The Socialist Unity Network

US Army feels the strain 

Andy Newman


As I write this US Army combat deaths have reached 1054 in Iraq. A further 138 "coalition" troops and at least 45 western mercenaries have also been killed. The casualty numbers are rising at a current average of 2.12 per day. There are 140000 US troops in Iraq, but taking into account rotation an estimated 330000 troops have been deployed in Iraq at one time or another.

(This is, as yet, far from a military catastrophe, for example, during the war for the Malvinas Islands (Falklands) in 1982 the British suffered 255 combat deaths out of a force of around 6000 in just 72 days. An average of 3.6 per day. These casualty figures were regarded as acceptable, and the conduct of the war as exemplary.)

So, in themselves these statistics tell us very little: wars are rarely won or lost by armies being defeated in the field. The key question is what impact the casualties are having on the US army's willingness to fight, and the political impact back home. One interesting observation is that when researching this article I found considerable comment in the mainstream press about suicides, mental health issues and desertion of American servicemen in Iraq up until December 2003, and then most of the discussion stops. Self censorship, perhaps?

Combat deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. Military hospitals are overflowing with wounded Americans. Advances in body armour means that soldiers who only a decade ago would have been killed are now surviving. During an upsurge in fighting during November 2003 around 30 new casualties a day were arriving at the huge military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany. The Independent reported that at the Walter Reed Medical Centre in Washington, overflowing with wounded, 20% of them had suffered severe brain injuries, while 70% had wounds "with the potential for resulting in brain injury". The head and torso are well protected by Kevlar body armour, so two out of three wounded have injured legs or feet, and often multiple limb loss. A physical therapist, Mary Hannah, told the Los Angeles Times "Even the most experienced people here, it's beyond their imagining. These are our babies and they just keep coming, coming, coming"

In 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 itself.

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.

Again, the 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,

However, 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.

Colonel 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"

Colonel 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."

One survey 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 children.

The doctrine of "force protection" 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."

When translated 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.""

Doctrine for 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.

Having 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."

Jonathan Neale 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."

The trauma 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.

But more 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.

The casualties 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 pro-American army.

The overall 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.

The choice seems stark, either conceive an exit strategy before things get much worse, or contemplate Iraq becoming their new Vietnam.


September 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism