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Archive for December, 2011

How Many U.S. Soldiers Were Wounded in Iraq?

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

500,000 vets may suffer from PTSD, depression, or traumatic brain injury

Dan Froomkin, senior Washington correspondent for Huffington Post, reports at Nieman Watchdog that the Pentagon’s figure of 32,226 wounded seriously undercounts the true casualty rate. Possibly more than a half million of the 1.5 million Iraq war veterans sustained traumatic brain injury or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, exposure to hazardous substances, breathing disorders, severe hearing loss, migraines, and other uncounted afflictions. “We don’t have anything close to an exact number,” Froomkin writes, “because nobody’s been keeping track.”

The much-cited Defense Department figure [of 32,226 wounded] comes from its tally of “wounded in action”—a narrowly tailored category that only includes casualties during combat operations who have “incurred an injury due to an external agent or cause.” That generally means they needed immediate medical treatment after having been shot or blown up. Explicitly excluded from that category are “injuries or death due to the elements, self-inflicted wounds, combat fatigue”—along with cumulative psychological and physiological strain or many of the other wounds, maladies and losses that are most common among Iraq veterans.

The article is worth reading in full (so is the entire Harvard-based web site, Nieman Watchdog), but here are a few disturbing highlights:

•  The Pentagon’s Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reports having diagnosed 229,106 cases of mild to severe traumatic brain injury from 2000 to the third quarter of 2011, including both Iraq and Afghan vets.

•  A 2008 study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans by researchers at the RAND Corporation found that 14% screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder and 14% for major depression, with 19% reporting a probable traumatic brain injury during deployment. . . . Applying those proportions to the 1.5 million veterans of Iraq, an estimated 200,000 of them would be expected to suffer from PTSD or major depression, with 285,000 of them having experienced a probable traumatic brain injury.

• Altogether, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America group estimates that nearly 1 in 3 people deployed in those wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or traumatic brain injury. That would mean 500,000 of the 1.5 million deployed to Iraq.

• A 2010 Congressional Research Service report, presenting what it called “difficult-to-find statistics regarding U.S. military casualties” offers one indication of how the “wounded in action” category undercounts real casualties. It found that for every soldier wounded in action and medically evacuated from Iraq , more than four more were medically evacuated for other reasons.

•  The VA’s web page on hazardous exposures warns that “combat Veterans may have been exposed to a wide variety of environmental hazards during their service in Afghanistan or Iraq. These hazardous exposures may cause long-term health problems.” The hazards include exposure to open-air burn pits, infectious diseases, depleted uranium, toxic shrapnel, cold and heat injuries and chemical agent resistant paint. The VA provides no estimates of exposure or damage, however.

•  A March 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that many wounds suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan will persist over veterans’ lifetimes, and some impacts of military service may not be felt until decades later.

A Three- to Five-Billion-Dollar War

It was by including the Iraq war’s un(der)counted casualties that Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes estimated the Iraq war would ultimately cost the United States some $3 trillion when all health care costs over the soldiers’ lifetimes are factored in. In 2008 they raised their estimate to $4 or $5 billion. And that’s just the financial cost to the United States.

Whatever the actual numbers are—and the physical and psychic costs are beyond calculation—the American public should press firmly on the White House, Congress, and Veterans Administration secretary Eric K. Shinseki to ensure that veterans receive high-quality physical and psychological care. It is the right thing to do. Most of the U.S. public opposed a war with Iraq until it actually started—on the insistence of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, among other war hawks—but now that the war has run its bloody course, the nation owes it to the veterans to see that they are cared for and that serious and sustained funds are allocated for job training and health care, physical and mental.

There are about 1.5 million Iraq war veterans, and the experience of Vietnam veterans (and the Bonus Army long before them) shows that these vets, too, will be brushed aside if the public does not stand by them. The countless thousands of homeless, armless, legless, and hopeless Vietnam veterans shames this nation, and should not be repeated. We fear, however, that the conservatives corporate interests that have such outsize influence in Washington will fight any further spending on the veterans with whom the politicians so love to be photographed.

