A Prayer for the Secretary

John Kerry, Edward Snowden, and America’s Moral Injuries

By Larry Shook

Maybe it’s just my own PTSD talking, but I don’t think Secretary of State John Kerry is the first U.S. cabinet official in my lifetime to be guilty of cruel irony.

“Man up and come back to the United States,” Kerry recently challenged NSA secrets leaker Edward Snowden. Kerry wants Snowden to  “stand in our system of justice and make his case.”

Larry Shook
Larry Shook

The Secretary of Defense who sent me to Vietnam, Robert Strange McNamara, may actually have trumped Secretary Kerry’s cruel irony when he said, “In order to do good, you may have to do evil.” He delivered that wisdom in the documentary film The Fog of War.
As Secretary Kerry and I both know, in Vietnam we certainly did the evil our country ordered us to do.

It really doesn’t matter if you agree with McNamara’s justification of evil, because it turns out there is a higher authority: the human psyche. As the suicide epidemic now wracking America’s military shows, the healthy psyche knows the difference between good and evil. And if you do evil there’s hell to pay. It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder.

By some estimates, three times more Vietnam vets have taken their own lives than were killed in the war. The reason: PTSD, which causes twice as many suicides as other mental health conditions, according to health authorities. Veterans Administration records show that about 8,500 U.S. veterans and active duty military personnel now commit suicide annually. That’s about five times more deaths—every year—than we suffered in the Tet Offensive, bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War. I fought in Tet—its intensity is forever etched in my cells; from one second to the next I didn’t know if I would still be alive—so that statistic hits me hard.

I think it should hit Secretary Kerry hard, too. After all, even though we’re still at war in Afghanistan, 18 times more of our military people are killing themselves than are falling to hostile fire. VA records show that our military members between the ages of 18 and 24 commit suicide at three times the rate of their civilian counterparts.

We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw John Kerry 1971America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.–John Kerry in his 1971 testimony before the U.S. Senate.


The stress of guilty conscience appears to be at fault in this tragedy. Clinical experts explain that PTSD, which produces permanent physical brain changes, is a mix of three kinds of trauma: war’s physical violence, witnessing death, and moral injury.

Moral injury appears to be the biggest killer. Dr. Edward Tick, author of War and the Soul, writes that it, “with its incumbent harm to the soul, is the root cause of PTSD.” In plain language, moral injury is defined as “betrayal of what’s right.”

“You may not have done anything wrong by the law of war,” explains former U.S. Army psychiatrist Elspeth Ritchie, “but by your own humanity you feel that it’s wrong.”

All of us who suffer from PTSD, from its terrors and ever-lurking anxieties, from its neurogenic tremors that can make our hands shake, know what Rev. John Schluep means when he says a more functional definition is “post-terror soul dissociation.” That means PTSD’s impact can be so great as to separate us from physical and emotional experience. A former Army officer, Rev. Schluep presides over a community-based veterans’ PTSD healing project in Talmadge, Ohio.

No one is immune to PTSD, famously wrote psychiatrists J.W. Appel and G.W. Beebe in a 1946 Journal of the American Medical Association article. It’s the limbic system’s natural response to danger.

Mental breakdowns were 40 percent of British casualties in WW I, writes Dr. Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery. Veterans of the trenches exhibited the kind of hysteria once thought confined to women.

The contempt for public intelligence that Kerry betrays in challenging Snowden to “stand in our system of justice” is glaring. It’s almost as though Kerry invites belief in the power of American justice to harrow hell. Hell, it can’t even harrow Wall Street.

And here’s an interesting finding: clinically, PTSD and Rape Trauma Syndrome are essentially identical. This, again, according to Dr. Herman. Thus, when humanity sends its young to war it sends them to be raped.

This helps me understand the agitation—even fury—I have often felt with America’s superficial patriotism ever since I returned from Vietnam. To someone like me who suffers from PTSD, the saccharin phrase “Thank you for your service” can sound a lot like “Thank you for letting us send you to be raped.”

If you’ve never been raped let me tell you it takes a long time—maybe a lifetime—to get over it.

What makes Secretary Kerry’s cruel irony a matter of urgent public importance is the mounting evidence that, as Dr. Richard Rockefeller, a leading public health authority, puts it, PTSD is both infectious and heritable. That means we can all catch it from carriers like me—and John Kerry?

As CNN recently reported in “The Uncounted,” military PTSD suicides are triggering suicides among grief-stricken family members.

