Peter Van Buren has lived a very interesting life, first serving 24 years in the U.S. Department of State, including one year in Iraq, and then deciding he couldn’t and wouldn’t be silent about what he saw over there, which included overwhelmed soldiers, bureaucratic problems and pointless projects.
In 2003 he wrote a book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and the Department of State began proceedings against him. With the help of the ACLU and the Government Accountability Project he retired from the department with his full benefits of service.
Since leaving the government, Van Buren’s commentary has been featured in The New York Times, Reuters, Salon, NPR, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, The Nation, TomDispatch, Antiwar.com, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, MichaelMoore.com, Le Monde, Asia Times, The Guardian (UK), Daily Kos, XpatNation, Middle East Online, Guernica and others. He has appeared on the BBC World Service, NPR’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air, CurrentTV, HuffPo Live, RT, ITV, Britain’s Channel 4 Viewpoint, CCTV, Voice of America, and more.
His next book was called Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, a reimagining of The Grapes of Wrath in modern times.
Van Buren was associate producer for the film Silenced (2014) by Academy Award-nominee James Spione. The film shows the unprecedented war on whistleblowers that the United States government has waged on whistleblowers.
He has a new book called Hooper’s War, which is how he came to my attention, and he agreed to an interview by email. It’s an anti-war novel about a fictional World War II in which the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not take place. The book talks about “moral injury,” which the author explains about in the following interview.
You can read an excerpt of the book here.
Did you set out to write an anti-war novel or was that more the resulting book rather than the intended one?
I set out to write a book about what war is really like on an individual level, after having read too many books, and seen too many movies, that glamorized the very different reality I knew from my own year in Iraq. I don’t think anyone can write a true book about the individual experience of war, and I’m thinking about volumes such as Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, or Goodbye, Darkness, and have it be anything but anti-war. You can go back to Thucydides and find stories that can coolly argue the strategic value of some wars, but once you drill down to the individual level it become impossible to write the truth and have it say anything but that war is horror.
You talk in the book about “moral injury.” Can you explain this term/concept?
The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war, that people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested. When they violate deeply held convictions by doing something (such as killing in error), or failing to do something (such as not reporting a war crime), they suffer an injury to their core being. That’s moral injury. As beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, it follows that that sense can be broken.
One Marine coming out of Iraq told me simply “My guilt will never go away. There is a part of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”
I made a video that explains the concept, which you can see here
How common do you think moral injury is in soldiers?
I think it is sadly all too common. It is next to impossible for a military person to spend their career in the service removed from morality. For those in combat, faced with split second demands of whether to kill or not, the moral issue is forefront. But even for others behind the lines, it seems hard to ignore: those bombs you load on to planes, those maps you create, that intelligence you pass on, are all part of the process of taking lives. With modern communications, nearly every military person is potentially in a position to witness a war crime – look at Chelsea Manning. She did mostly computer and intelligence work, never fired a shot or was shot at, and saw her morality challenged when she uncovered video evidence of civilian deaths, what we now call the Collateral Murder video
How did you research this book?
Though my book is a novel, fiction, almost everything in it is based on true events. I spoke to American veterans from WWII to the present day, and read thousands of pages of oral histories and diaries from others. When I realized that I was hearing many of the same words in a Civil War diary as I was from a recent returnee from the Afghan fight, I realized that the gut issues of war have not changed. So the characters and events in my book are composites of those many men and women who allowed me to understand their own experiences of war.
I also spent time at the Army Historical Center, at the War College in Carlsile, Pennsylvania. I was able to see and at times handle the weapons and equipment both sides used in WWII, as well as read deeply into the historical documentation. As the book is set in WWII, I wanted to know what I was talking about when I described a character picking up his M-1 rifle and describing how it felt in his hand.
Lastly, I lived in Japan for a total of ten years, and set the story in a part of the country near Kyoto that I was very familiar with. That way I could ensure the descriptions of the terrain, the weather, the homes and other physical features read true.
I know my readers know their history, so at no point did I want a missed detail to take them out of the story.
What was it like interviewing Japanese civilians who lived through World War II?
Moral injury doesn’t just affect soldiers, the same as bombs and bullets don’t affect just soldiers. So it is important to include civilians in my story not simply as victims or targets, but as complex participants. I speak Japanese, and traveled to Japan to interview now-elderly Japanese who survived the war as children.
They described the horrific choices they faced in a landscape of hunger and survival. Desperate people can be forced into desperate acts, and those too cause moral injuries that long survive the war itself. Sometimes things like that don’t end until the sufferers do. They taught me moral injury is a debt that has to be settled, one way or another.
One incident in my book focuses on a Japanese child seeing his neighbor killed by an errant American bomb. That changes him from an innocent boy into a soldier seeking revenge. It’s as if he was radicalized, a term we use today to describe the process by which a peaceful person becomes willing to destroy themselves as a suicide bomber. The same for Japanese combatants such as the kamikaze. Are they so different? What the boy experienced changed him. He goes from playing soldier to fighting Hooper’s war, too.
I learned a lot about the near-famine conditions in Japan near the end of the war. Those survivors who got the food necessary to live had to pay a price for knowing what happened to those who didn’t. In a landscape ravaged by war, just because something wasn’t your fault doesn’t mean it won’t be your responsibility. An act as simple as which of her children a mother offered a disappearing supply of water to first could mean the difference between life and death. And though, in truth, it might have been impossible in such circumstances and at such an age to know that you were responsible for the death of your sister or brother, 70 years later you might still be thinking about it with an almost unbearable sense of guilt.
