You Can’t Go Home Again
Soldiers aren’t the only veterans of war.
Not quite a decade ago, I met a nurse named Shirley Mangompia, a woman who was both dispensing assistance and in need of it. She was standing amid a group of tired adults and ragged children on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, in a town called Munai, which was not her home. Although she seemed determined to keep a smile on her face, there was no hiding the misery around her. Like as many as 400,000 people from the surrounding area, she had fled her home when fighting flared anew between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist rebel movement that had been battling for an independent homeland on Mindanao for years. Like the sick children she was tending to, Mangompia was a resident of a sprawling, squalid displacement camp — and not for the first time.
Munai was cradled by green hills through which dirt paths ran to the various barangays, or small communities. Traffic was flowing only one way on these paths, though, away from the latest round of conflict. And amid the cramped conditions, under the flimsy tents and tarps where people were living, children struggled with lingering coughs, runny noses, skin and stomach problems, and worse.
Most of their parents had been in exactly the same situation when they themselves were children. People "get used to it," Mangompia said, describing relocating as if it were something of a rite of passage. Mangompia herself had been 8 years old the first time she’d been displaced by fighting, and she’d been displaced again a few years before I met her (when she was, I’d guess, around 30). The drawn-out, dirty war in Mindanao had killed more than 100,000 people and had crippled efforts to develop the most impoverished part of the Philippines. It had also created a huge movable bloc of people who were forced repeatedly to pick up and move, calibrating on each occasion how much time they had to gather what they could carry against how much time they needed to outrun the guns and bombs.
With the benefit (or perhaps the burden) of experience, Mangompia now had a much better understanding of what was at stake, what could be lost. As her own parents had worried mightily for her safety when she was young, she said, she now feared for her own children, in addition to the other children who were all around her, the ones she was determined to assist in the best way she knew how.
I thought about both Mindanao and Shirley Mangompia again recently after I read that the Philippine government and the rebels had signed a peace accord that could, possibly, bring some resolution to this deadly and prolonged standoff.
In the United States, the word "veterans" generally brings to mind men and women (though mostly men) who were deployed in combat to Iraq and Afghanistan, or, further back, to Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. But restricting the word to people who fought — who picked up a gun, donned a uniform, and willingly put themselves in harm’s way in the name of one campaign or another — ignores an enormous, and enormously important, population of veterans of another kind. These are people like Shirley Mangompia and hundreds of thousands of others in Mindanao, who know as much as, if not more, about war as many soldiers who’ve taken part in combat.
These other veterans are civilians, and they include far greater numbers of women and children than the militaries of the world. They were never trained to wage war, but war is and has been waged around them. War is not something they do; war is something that happens to them, something that decides when and where they go and how much control they have over the integrity of their homes, their families, their bodies, or their minds. Survival skills — when to flee, when to hunker down, what to take, what to leave behind — were passed down to these veterans from their elders, or self-taught, through experience and instinct. Although they never know what might burst through the door or the roof in a given moment, they do know that the end can come with no warning.
Like many who have endured long periods of conflict — be they in Kashmir, say, or South Sudan, or Chechnya, or eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Israel or Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan — Mindanaoans like Shirley Mangompia lived through circumstances that are now imprinted on them.
Over time, this has affected their behavior, their landscape, their sense of what opportunities, if any, exist beyond what happened or what is happening in the streets or hills around them. Throughout much of central Mindanao, war shaped a generation that knew no other way of being, people for whom calm (to say nothing of peace) was an occasional interlude between periods of terror.
Days after talking to Mangompia, I was in Pikit, a town in neighboring North Cotabato province. There I met another woman, Sinding Lumayong, who was standing near a fetid, cavernous warehouse in which dozens of families were huddled, hers included, and in front of which one young man stumbled around in a daze, having just been told that his baby had died. "I can’t remember how many times we’ve evacuated," Lumayong said. In her telling, war had become something they anticipated, something they planned for. Evacuating was as much part of their routine as was living at home. People planted crops knowing they might have to flee, again, and sneak back, across front lines and checkpoints, to reach their fields when the harvest arrived.
In America, after a decade of wars, there is, at long last, a real conversation happening about helping soldiers, Marines, airmen, and seamen who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan (or, in many cases, both), who fought in conflicts with no front lines and who had to learn to adapt to weaponry they’d never seen and an enemy who blended easily into the population at large. This conversation isn’t as prominent or urgent as it should be, but it stems from a broader, if not new, recognition of what war does to people, how it can impact the mind, body, and soul long after the last shot is fired. It comes from recognizing the difficulty of transitioning from a war zone into one’s home and community without time and space to quiet the hyperalert, battle-ready mind that helps a person survive in theater. It also comes from a more utilitarian understanding that the military and the country must take care of their fighting men and women if they want to have an army that can fight in the future.
People like Shirley Mangompia, however, are not yet part of this conversation. They’ve lived with war for long periods of time, but you don’t hear much about what needs to be done to get them off a war footing. A growing number of NGOs run mental-health programs, and there’s been a great deal of talk about "hearts and minds" campaigns, but I’ve seen few instances where the non-fighting veterans of war were factored sufficiently into policy and planning before, during, and after wars. Iraq and Afghanistan were only the most egregious examples of this sort of oversight.
The populations were expected to see things as Westerners would see them, regardless of their own particular experiences under Saddam Hussein or through decades of civil war. That they might have a different perspective shaped by what they’d lived through was apparently not considered. This was a failure of both empathy and imagination, and it had disastrous consequences for a great many people in both countries, as well as for the ability of the United States to achieve its stated goals.
One hopes that people are treated fairly and decently during and after combat, and that those who’ve suffered from extended, intimate exposure to the horrors of war do get some assistance in finding a sense of harmony and balance. But I’m not really talking about altruism. I’m talking about getting results, about crafting policies and approaches that can help countries move away from war and toward peace and progress.
Just as George W. Bush’s administration should have considered the psychic toll decades of fighting had taken on the Afghan population, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, if they want this accord to work, should try to understand people like Shirley Mangompia and others who’ve lived under, if not by, the gun for far too long. Similarly, anyone talking about peace deals or road maps or post-conflict development in places like Gaza or Libya or Congo, or Iraq and Afghanistan and, one day, Syria, should take into account the fact that these are nations of veterans — old and young, male and female, grieving and filled with rage — whose sense of the future and whose willingness to follow their leadership will be determined by where they’ve been and what horror and violence has been visited upon them. But who never got a parade or a ribbon or a medal for their troubles.