As CBS Sunday Morning recently reported in “Collateral Damage: The Mental Health Issues Facing Children of Veterans,” the traumatized infect their families.

I would offer my life with a smile on my face to protect my family. And yet I carry a condition that can’t help but hurt them. I have no words to express how sad that makes me.

While the American military may have outsourced some of its killing to private companies, the clinical evidence shows that our very nature won’t let us outsource moral injury. “All are punished,” as the prince says in Romeo and Juliet.

Put differently: we reap what we sow.

The contempt for public intelligence that Kerry betrays in challenging Snowden to “stand in our system of justice” is glaring. It’s almost as though Kerry invites belief in the power of American justice to harrow hell. Hell, it can’t even harrow Wall Street.
Where, for instance, has this system meted out justice when it comes to the hideous suffering caused by Agent Orange?

“The spirit of graft and of lawlessness is the American spirit,” wrote Lincoln Steffens in The Shame of the Cities in 1904. Clearly, American justice hasn’t healed that spirit. Why? The answer Steffens suggested seems as true today as it was more that a century ago: “The people are not innocent.”

That means we’re still getting the government we tolerate. Hardly surprising.

And it hardly needs saying that John Kerry’s cruel irony in pronouncing Snowden a “coward” and “traitor” for exposing government run amok—government that continues to sentence its young to the rape camp of war—is wrong. Clearly, if we buy such transparent scapegoating, we’re all responsible. Every single one of us.

What is surprising, however, is evidence from the PTSD crisis that a moral order exists in the world that actually threatens us with physical consequences should we betray what’s right.

I’m not being sarcastic when I wonder if Kerry suffers from PTSD that led him to his dangerous assault on Snowden. No veteran who suffers from PTSD would ever make fun of a fellow sufferer. Nor would we wish our injury on others. I consider it my patriotic duty to say this.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

First World War poet Sigfried Sassoon wrote that in Suicide in the Trenches. My prayer for Secretary Kerry, for me, and for all of us, is for just the opposite. Namely, that we squarely face the hell of moral injury with which Kerry’s cruel irony confronts us. If we don’t, how can we doubt the hell that awaits us?

What, if not that, do Vietnam and so many other of our catastrophic deceits teach us?

–Larry Shook, a Vietnam veteran who was decorated for heroism, is an award-winning journalist and former editor/publisher of Spokane Magazine.

4 thoughts on “A Prayer for the Secretary”

  1. Thanks, Larry, for your persistence, clarity, and courage about the government coverup of PTSD.
    You’re right when you say only the people can stop it, because the commanders won’t.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Hancock, and thank you for your leadership in creating Warrior Songs Spokane to help heal our nation’s PTSD. Your leadership is already inspiring others across America. Godspeed in your continuing efforts.

  2. Larry,
    Thank you for your perspective into what the real issue is for our veterans, that being the failure of our system to reestablish a level of normalcy for our combat veterans. We have a system failure that takes volunteer men and women, train them for 12-16 weeks and send them off into parts unknown to carry out war or the human destruction of the enemy (not always defined). We allow this for years and then when the time comes to discharge the veterans due to medical injury or end of commitment, the system processes them for one week and sends them out to a world that is greatly different than the one they left.

    This is the real fog of war, the one that has striped the individual from any logical or rational thoughts of being human as those where driven out during basic training and combat. We have let down our combat veterans from the first world war and continue to do so today. We have failed our commitment to you and other combat veterans and no one in government seems to understands or even knows what to do about it.

    I want to says thank you as well as my apologizes as a citizen for not being able ensure you as well as our other veterans receive the support due after your tours. I hope to change that one day.

    1. Thank you, Mr. Hansen. I believe that your compassion and concern reflect that of most people. We just don’t understand what it means to labor under the “myth of redemptive violence” that sends our young to war. The facts show that the phrase “freedom isn’t free” is also a myth. For most Americans what we call “freedom” IS free, and always has been. Less that 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, but 20 percent of America’s annual suicides are committed by our military personnel. After the Revolutionary War, President George Washington couldn’t even persuade Congress or the public to pay the back salaries of the soldiers who won the nation’s freedom. Today, that historical indifference is being perpetuated by the shameful conduct of the Veterans Administration. I’m confident, or at least hopeful, that your sentiments are shared by most citizens who want to end the systematic hypocritical abuse of those we send to war. Thank you again for raising your voice. It means a lot to me.

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