You can help by supporting Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for PeaceMake the Connection, and other organizations that work for veterans and their families listed on the “Anti-War” blogroll at the bottom right of this page. Tell members of Congress to support the Veterans Jobs initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden to press the private sector to commit to hiring 100,000 veterans and their spouses by the end of 2013. Read more about it here.

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See also “The Freedom and the Damage Done” in “As ‘End’ of Iraq War Is Announced, U.S. Digs In, Warns Iran” (10/30/11) and “As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?” (8/19/10).

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Photo credits: Top photo by Platon, from a portfolio on American soldiers and their families published in the Sept. 28, 2008, issue of The New Yorker. Middle photo shows Bryan Malone, 22, an Army specialist from Haughton, La., while working with a speech pathologist at Vanderbilt Medical Center Aug. 2, 2007, in Nashville. The scar is a result of a rocket attack on a Baghdad gym where Malone was working out. He now suffers from traumatic brain injury, the “silent epidemic” of the Iraq war (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey). Bottom illustration: Red Cross, World War I Red Cross.



Tom Piazza on Writing for HBO’s “Treme”

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

“New Orleans has a mythology, a personality, a soul, that is large, and that has touched people around the world. It has its own music (many of its own musics), its own cuisine, its own way of talking, its own architecture, its own smell, its own look and feel. . . .

“It may be hard for people who have never been to the Crescent City to understand the passionate love people have for it, to understand why it’s worth fighting for—why it matters. . . . New Orleans is not just a list of attractions or restaurants or ceremonies, no matter how sublime and subtle. New Orleans is the interaction among all those things, and countless more. It gains its character from the spirit that is summoned . . . in the midst of all these elements, and that comes, ultimately, from the people who live there. . . . That spirit . . . is what is in jeopardy right now.” 

from the Introduction to Why New Orleans Matters

 

A few nights ago we went to the Center for Fiction in Manhattan to hear our friend Tom Piazza talk about writing for HBO’s popular show Treme, which most readers of this blog know is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Piazza is an accomplished and versatile writer of short stories, novels, and books about jazz, blues, and New Orleans—ten books altogether. He has won a Grammy and other awards, and his writing has been praised by Bob Dylan, but until co-creator and executive producer David Simon phoned him in 2009, he had not written a screenplay.

The following is an account of the evening, with some paraphrasing and some direct quoting of Piazza’s remarks, and a bit of background explanation about the show, which we highly recommend. Tom Piazza did not say this, exactly, but one of the qualities of Treme that we have found most appealing, besides its vivid realism and honest evocation of America’s most unique, world-unto-itself city, is that about half of the show’s main characters are African American (Antoine Batiste, LaDonna, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux), and each is an individual, not a (stereo)type. This is almost unheard of in American television. In fact, all of the characters, of whatever complexion, are treated with respect and psychological subtlety. Music, too, in many varieties, is accorded a place of honor. In many scenes, music is not there merely for atmosphere—it’s part of the action, like the other characters.

A Show Set at the Heart of New Orleans Music

A brief clip of a Season One episode that Tom had written was shown to give the audience a taste of the show, then the Center’s executive director Noreen Tomassi (shown with Tom in photo below) asked him a series of questions about similarities and differences between writing fiction and screenwriting, how the writing work on the show is organized, and so on.

(For those unfamiliar with New Orleans neighborhoods, the Treme, or Faubourg Treme [pronounced “truh-MAY”] is a historically African American “back of town” section of the city behind the French Quarter, across Rampart Street. It is named after a French planter, Claude Tremé, who married a free woman of color. The oldest African American neighborhood in the United States and home to a large population of free blacks since 1812 [thus 2012 will be its bicentennial], Treme includes the site of the legendary Congo Square—now covered by Louis Armstrong Park—where slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to play drums and sing and dance. Treme has been the birthplace of countless jazz and other musical talents, including Alex Chilton, Louis Prima, and Shannon Powell, as well as Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band, who often appear in the show. What New Orleans is to America’s music, Treme is to New Orleans.)

