Editor's Note: Iraq War veteran Alex Limkin writes out an envisioned interview with Bill Moyers that touches on pets in war, "moral injury" and the police state right here at home.
BM: We are pleased to be joined tonight by Iraq veteran, Alex Limkin. Welcome to the show.
AL: Thank you, Bill. Thanks for having me.
BM: And I should also mention AB. She’s here as well, lying under the table.
AL: That’s right.
BM: And she is?
AL: My service dog.
BM: Was AB your service dog in Iraq?
AL: No, I didn’t have a service dog in Iraq. Actually, I was my own service dog in Iraq.
BM: I’m not sure I follow. What does that mean?
AL: When service dogs were first introduced into our military in World War II, we expected two things of them. Perfect and complete obedience. I was perfectly and completely obedient in Iraq. I was my own service dog.
BM: Is AB perfectly and completely obedient?
AL: No, fortunately.
BM: Why fortunately?
AL: One of the reasons we required perfect and complete obedience from our dogs in WWII was the nature of their missions.
BM: Which were?
AL: Well, nearly all involved great danger, from walking point on patrol, to sniffing out bombs, to ferrying courier pigeons and ammunition to beleaguered troops under fire, to running into bunkers with satchels of explosives hanging off their sides.
BM: You mean they were delivering explosives to frontline troops?
AL: Not quite.
BM: You don’t mean…
BM: But not all the dogs were used as suicide bombers, right? Some guarded depots and the like?
AL: That’s correct. Many dogs were used in other capacities.
BM: These dogs, where did they come from?
AL: The Army put a call out for dogs and thousands of American families offered their family pets up for conscription into the Army.
BM: You’re kidding. That actually sounds quaint.
AL: Well, from a certain perspective, it’s even noble and gallant. Many of the families loved their dogs immensely, no less than families today. To give up a pet was a sacrifice. It was a loved one. But the war effort was huge. We did everything the government asked of us: panty hose, rubber, aluminum, you name it.
BM: In their defense, the dog owners were probably thinking the dogs would be guarding ammunition depots, something fairly low key.
AL: I imagine you’re right.
BM: And would the dogs, those that survived, would they be returned to their families?
AL: Yes, that was part of the deal. You gave up your pet knowing that it was part of a war time effort and that bad things could happen but it was understood that, if at all possible, the pet would be returned to you.
BM: Now in subsequent wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. we stopped conscripting the family pet from families, and started getting dogs from other sources. Why is that?
AL: Frankly, there are a number of reasons why the military no longer recruits the family pet for war duty. I mean, that just sounds crazy. One of the most significant reasons was all the concerned calls and letters from family members inquiring about the safety of their pets.
BM: Can you imagine if…
AL: …it was cats instead of dogs?
BM: Precisely. All the cat lovers. It would be like, “Has Socks had his pre-afternoon pre-dinner catnap? He needs his naps if he’s going to be fully alert for patrol-along. “
AL: And think of the care packages.
BM: A deluge of catnip. It would overwhelm the system.
AL: No doubt.
BM: Okay, getting back to reasons why the military no longer enlists the family pet for war.
AL: Yes, another big reason was that many of the dogs that survived the war were unfit to be returned to their families.
AL: Different reasons. Many had altered personalities from when they left home. Some had personality disorders. Some were passive and withdrawn. Others were hyperaggressive. Some had exaggerated startle responses, inappropriate responses. Pissing and shitting in strange places. Can I say that?
BM: Right, and if they were returned home, and they snapped at their owner, or Suzy, the girl next door, or they were depressed and withdrawn, or they started killing other dogs, it was like, how come our dog is a vicious killer now.
AL: Exactly, it became a public relations nightmare returning service dogs to their families all whacked out and dysfunctional.
BM: Too many questions, too many problems, too many concerned citizens. So what happened to the dogs, the dogs that were unfit to be returned?
AL: (Squeezes thumb to index and middle finger as though giving an injection)
BM: Of course. And that was World War II we’re talking about?
AL: That’s when it all started with the dogs.
BM: We’ve gone a little wide on the topic of dogs. It’s fascinating… and scary… and I’d like to return to it if we have time. But now I’d like to bring us to one of the reasons I wanted to bring you on the show, to talk about moral injury. For those out there that are unfamiliar with this idea, this concept, can you give us a brief rundown on moral injury?
AL: I’ll do my best. Moral injury, with regard to veterans, and of course it’s not just soldiers in a warzone that can experience moral injury, but with regard to veterans, it has to do with having, with being haunted by experiences that challenged you to your core, that shattered or disordered your moral being.
BM: I don’t mean to be glib, but it sounds like what you are describing is what the rest of us simply call a guilty conscience.
AL: I think the difference is that…well maybe you’re right. Certainly one of the core aspects of moral injury is tremendous guilt.
