By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
WHITMAN – The wounds of war can go beyond the ones that bleed, to the invisible pain of moral and psychological scars.
“It’s a paradox that I want to acknowledge – the veterans’ paradox,” author Michael J. Robillard says. “As a veteran, how can one voice an opinion on the military and its policies without falling victim to the binary, of sounding either like a pacifistic victim or a war-hawk shill?”
He said the first risks sounding like a broken victim or a person condemning one’s own country, military or comrades in arms, or risking conflating patriotism with enthusiastic, uncritical endorsement of all things military and all things war.
American Legion Post 22 on June 29 hosted a book discussion with Robillard, who wrote a book titled “Outsourcing Duty: The Moral Exploitation of the American Soldier,” with Bradley J. Strawser. [Oxford University Press, hardcover 240 pages, $35 — available on Amazon.com]
“This book is an attempt to walk a tightrope,” Robillard said of the widening civilian/military divide. “If this town were to deploy in WWI, the entire town would have [gone] together and come back and spent the entirety of our lives sorting through what it was that we just did.”
By WWII, families like the Sullivans, who lost all five sons, who had insisted on serving on the same ship, when that ship was sunk in action, led to a policy of separating family members or residents of the same town in service. By Vietnam, differing operation tempos affected how troops were deployed.
The all-volunteer force since Vietnam takes the entirety of war fighting and decision-making “and drastically pushes it behind a social veil, where 1 percent or 2 percent of the population are doing the war fighting.”
Matthew Quimby of the Post’s Sons of the American Legion group introduced Robillard, reading from one of the book’s back cover blurbs.
“‘Outsourcing Duty’ is the first serious and detailed analysis of the ways in which societies and governments expose their soldiers to moral as well as physical risk,” he read during the event broadcast by Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV. “Soldiers are compelled to fight in wars about which they are given a little information. They must take responsibility for the life-and-death decisions that involve a great risk of wrongdoing.”
Robillard spoke of a military ethics conference he attended in Spain in March 2018 where he spoke to a fellow West Point graduate, Maj. Ian Fishback [a year ahead of Robillard] and veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was one of three 82nd Airborne soldiers who had written in 2005 to the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about abuses of prisoners’ rights he had witnessed at a forward base in Fallujah, Iraq that “had gone unnoticed.” He chronicled in that letter what he saw as a military culture that was permissive toward the abuse of prisoners.
The friend had served three more tours after transferring to Special Forces before returning to West Point to become a philosophy professor, before working on his PhD at the University of Michigan.
Tragically, Fishback died at age 42 in an adult foster care facility. According to a New York Times report of his death, his family said his career “begun to unravel as a result of neurological damage or post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The last time Robillard had spoken to his friend was in a Veterans Day phone call a week before Fishack’s death.
“Ian was a scholar,” Robillard said. “He was a warrior. He was an examplar of what it meant to be an American citizen, and our country gravely failed him. … Ian’s situation is not unique at all – not for him, not for my generation, not for … the last set of wars that America’s been fighting.”
Woburn native Staff Sgt. Keith Callahan was buried in 2007 after he was killed in Iraq. Robillard called him “the best platoon sergeant I ever had,” when as a new second lieutenant, the author found himself in his first command posting from 2003-04. Callahan was killed in action on a later deployment.
Robillard also spoke of Abington’s Marine Sgt. Daniel Vasselian, killed in Afghanistan in 2013; Whitman native Maj. Michael Donohue of the 82nd Airborne, who was killed in action in Afghanistan a year later; and Sgt. Jared Monti, also of the 82nd Airborne, who hailed from Abington, killed in 2006 in Afhanistan.
“Anyone know his story?” Robillard asked about Monti. “Medal of Honor. I would be very surprised if many people in this area are even aware of it. It was news to me.”
He said he listed the local fallen as a “brief snapshot of the side effects of our nation’s ongoing wars, at least for the last 20 years.”
It is not just a Massachusetts issue, he said, but a national one that spans the country and expands generationally.
Of the 1 percent that was doing any fighting in U.S. wars, much of that was assigned to Special Forces units, according to Robillard. Considerations about warfare, including ethics, was being pushed off to the tip of that spear.
“The civil/military divide I’ve just described is still widening,” he said. “This isn’t a static thing.”
The three side effects the authors see are: unchecked military adventures, or the “forever wars;” a basic breakdown in the shared notion of citizenship; and the moral exploitation of soldiers.
The book largely focuses on the latter, exploring the relationship of exploitee vulnerability and exploiter benefit, according to Robillard and Strawser.
“This is an incomplete account of how persons or groups can be exploited,” Robillard said. “Persons can also be exploited, unfairly or excessively, by being made to shoulder excessive amounts of moral responsibility. We think that is what’s going on, at least, in part, with America’s relationship to its soldiers and to its veterans – at least during the last 20 years and the War on Terror.”
PTSD, moral injury and the growing problem of suicides among the veterans community is tracking something within the moral space that illustrates the problem.
The book also traces the demographics of vulnerability within the military – socio-economic background, geography, age, race gender and recruitment means and methods. Society, on the other hand, benefits from minimal disruption and physical risk to a tremendous institutional immunity to moral injury and dilemmas.
They also offer three possible prescriptions for the problem: recruitment reform and compensation; going back to some kind of ‘skin in the game argument,’ perhaps like the pre-Vietnam citizen soldier model of some type of draft so communities see actual tangible evidence of a war; or a national service model. Some of the soluions examined in the book range from removing profit margin for war, giving youth more likely to go to war a voice in whether or not there should be one and limitation of military forces to home defense purposes.
“It doesn’t have to be national military service – fighting fires out in Wyoming or building roads or doing something — but at least gives some damn sense that we’re shared citizens that are doing our part to collectively share in our war-fighting decision making, and we’re shouldering the responsibility equitably,” Robillard said.
Robillard said he is “most sympathetic” to the prescription of requiring more skin in the game.