"Even the most experienced people here, it's beyond their imagining.
These are our babies and they just keep coming, coming, coming"
the Second World War the ratio of wounded to dead was 3 to 1. In Iraq
today it is 8 to 1. At time of writing 3449 had been wounded and
returned to duty within 72 hours, a further 4083 have been severely
wounded. Given the seriousness of the reported injuries then there are
several thousand servicemen who are severely disabled. This has had
limited impact on the wider political debate, as Senator Patrick Leahy
of Vermont said last year: "The
wounded are brought back after night making sure the press don't see
planes coming in with [them]";
but it is a cause of immense psychological impact within the US military
By January 2004
there had been at least 22 GI suicides in Iraq. The report of an Army
mental health team that went to Iraq in the autumn of 2003 found that
52% of troops in Iraq reported low or very low personal morale, and 70%
reported low or very low unit morale. Things are not likely to have got
better since then. According to William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant
secretary of defense for health affairs the suicide rate represents more
than 13.5 per 100,000 troops, about 20 percent higher than the recent
Army average of 10.5 to 11. This excludes suicides of soldiers already
evacuated out of Iraq, and there were at least 4 at the Walter Reed Army
Medical Center in Washington during 2003.
The rate of
military suicides is traditionally lower than that in the general
population when looking at comparable age groups. And it usually
decreases during wartime. So something is going badly wrong in Iraq.
number of soldiers who actually kill themselves is only the tip of the
iceberg. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine
reported 19.5 per cent of troops who served in Iraq had moderate or
severe mental health problems. If milder symptoms such as anxiety are
included, the number rises to 27.9 per cent. By December 2003 the number
of medical evacuations from Iraq (unrelated to combat) had reached 8581,
a majority of them mental health evacuations. 9 months later, with a
deteriorating situation on the ground, the number must be much higher.
In April 2004 the
Independent reported the
case of 24 year old tank driver Jason Gunn who was sent back to active
duty in Iraq, even though army psychiatrists at Heidelberg Hospital
conformed that he was not fit due to Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
This had been caused by devastating injuries in November 2003 when his
Humvee was destroyed by a roadside bomb. The sergeant sitting right next
to him was ripped to shreds. The classic symptoms of PTSD are anxiety,
insomnia interspersed with recurring nightmares, and extreme agitation.
Before the current war in Iraq it had become established US army
practice to withdraw soldiers suffering PTSD as they are a danger both
to themselves and their comrades,
Specialist Gunn's military superiors issued a statement saying "it
may be in his best interest mentally to overcome his fear by facing it".
This not only overruled Specialist Gunn's own psychiatrist, but also
goes against established medical opinion. Steve Robinson of the Gulf War
Veterans Resource Center says: "The best
cure for PSTD is to pull a soldier back to a safe place and deal with
the traumatic event that occurred".
US pressure group, Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) say that several
traumatized soldiers have been sent back to active duty. This now seems
to be official policy.
So why is the
mental health of soldiers in Iraq so bad? Perhaps surprisingly it is the
killing not the casualties that causes so much anxiety. During 1943 to
1945 Colonel S Marshall of the US Army researched the behaviour of
soldiers in combat. He concluded that only 15% of fully trained soldiers
ever fired their weapon in battle, even in elite and battle hardened
units this figure rarely rose above 25%. They did not run away, they
held their position or advanced conscientiously, but they did not shoot.
Marshall concluded: "It is
therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual
- the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat -
still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a
fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is
possible to turn away from the responsibility... At a vital point he
becomes a conscientious objector, unknowingly"
Marshall's research is well known in military circles, and considerable
effort has gone into overcoming this instinct against killing. In
particular the US army has encouraged dehumanization of the Iraqis,
commonly referred to by US soldiers as "Ragheads" or "sand niggers", and
the myth is encouraged that the Iraqis were responsible for 9/11. The
racist culture of the US Army is revealed splendidly in the assumptions
of the film "Black Hawk Down". They see themselves as surrounded by a
sea of sub-humans
Jeff Goss, a
Vietnam veteran, has explained the phenomenon very movingly:
"I changed over there in Vietnam and they were not nice changes either.
I started getting pulled into something--something that craved other
people's pain. Just to make sure I wasn't regarded as a "fucking
missionary" or a possible rat, I learned how to fit myself into that
group that was untouchable, people too crazy to fuck with, people who
desired the rush of omnipotence that comes with setting someone's house
on fire just for the pure hell of it, or who could kill anyone, man,
woman, or child, with hardly a second thought. We had to dehumanize our
victims before we did the things we did. We knew deep down that what we
were doing was wrong. So they became dinks or gooks.... We convinced
ourselves we had to kill them to survive, even when that wasn't true,
but something inside us told us that so long as they were human beings,
with the same intrinsic value we had as human beings, we were not
allowed to burn their homes and barns, kill their animals, and sometimes
even kill them. So we used these words, these new names, to reduce them,
to strip them of their essential humanity, and then we could do things
like adjust artillery fire onto the cries of a baby."
suggests that 1 in 4 of the US Marine Corps in Iraq admits to killing
civilians, so there is plenty of reason for self doubt. In an interview
for Democracy Now!
Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, estimates that his platoon (about 25
soldiers) alone killed 30-plus innocent civilians, including several
The doctrine of
is also very significant. In September 2002 the Pentagon produced
Joint Publication 3-06 : 'Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations'
under the guidance and signature of General John P Abizaid, at that time
Director Joint Staff and now overall commander of US forces in Iraq.
This said: "Although civilians,
non-combatants and civilian property may not be specifically targeted,
incidental injury and collateral damage are not unlawful if caused
incident to an attack on a lawful target, and the incidental injury and
collateral damage are not excessive in light of the anticipated military
advantage from the attack."
down through the chain of command, this is interpreted as meaning you
can kill anyone you like to protect yourself. Justin Huggler of the
Independent reported what this means in
practice: ""It happened at 9.30 at night .
. . long before the start of curfew at 11 pm. The Americans had set up
roadblocks in the Tunisia quarter of Baghdad, where the abd al-Kerim
[family] lives. The family pulled up to the roadblock sensibly, slowly
and carefully, so as not to alarm the Americans. But then pandemonium
broke out. American soldiers were shooting in every direction. They just
turned on the abd al-Kerims' car and sprayed it with bullets." It was
reported that "They killed the father and three of the children, one of
them only eight years old. Now only the mother, Anwar, and a 13-year old
daughter are alive to tell how the bullets tore through the windscreen
and how they screamed for the Americans to stop.""
Joint Urban Operations states
that war crimes are more likely to be committed when there are: (1) High
friendly losses. (2) High turnover in the chain of command. (3)
Dehumanization of the adversary (4) Poorly trained or inexperienced
troops (5) The lack of a clearly defined adversary. (6) High frustration
level amongst the troops.
All of these
conditions exist in Iraq, the US troops (unlike the British) had almost
no training in urban warfare or counter insurgency, and there have been
several changes in command.
committed atrocities, individual soldiers are left with the guilt and
the grief to deal with. Ronald W. Maris, a professor emeritus of
psychiatry at the University of South Carolina says that the public
debate over the war can cause soldiers to further question themselves. "World
War I and World War II seemed a little more righteous in that there was
an initial aggression by an enemy that we didn't start,"
he said. "That would not
apply to Vietnam and not to Iraq."
writing in International
Socialism Journal has explained how the
medical care available for servicemen and veterans requires them to
accept the personal guilt in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, whereas if
they express anger at the politicians or the army they jeopardize their
diagnosis. "The man tells
the truth. It does not cure him. The therapists say once a man has
returned to that moment and owned his responsibility, he will be whole.
He is not. He is ashamed. And in the eyes of the men who were there too,
he is right to be ashamed. The therapists say he can put the guilt
behind him. He can't. Somebody has to bear the guilt. It should be the
guilty - not the working class boys sent to hell, but the rich and
powerful men who sent them there."
being undergone in Iraq is clearly affecting the army. Current
information about desertion levels is unavailable, but the military
admitted that already by Nov 2003, more than 30 soldiers who came home
from Iraq for two weeks leave failed to show up for their flights back
to the combat zone.
importantly, due to the lack of conscription, a high proportion of the
US army in Iraq are from the reserves and the National Guard; part time
soldiers who did not expect a long tour overseas. Significantly there
are 5570 American troops in Iraq over the age of 50, and by July there
had been 10 deaths of these older soldiers, including 59 year old Staff
Sgt William D Chaney who was serving as a machine gun operator in a
Black Hawk; the same role he played in Vietnam.
and the trauma in Iraq alongside the long tours of duty expected mean
that the National Guard failed to meet its recruitment target by 10%
this year (a 5000 shortfall) - the first shortfall since 1994. Normally
the US army commits troops to 6 month tours overseas, but last year this
was increased to 12 months for Iraq and Afghanistan due to the shortage
of troops. "All the Army
leadership agrees that 12 months is too long,"
said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, quoted
in the Denver Post.
A distant hope
for the American Army is to shift more of the burden of fighting onto
Iraqi allies. The United States have spent $1.2 billion in developing
Iraq's security forces, which now number around 220,000. The Iraqi units
include the military, police and Interior Ministry forces. However when
ordered to prepare for the recent offensive against the Mahdi Army in
Najaf, Iraqi Interior Ministry troops suffered a desertion rate that
exceeded 80 percent. The US Government Accounting Office reports: "Effective
Iraqi security forces are critical for transitioning security
responsibilities to Iraq ... However, Iraqi security forces proved
unready to take over security responsibilities from the multinational
force, as demonstrated by their collapse during April 2004."
The Arrest last week of Gen Talib al-Lahibi, for collaborating with the
resistance casts further doubt on the reliability of the Iraqi army. Gen
Lahibi was in charge of security for Diyala province north-east of
Baghdad. He commanded three battalions in the area of the new
picture is therefore rather bleak for the American armed forces. Combat
casualty rates would probably be acceptable to the General Staff if the
political and military situation was improving. But it is not. They are
suffering high rates of mental illness, suicide and desertion. Morale is
very low and recruitment is suffering. There seems no realistic prospect
of shifting the burden of fighting to Iraqi or other allies.
seems stark, either conceive an exit strategy before things get much
worse, or contemplate Iraq becoming their new Vietnam.