fellow female colleague who really cared what they were being shot at with or bombed by--some of us can barely tell the rather crucial difference between incoming and outgoing fire--or a male who was preoccupied by how mothers were feeding and schooling their children through the conflict. All of which meant I started reading "The Things They Cannot Say" with mounting annoyance. In the world of its author, Kevin Sites, women don't exist as active participants. They are the wives left behind or grieving mothers.
Instead, it's all boys with toys. Sites talks excitedly of being "shuttled back and forth between battleships and aircraft carriers." His focus in reporting war is the bang-bang rather than the people. After all, this is someone who set out to cover every major war in a year--managing to get to 20 wars--calling the result "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone." That's not journalism, Kevin; that's just you going to dangerous places.
However, as I read on I realized Sites had hit upon an important theme. There are plenty of books out there of action in Iraq or Afghanistan, correspondents vying to be with the brigades that suffered most and writing vividly of life under fire. But what about what happens when those soldiers go home? What of the effects of war you can't see and don't want to talk about--or perhaps we don't want to hear? What Sites calls "the things they cannot say."
More than 11 years of fighting, where some units are now on their fifth deployment, has not only left more than 6,600 American soldiers dead and tens of thousands wounded, but a generation scarred in a far less visible way. It is this frontline back home that is the focus of Sites's book as he tried to get soldiers to talk about their experiences.
I read this book the same week that in my country, Britain, a young soldier who had survived a Taliban bomb a year earlier was found hanged while on home leave near Swansea. Trooper Robert Griffiths, 24, had been driving a Scimitar tank when it was hit by a Taliban Improvised Explosive Device. Remarkably, its new armor plating meant he walked away unhurt. At the time he said, "It was obviously a shock but I've never had such a buzz in my life:' Yet after returning from Afghanistan he hung himself.
The latest figures show more American soldiers died last year from committing suicide than in combat. In other words, we may be seeing fewer physical injuries as we have left Iraq and pull out from Afghanistan, but we are stocking up a huge problem for the future.
ANYONE WHO HAS SPENT TIME ON
frontlines knows you cannot experience war up close without it affecting you, particularly over protracted periods. …