And here’s a small footnote: Did you know that it’s possible to sit quietly on a Tokyo park bench in 2017, perfectly aware of whose distant relatives and countrymen dropped the bombs that took away the water that forced that mother to make that decision, and still shamefully continue taking notes, saying nothing as you witness someone else’s breakdown?
Why did you decide to have your fictional World War II not include the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Part of the fiction of Hooper’s War is that the atomic bomb did not work, and was never dropped. The U.S. instead invaded Japan, and it is that invasion that brings the main character of Hooper to Japan and sets the plot in motion.
I did this first as a plot device, to get Hooper ashore, but primarily as as a way to present the reader with a more neutral starting point. There is no more complex moral act in modern war than the atomic bombings of Japan. Though I believe they were unnecessary to end the war (and explain my thinking in the Addendum to Hooper’s War,) that is far from a settled issue. I wanted the book to speak about morality, and moral injury, in the most generic sense possible, and so removed the most controversial moral issue from the story. Like the main character Hooper, the reader starts innocent.
That said, the reader will note that I included all of the larger issues that surround Hiroshima and Nagasaki into Hooper’s War by way of a fictional firebombing of the city of Kyoto. That way the reader can experience the horror of such large-scale killing without bringing their “Hiroshima Was Right/Wrong” baggage into the room with them.
I’ll add that the scenes of devastation inside Kyoto that Hooper and the reader experience are true. The things I describe there, including the sounds and the smells, are drawn from my own experiences, as well as others’ first-person descriptions of the aftermath of various air raids. If you have never seen a hundred thousand maggots wriggling in the shape of a human body then you do not know what the word horror means. Hooper does.
What books about wars do you like? I’m curious particularly on your thoughts on Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five are the best books ever written about the individual experience of war. Anyone who has not read them, or last read them many years ago in some hated English class, I’d implore them to re-read the books today. Both volumes capture the fact that war as an intensely human thing is often funny, even as it is tragic. War is also exciting, exhilarating, and sometimes even fun, like camping with more guns. But those are all “sometimes” views of what happens, and Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five give you those interstitial moments but never let you get far away from the reality of war, which is you killing people and you getting killed.
In no particular order I also like Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed. We’re still waiting for the first great book out of the post-9/11 wars. As for films, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I think they will enjoy that it is a good story, a good story with a conscience. There are messages here, and points to be made there, but it is also a story you can still down and enjoy.
I also hope I am bringing this concept of moral injury to a wider audience, and to people who are not familiar with it — that moral injury is a cost of war. That it is about the 20 veteran suicides that take place every day, it is what their husbands and wives and brothers and sisters come home with. The next goal is to understand that there are implications of war forcing us to choose between morality and expediency. It never works when you step away from the moral positions. Whether on a macro level or among individual soldiers or whatever, it is never right when you abandon morality, when it is not at the core of what you are doing it will fail.
Hooper’s War is written in reverse chronology. It opens with a broken, elderly Nate Hooper and walks us through the war back to his boyhood. One reviewer called it “literary origami.” Stories of loss of innocence in war – I’m thinking Saving Private Ryan – are traditionally told the other way around, from innocence to collapse. Why did you choose to do things, well, backwards?
The reverse chronology is essential to the story, and the idea of moral injury. I want the reader to see Nate Hooper as the man he ended up, when the events of a few weeks when he was 18 affected his whole life, as he is in his late 80s when he finally finds a form of redemption. He lived all those years with the things he had seen and done, and I want the reader to feel that. And by working backwards, where the book ends with him as an innocent boy, I think it drives home the desire to return to better days. It also means a book tackling some very tough subjects ends on a bittersweet, but ultimately happy ending. There is a winner, of sorts, in Hooper’s War.
I remember hearing about your first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, but I wasn’t aware that the Department of State began proceedings against you. I’m sure you expecting some pushback from the military for writing your book but did the full power of that pushback, including proceedings, surprise you?
I was surprised as hell at what happened (a concise version is here) I remember the book’s publisher saying to me a few months before things fell apart “You know, if there was a little controversy, that’d help book sales. Do you think the government will bark at you?” I was so naïve. I really imagined the government would be kind of pleased someone had pointed out where things had gone wrong in Iraq, when there was still time to fix them. I figured I might get into a little trouble because my book is written in a kind of snarky tone. I was wholly unprepared to be threatened with prosecution and to have to embark on a year-long fight, aided by the ACLU and others, just to quietly retire from my employer, the State Department
Were you always a big fan of whistleblowers or did that come later, when you became one yourself, with your first book? Or do you dislike being called a whistleblower?
I always had something of a sensitivity to whistleblowers, seeing them as brave people willing to put something they believed in above themselves. I guess my image was shaped by Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers and blowing the whistle on the Vietnam War. At the same time, I never imaged myself as believing in something that strongly to blow the whistle, and I never thought I’d have the guts to follow through. Then I went to Iraq, and that experience changed me.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a project whose final form is not yet clear. The premise is that the United States has entered its third great era. The first, starting from the colonists’ arrival, saw the principles of the Enlightenment used to push back the abuses of an imperial government and create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The next two hundred some years, imperfect as they were, saw those principles progress, putting into practice what an evolving government of the people might look like. We are now wading in the shallow waters of the third era, Post-Constitutional America, a time when our government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges. Those ideas– enshrined in the Bill of Rights– are disarmingly concise, the haiku of a People’s government. Deeper, darker waters lay in front of us, and we are drawn down into them. The king, jealous of the People’s power, wants some back.
FYI: If you are interested in more information, here are some resources: