Brian Sparks on his Oral History of the Iraq War

Soldiers evaluate a roadside bomb detonation, May, 2005.

Soldiers evaluate a roadside bomb detonation, May, 2005.

We recently asked Brian Sparks to explain why he’s embarked on a journey to interview the veterans from his own platoon in Iraq eight years after they returned, and about the impact of war on soldiers, families and communities. We wanted to get a sense of what he learned so far and hopes to share:

I wonder how so many books have been published about the Iraq War that completely ignore the human experience and real-world social problems that this war created.

I’m working on an oral history project of the Iraq War because the human experience of the war has so far been ignored. I’m working on this project because I’m afraid history will forget this war, like it forgot Korea and the Banana Republics and so many others. And I’m working on this project because, eight years after returning from Iraq, I still do not understand my own experience there.

If this project accomplishes only one thing, I hope that it will bring to light the human cost of war to the individuals who participate, and the cost to their relationships and their communities.

What I’ve learned so far is how little I knew about the war before starting this project. And I was there! Beyond my own experiences I knew the war from the lens of CNN and political and military experts who have written books. These sources aggregate the experience of war, turning it into a list of numbers, an abstraction. I want to tell concrete stories from people on all sides of this conflict, beginning with the stories from the soldiers of my own platoon. I want to make a special point of gathering and including stories from Iraqis who lived and worked in the same part of Baghdad where my platoon conducted operations.

I did not know the meaning of vicarious trauma before visiting a friend in New York. His wife of seven years had a nervous breakdown the week before my visit. The doctor diagnosed anxiety among a host of other symptoms. She blamed her husband’s PTSD for causing trauma in her life.

What amazed me was that my friend denied having PTSD. I had met with nearly a dozen men from my platoon before this meeting, and every single person had stories of Post Traumatic Stress. Yet this one person claimed to be unaffected.

Maybe that really is how he feels, maybe he transferred all his stuff to her.

Sometime later I was visiting a friend in California. After a few hours and a few beers he got up to use the restroom. As soon as he’d shut the door his wife urged me to look into vicarious PTSD. She said a number of her friends were being affected.

And I’ve looked into it. The research and statistics that exist point to a large, yet very unseen, social problem. When the soldiers remain in the military their spouses and their children can seek treatment for vicarious PTSD, and, by the way, treating secondary PTSD is becoming a huge part of the Department of Defense healthcare budget. But as soon as the soldier leaves the service, there is no recourse for the family. The Veterans Affairs people don’t provide counseling for this. It’s a hidden cost of the war, and it shouldn’t be.

Nearly every book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen on the subject of America’s recent wars has been decidedly pro-war and pro-America. Subjects are discussed in the abstract, perspectives offered are those of Americans. Experiences of Iraqis and Afghans are discounted, and they shouldn’t be. I hope this project will help to change that.

My name is Brian Sparks and I deployed to the al-Dora district of Baghdad in 2005. If you would like to read excerpts of interviews I’ve conducted, feel free to check out my website.