(Lt. Col. Bill Russell Edmonds)
In 2008, Joseph E. Stiglitz’s THE THREE TRILLION DOLLAR WAR laid out the financial cost of our war in Iraq. In the book the author speculated that the cost for our ill-advised invasion would probably be significantly more due to the long term care needs of our veterans who suffered numerous physical and psychological injuries. One area that was not really spelled out was in the realm of one’s own morality and how it might have affected our soldiers years after they fought and returned home. In Lieutenant Colonel Bill Russell Edmonds new book, GOD IS NOT DEAD the public is exposed to a new type of wound that is finally being recognized almost thirteen years after our incursion into Iraq – the “soul wound,” or “moral injuries.” Because of Edmonds’ superb new memoir we as a nation must confront the debilitating effects of such injuries. For people like Edmonds the answer to the question, “What the hell happened to me?” is not only important for his own sanity, but for the thousands of others who experience similar feelings, but are also at a loss to explain why. This paradigm is the core of Edmonds’ memoir and its conclusions, and lack of conclusions provide superb insights in dealing with the collapse of ones’ belief system and moral compass caused by his wartime service as a special operations officer dispatched to assist in implementing America’s counter insurgency strategy by overseeing the interrogation of suspected Iraqi terrorists. It was that experience that Edmonds came to believe could utterly defeat ones’ necessary moral beliefs when faced with the decisions and experiences that he was forced to make.
Edmonds’ left for Iraq in 2005 and spent an entire year working with his Iraqi counterpart, Saedi, in trying to gain information from suspected terrorists. Edmonds’ task was to apply American rules and regulations to those arrested, and the interrogation process that in many cases brought conflict with Iraqi allies. For them the confession was the key to their legal system, and it did not matter how it was obtained. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, the US military would not approve the type of torture techniques that the Iraqis believed would be successful. It took until 2011 while stationed in Germany for Edmonds to collapse emotionally. According to Dr. Bill Nash, the former Director of Combat and Operational Stress Control programs for the US Marine Corps it took Edmonds six years to realize how far he had fallen emotionally because of the nature of moral injuries as compared to physical ones. “Moral injuries are wounds to beliefs and secondarily, to the identity of the person holding those beliefs, inflicted by events that violently contradict them. Contradictions between expectations and reality are often not immediately apparent to the person whose brain is laboring to reconcile them…as the contradictions sink in-as they are being processed in sleep and wakefulness-cumulative stress not only continues, but it actually grows over time, as the moral war is slowly digested.” Therefore, Edmonds has been at war continuously since 2005. (16-17)
(The author on patrol in Mosul, Iraq in 2005)
In the book Edmonds uses alternate chapters taking the reader back and forth from his year of combat in Iraq describing his experiences in 2005, with chapters that take place when he is stationed in Germany in 2011, when his emotional crisis becomes apparent, and how he copes with his feelings and emotions especially as he thinks back to the war, and how it is now affecting his wife and two daughters. Edmonds presents the reader two timelines, the first the 365 days of his deployment to Iraq, and the 30 days in which he grows aware of his personal crisis in Germany. In conveying his story he intertwines the course of the war in 2005, a year that the United States finally acknowledged that there was an insurgency and created the Iraqi Assistance Group (IAG) that Edmonds volunteered for. He would spend one year in Mosul, Iraq, “a potpourri of religions, ethnicities, and tribes seeking revenge for some long-past but not forgotten wrong…a city just waiting to boil over.” (52) An environment whereby it would be very difficult to maintain one’s moral equilibrium.
Edmonds reviews the skills and techniques that are needed to be a successful interrogator. As he tries to apply American values to an Iraqi detention prison and rein in his Iraqi counterparts from employing the types of strategies used during Saddam’s reign, he becomes frustrated and angry and questions his role and what he can accomplish during his tour of duty. Edmonds is right on when it comes to describing the war. The conclusion he reaches that Iraqis have internalized “learned helplessness” is accurate and he correctly points out that it will take a generation for the Iraqi people to do for themselves and create a secure environment. Eventually Edmonds begins to wonder why he started to care more about why the terrorists fought, and less about how to obtain their confessions. As he works with Saedi in arresting and interrogating prisoners Edmonds comes to believe that maybe his Iraqi counterpart is correct in his assumptions because if the confessions where not obtained prisoners would be released, and many would eventually return after committing other atrocities against American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, a cycle that would be repeated over and over. His internal conflict rests with his role of preventing the use of techniques that will make the streets safer. Edmonds dilemma is clear, his assignment is to provide advice on the rule of law in a lawless society and instill morality in a place devoid of human decency. He has control over people’s lives, but he no longer feels comfortable with that power.
Edmonds provides insights into his emotional state by discussing his relationship with his then girlfriend, Amy who he believes has no concept of the reality he must deal with, and soon realizes that the woman he loves may not be the person he thought she was. This is compared to his wife, Cheryl who he loves dearly, and is trying to understand what he is going through and help him. It is heart wrenching to read what Edmonds is experiencing in 2011 as he tries to deal with his past inner conflicts. The flashbacks to the torture techniques, his struggle to maintain his belief in god, his feelings about Cheryl and his daughters all tap strong emotions in the reader. Edmonds adores his family and fears he is driving them away because of his thoughts and erratic behavior. He is at a loss as to how to cope with his own fragile mindset, and wonders how he will survive.
A turning point in the narrative occurs when Edmonds forms a relationship with an insurgent. After numerous discussions with the individual, Edmonds internalizes what the Iraqi is experiencing. As Edmonds writes; ….this insurgent represents a truth I cannot escape. His words describe a belief I am starting to share: our actions over the decades, over the past years, make this war unwinnable. Have our past deeds, do our current actions, do these things unintentionally create the anger I now see in this man? Did we create this insurgent? I’m conflicted because I am starting to believe this is true, but then I am having a hard time believing that anything is true anymore.” (229-30) As Edmonds begins to recognize why this insurgent and many other Iraqis hate Americans his moral confusion is exacerbated and feeds a state of mind that at times he feels his own persona is slipping away. How Iraqis see Americans compounds Edmonds’ moral dilemma and he begins to hate seeing “the truth in their words.” (243) Once Edmonds has crossed over the line and questions his task and sees the world from the Iraqi viewpoint and internalizes it, he becomes almost totally lost emotionally and morally. Edmonds tries to cope by seeking help from the military. This exercise is useless, as he does not fit the correct “bubble” in their questionnaire.
The book concludes with a short note from Edmonds’ mother, who correctly points out that the United States government, which made the decision to send our people to fight in Iraq have totally failed them by not providing them with the proper care when they returned. GOD IS NOT HERE is a troubling journey taken by an exceptional young man who will eventually learn how to cope his conflicted emotions, however those feelings will always be a part of him.