BM: Survivor guilt?
AL: That can be part of it.
BM: Now, I have to ask. Why have you been speaking out and writing out so extensively on this idea of moral injury?
AL: The primary reason is that it isn’t being talked about or addressed. When we talk about the psychological afflictions of war, everyone’s familiar with post-traumatic stress, but the term “moral injury” is not heard of. If I’m not mistaken, that’s why you brought me on your show.
BM: Go on.
AL: It’s what you may have witnessed over there. What you may have done. What you may have not done. We’re not necessarily only talking about bloody episodes unfolding before you, whether your own blood or someone else’s. It can be things you are unsure of. It can be the sound of something you hit on the road that you suspect might have been a person but you’re not sure and because you’re maybe part of a larger convoy you can’t stop to check one way or another so you put it out of your mind or it might be having to open a gate at a checkpoint to let in some young boys or girls that you know are being brought on base for sex but you may only suspect this without having hard proof so you just go along with it or it may be signing over a caseload or truckload or containerload of rifles, handguns, various weapons, to Iraqi security forces knowing that those rifles will likely be sold on the black market and used against you later down the road, but either way you can’t do anything about it, or it may be handling monetary transactions, high cash transactions, millions of dollars in shrink-wrapped bundles to private contractors that you may know or suspect are bogus, completely bogus, but there’s nothing you can do about it so you go along with it because everybody is just going along with it. It is frequently the case that soldiers suffer just as much from those actions they do not take, those actions they were unable to take, for whatever reason, as those things that they did.
BM: In years past, soldiers would just come home and they would just, for lack of a better word, they would just “suck it up.” Some of the criticism levied against this new wave of veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, your generation, is that you’re just not “sucking it up.”
AL: We’re not sucking it up, Bill, because it’s spilling out of us.
BM: But why do you think it is different now than in past wars?
AL: One, I’m not entirely sure things are so different. Things have been changing. Many veterans that returned home in previous generations--haunted and aggrieved and distressed--could justify their role in the war because on some level they felt that they had been serving their country, and it was that knowledge, that they had somehow been protecting their families, and their communities, that helped them gulp down their pain, suppress their guilt, and just soldier on, just get on with life. But, really, I think I’m talking nonsense. Look at our Vietnam vets. You’ve had some on this show. How are they doing? The truth is, humans have always been aggrieved about killing. Look at Ulysses. What did he do when he got home from war? He went berserk and killed a houseful of people.
BM: And with this generation that’s not the case. Why? Are you saying that in the case of the Iraq War…
AL: …Certainly there are some true believers out there, those that feel that any mission their government sends them on cannot be called into question, but I feel that the majority of us are disgusted with what we’ve seen and done. It’s common knowledge that the Iraq War was a complete debacle. It’s common knowledge that we were serving the interests of the military contractors–Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater–not the country as a whole. It’s common knowledge that this was a heist of our national treasury on an epic scale the likes of which has never before been seen. We may not yet have the language to articulate our disgust. We may not yet understand even to ourselves what it means to have been let down by our country, let down by our leaders, let down by our beliefs, let down by our ideals. But that is what is spilling out of us. That immense betrayal of trust. Many of us have been shaken to our core. That is what this country is now dealing with. We’re killing ourselves. Every day we’re killing ourselves. Every hour we’re killing ourselves.
BM: You walk the length of the Sandia Mountains every spring in honor, in memory of your commander, Colonel Ted Westhusing. It’s 26 miles over a mountain range. Tell me about him.
AL: Colonel Westhusing was my commander in Iraq. He graduated third in his class from West Point, Class of ‘83. He was one of our Army’s top ethicists, sorry, that’s hard to say, he had a PhD in philosophy. He was an Airborne Ranger. He ended his life in Iraq on June 5, 2005. He died of moral injury.
BM: But moral injury, we talked about that, it’s just guilt. How exactly does one die of guilt?
AL: I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuses and liars. I am sullied—no more.
BM: What is that?
AL: Westhusing said that. Those were his last words. “I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuses and liars. I am sullied—no more.”
BM: What then?
AL: Then he shot himself.
BM: And you were a witness to the shooting?
AL: I wasn’t with him when he pulled the trigger, no. I was about 12 miles away.
BM: But it still bothers you, deeply.
AL: Yes, it bothers me deeply that my commander shot himself in the head rather than continue with our mission.
BM: Did you ever see his body?
BM: Any blood?
BM: Did you get any blood on your uniform?
BM: It says in my notes that you were shot at accidentally at least once. What was that like?
AL: At the time, I didn’t think much of it. The bullet didn’t strike me so it was like, “No harm, no foul.” Things were very unsafe over there. We had a lot of accidental discharges.
BM: You were working primarily with Iraqi recruits, Iraqi soldiers?
AL: Living and working with the Iraqis, yes.