Of the six writers for Treme, two are residents of New Orleans: Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for the Times-Picayune who grew up in the Treme. Elie, too, though an accomplished journalist and maker (with Dawn Logsdon) of the documentary film Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, had also never written television screenplays. The other writers are the show’s creators, David Simon and Eric Overmyer (who worked together on HBO’s hit show The Wire), the late David Mills, and George Pelecanos, all veteran screenwriters.

Piazza explained that screenwriting is a combination of collaborative and solo work, some done with the others in the writers’ room and some alone. The six gathered at a room HBO had booked at the Monteleone Hotel. Certain plot and character aims were established early on—for example, by the end of the first season we’ll want this character to have moved physically or psychologically from here to here. After group discussions, sketching out rough outlines, the writers each went off to do solo work, which would then be brought back to the group to be worked over, cut, altered, elaborated, and so on. For one thing, writing for TV definitely requires working well with others, being able to compromise, bite your tongue, and bide your time.

In Treme, he explained, you have eight or ten principal characters who have “point of view”—that is, characters you can be alone with, whom the camera follows through a scene. The trick in making an episode is to “shuffle the deck” of the scenes in such as way that the pace never flags, the tension on the line never goes slack. But if you shift too much or too rapidly, the viewer may become disoriented or the narrative may get scrambled.

At the Crossroads of Fiction and TV

One way in which screenwriting is like fiction is that you’re writing against the tension of not knowing whether the material you’re writing is actually going to be used. You may work long and hard on scenes that you end up deciding not to use after all—fiction writers know about this—and the same thing can happen in the writers’ room.

As for screenwriting’s influence on his fiction, he said, at first he was wary of the schematic element creeping into his work, the necessary focus on plot (more than character and psychology). And yet there were ways in which the differences in the genres have sharpened some of his fictional instincts.

“One thing I’ve thought a lot about since starting with screenwriting for Treme is that in fiction there is always the question of what you dramatize and what you want to explain by way of exposition. In other words, do you show something happening, or do you tell about it as having happened at more of a distance? In film, where everything is dramatized, there is no equivalent to exposition except for the voice-over (such as something like having a narrator say, ‘It was a bleak winter of homes and entire neighborhoods nearly leveled, and determined residents struggling to get by and start over . . .’). This experience of writing for the screen where virtually everything is dramatized sharpened the questions I asked about what to dramatize when I turned back to fiction.”

Piazza said there were some tough questions facing the creators and writers and actors when preparing for the first season, such as, How do you come back after an extreme catastrophe like this? How do you try to get back to the kind of life your city had before? The writers and actors focused on the life of New Orleans as depicted in Why New Orleans Matters, copies of which were distributed to the members of the cast and crew by the production office before filming began. That book, which Tom wrote in five intensive weeks shortly after the storm (publ. Nov. 2005), shows the city’s life and culture as based around food, music, dancing, festivals—all of which are intertwined. While Season One was very much rooted in Why New Orleans Matters, Season Two was more about the nuts and bolts of survival, rebuilding your home and your city, struggling to get back to normal, dealing with the insane bureaucracy and other obstacles.

Doubts Allayed by High-Fidelity Realism

One audience member asked what impact the series has had on the people of New Orleans.

“Dozens of bars and restaurants with HBO host Treme-watching parties on Sunday nights. Even the Charbonnet Funeral Home has HBO. It’s a fantastic thrill to go to a bar or restaurant and all these people watching these lines you wrote are talking back to the character and responding to things they do. And there are all these blogs that have sprung up to discuss the show, such as Back of Town and Watching Treme that have this ongoing midrash of discussion about episodes and characters and verisimilitude, significance, etc.

Before the show started there was a certain amount of caution and skepticism, with people wondering how are outsiders going to tell this story? How do they know what we’ve been through? It was similar to the questions in early 2006 about whether there was going to be a Mardi Gras so soon after the storm. There was some hesitancy about whether it was appropriate, but enough people said, Of course we’ll have Carnival: there’s no way we’re not going to have Mardi Gras.”

When asked which characters he most enjoys writing for, Piazza replied that “you have to love writing about all the characters—and this is true of fiction too—but I especially have fun writing for the character Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who comes from this Uptown Garden District family, but he’s bohemian, a would-be musician who hangs out with all these musicians and artists. He switches modes of diction very flexibly, depending on the setting he’s in. Also, it’s wonderful writing for actors as good as the ones in the Treme cast, because whatever you write, you know they’re going to get it and be able to play it.”

As for what might be expected in the third season, Piazza was teasingly discreet, and too professional to spoil any surprises. He did venture a supposition, however, that a viewer could reasonably be surprised if the season did not deal in some way with such major events in the city’s recent history as the aftermath of the Danziger bridge shootings or “the savage, cynical, deliberate destruction” of public housing complexes that has made it difficult-to-impossible for lower-income residents of New Orleans to rebuild their deep-rooted lives in New Orleans.

Piazza was asked about the future, about how many years out the character developments can be envisioned. David Simon has said publicly that he sees Treme as a four-season show, though HBO has paid Simon “the compliment” of saying it’s as if in this complex, multilayered series Simon is writing a novel, and we want him to be able to bring that novel to completion.

That comparison strikes us as accurate, and although many works of fiction have been adapted for the screen (especially by HBO lately), Treme is one of the few television dramas we know of that can stand comparison with a serious novel for richness and subtlety. For those who might have missed David Simon’s remarks at Rising Tide 6 last August on the making of Treme and the show’s relationship to the city it represents, see our live-blogging here and a video of the keynote speaker here. See also

Until Season Three airs next spring, and even long after the show has resumed, we highly recommend Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, along with his novel City of Refuge (2008) and his latest book, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a collection of articles and essays about musicians, writers, and New Orleans. He has written ten books altogether and is at work on a new novel, so he’ll keep you busy—and will repay the attention you give his writing—for a long time to come.

For More about the Treme and New Orleans . . .

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, a documentary film by Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon

After the Flood: The Creator of ‘The Wire’ in New Orleans” (New Yorker review of Treme by Nancy Franklin)

New Orleans African American Museum: Tremé 200: Bicentennial 1812–2012

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts | Spike Lee’s acclaimed 4-hour documentary (HBO, 2006)

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise | Spike Lee’s follow-up to When the Levees Broke (HBO, 2010)

Trouble the Water | Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, 2008. Includes 15 min. of video footage just before and during Hurricane Katrina by Lower 9th Ward residents Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott. Winner of 2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

Michael E. Crutcher Jr., Treme: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood (2010)

Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (2008)

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“If there is a single factor most responsible for the extraordinary distance New Orleans has traveled in the years since its near-death experience, it is the city’s culture. Not only the city’s music, dance, funeral traditions, cuisine, and architecture—its look and its smell and its feel and its sense of humor—but the interaction among all those factors, their coordination, is what makes the city live, what makes it alive, in its unique way. . . .

“As of this writing, the notion that the written word is doomed, or doomed to irrelevance at least, because of the power and immediacy and omnipresence of electronic media, is so widespread that it has become almost axiomatic. But it is not true. . . . In the private space shared by the writer and the reader, one individual soul encounters nother and a spell is cast, created by both of them. . . .”

—from the Introduction to Devil Sent the Rain

 

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Credits: Top photo of TP (at P.J.’s on Maple Street?) by Sean Gardner, from Williams College alumni magazine; Congo Square illustration (dancing the Bamboula, ca. late 1700s, drawn by E. W. Kemble ca. 1880s) from Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University; The Center for Fiction’s executive director Noreen Tomassi and TP from The Center for Fiction; Treme Season Two poster from HBO.

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Eisenhower on Military Hyperpower and Dictatorship

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

The “Crushing Weight of Military Power”

“Any person who doesn’t clearly understand that national security and national solvency are mutually dependent and that permanent maintenance of a crushing weight of military power would eventually produce dictatorship should not be entrusted with any kind of responsibility in our country.”

—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, quoted in Joan Mellen’s A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History (p. 166–67)

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See also “Eisenhower on the Opportunity Cost of the War Machine.” • Click here for the text of President Eisenhower’s famous farewell address (1961) in which he warned, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” • Click here for a series of YouTube videos of the address.