BM: You slept with a handgun under your pillow?
BM: And two AKs under your cot?
BM: But you were never shot at intentionally?
BM: These notes indicate that you were awarded the Bronze Star. How do you get the Bronze Star and not get shot at?
AL: Frankly, I think I was given the Bronze Star for not, you know.
BM: Like Westhusing?
AL: That’s right.
BM: It’s a little reminiscent of the Silver Star awarded to Pat Tillman.
AL: Right. We awarded Tillman a Silver Star for getting taken out by friendly fire, and I got a Bronze Star for not getting taken out by friendly fire. For not taking my own self out with friendly fire. All our veterans should be getting Bronze Stars for not killing themselves. We should all be getting medals for not killing ourselves. Weekly medals. Daily medals. I’m serious. That would at least get us out of the house.
BM: Okay, we’ve got just a little more time. I know you wanted to address a situation in your hometown of Albuquerque. You sent me a video. Let me just say, when I watched this video without volume, and knowing that you had sent it, I initially thought this was footage from Iraq or Afghanistan. It looked like, to me, with the rocky terrain and the assault rifles, it looked like an infantry squad gunning down, frankly, gunning down someone who appeared to be surrendering.
AL: It does look like a warzone, but believe it or not, that footage is from the Albuquerque Police Department from just a few weeks ago. They shot a homeless man six times or so in our nearby foothills, then bean bagged his ass, then set an attack dog on him.
BM: It is absolutely horrifying. How has the Department explained this? Is it just a few bad cops? What's going on?
AL: We all want to think that, Bill. But the scary thing is, that video, the video you thought depicted a battlefield in Afghanistan, that was released voluntarily to the public by our Chief of Police, Gordon Eden, because he believed that the video demonstrates proportionate and justifiable force.
BM: But in the video it appears…for God’s sake, it looks like murder. It’s horrifying.
AL: I agree with you. It’s a video that none of us should be able to stomach. To get back to your question, here’s the thing. If the video is considered by the Police Chief as proportionate force, justifiable force, appropriate force, and the rest of us are gagging and throwing up because we’re watching someone get shot up like a tin can, then clearly there are problems.
BM: Either way, that kind of policing, I mean, you can’t even call that police work, but whatever it is that is going on out there, it needs to change. What are your recommendations?
AL: It’s too much to go into here, but at a minimum, we’re asking for lapel cameras, for accountability, replacement of tinted windows, so officers can actually be seen by the public, so we can feel like they're part of the community--not a menacing and hidden task force--and the replacement of Chief Eden. You know, there was a time you could wave to cops driving down the street.
BM: Because you could see them.
AL: In Albuquerque, they're hidden behind dark tinted glass. It promotes an us/them mentality. Half the time you can't even tell if there's a person in there. It's just spooky.
BM: It’s a bit ironic the name, no?
AL: You mean Eden?
BM: Right, because we associate Eden with paradise, and yet for you in Albuquerque…
AL: For us, it doesn’t feel so much like Eden.
BM: You’re fighting a police state, a militarized state.
AL: It does feel that way.
BM: Now, I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand…
AL: Neither am I…
BM: But there’s this great quote. She said, “We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force.” Is that how you feel?
AL: That sounds super dramatic, but there’s probably some grains of truth in there. But I disagree that the stage of rule is by brute force. We are surprisingly complicit in the situation we find ourselves in. This might surprise you, but many people in our city agree with Chief Eden that the video depicts proportionate and judicious force.
BM: You’re kidding.
AL: No, in fact, there are people in your studio audience holding signs up to that effect. (Loud cheers and whistles from the audience members holding signs up to that effect.)
BM: I don’t normally say this, in fact, I don’t think I have ever said this, at least not on a show, but that is absolutely crazy. (Turns to audience.) Have you seen the video, people? What part of getting shot six times and bean bagged while turning away do you not understand? (Turns back to guest.) All other words fail me. Well, it looks like we’re running out of time, but I would like to touch upon one last thing. You have some writings on moral injury, entitled, A Captain’s Appeal: 6 Months of Letters to the VA. Is that available to the public?
AL: It’s out to publishers but so far no one has picked it up, so I’m considering self-publishing.
BM: Well, with your appearance on this show, hopefully that might change. Would you consider returning?
BM: To the show.
AL: Yeah. Why not. Your audience is a little scary, but sure.
BM: That’s it then, we’ll do it. Thanks for joining me, Captain. It’s been a real pleasure. Good luck in getting your police chief replaced, Chief Paradise.
AL: Haha, exactly. Thanks for having me, Bill.
BM: I’ve been talking to former Army captain and Iraq veteran, Alex Limkin. You can learn more about his commander, Colonel Ted Westhusing, the memorial Skywalk across the Sandias, and the problems of a militarized police force at his blog site, WarriorsWithWesthusing.org.”