A mental health assessment released by the Pentagon late last week showed an increasing strain placed on US troops in Iraq – especially those with multiple deployments – and raised concern among the top commanders in Iraq about the implementation of military ethics on the battlefield.
The report by the US Army Medical Department's Mental Health Advisory Team was the fourth since the start of the Iraq war, but the first to address military ethics on the battlefield. The New York Times writes that the report shows that multiple deployments and extended tours in Iraq "escalate anger and increase the likelihood that soldiers or marines lash out at civilians, or defy military ethics."
The survey of 1,320 soldiers and 447 marines was conducted in August and September of 2006. The military's report, which drew on that survey as well as interviews with commanders and focus groups, found that longer deployments increased the risk of psychological problems; that the levels of mental problems was highest – some 30 percent – among troops involved in close combat; that more than a third of troops endorsed torture in certain situations; and that most would not turn in fellow service members for mistreating a civilian.
"These are thoughts people are going to have when under this kind of stress, and soldiers will tell you that: you don't know what it's like until you've been there," said Dr. Andy Morgan, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University who has worked extensively with regular and Special Operations troops. "The question is whether you act on them."
The Associated Press reports that Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, said Monday that he was "very concerned" by the report's findings because "they indicated willingness on a fair proportion of soldiers and Marines to not report the illegal actions, if you will, of buddies."
"We can never sink to the level of the enemy," Petraeus said by video link from Baghdad. "We have done that at times in theater and it has cost us enormously," he said, referring specifically to the torture and humiliation of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib facility west of Baghdad. ...
Troops should recall their shared higher values that "put us above the enemy," he said, such as "observing the law of land warfare and the norms that civilized nations have adopted governing the conduct of land warfare."
"So the first step is that we've got to ... make sure that folks remember that that's a foundation for our moral compass ... anything we do that violates that is done at considerable peril," he said.
The Washington Post writes that at a news briefing on Friday accompanying the report's release, the Army's acting attorney general, Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, said the report speaks to "the leadership that the military is providing, because they're not acting on those thoughts," she said. "They're not torturing the people." But the Post also notes that the report argues that US troops in Iraq are in some ways under more stress than the combat forces of World War II or Vietnam, which contributes to the high number of mental health problems of soldiers.
"A considerable number of Soldiers and Marines are conducting combat operations everyday of the week, 10-12 hours per day seven days a week for months on end," wrote Col. Carl Castro and Maj. Dennis McGurk, both psychologists. "At no time in our military history have Soldiers or Marines been required to serve on the front line in any war for a period of 6-7 months."
And although U.S. casualties in Iraq are far lower than in the Vietnam War, for example, military experts say that Iraq can be a more stressful environment. In Vietnam, there were rear areas that were considered safe, but in Iraq there are no truly secure areas outside big bases. "The front in Iraq is any place not on a base camp" or a forward operating base, the report noted.
The New York Times also writes that the Iraq war is "a new kind of war – a 360-degree battle space, with no front or rear, no safe zone outside the large fortified bases, and the compounded physical uncertainty of roadside bombs and mortar attacks."
The lack of any control over these factors, and the generally limited sense of progress, only intensifies the stress for troops.
"You can endure a lot of physical and mental exhaustion as long as you feel you're having an impact, you're accomplishing something and that you have some control over your situation," [Dr. Morgan] said. "If you don't feel you have any of that, you quickly get to a point where the only thing thatís important is keeping yourself and your buddies alive. Nothing else much matters."
The Times adds the authors of the Pentagon's report suggested at least 18 to 36 months at home between tours for soldiers to recover, but that most troops now only get 12 months. Reuters reports that the findings come only a month after US troops in Iraq had their tours extended to 15 months – up from 12 months – in order to facilitate the plan by the White House to boost forces there.
The Los Angeles Times quotes Michael J. O'Rourke, assistant director of healthcare policy for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as saying shortening tours of soldiers in Iraq, even if their frequency is increased, may be the best solution. "The tip of the spear is very sharp, and the more you use it the duller it gets," he said. "Repetitive, constant vigilance has a psychological impact."
An editorial in the Arab News argues that while Washington should get credit for making the results of the study public, especially as they relate to the negative view of noncombatants by US soldiers, what the report failed to mention was the "significant contribution of ignorance" to their attitudes and behavior.
With precious few exceptions, Americans do not understand the religion, culture or subtle concerns of the ancient land which they invaded. In-country induction courses are at best rudimentary. Fresh soldiers now arriving in Iraq know that they are being ordered to fight a war that is deeply unpopular at home. They have never understood why the Iraqis did not welcome them as liberators and bringers of democracy. They are angry at this perceived ingratitude. They certainly no longer care about Bush's "Mission." The most important personal mission now for virtually every GI is to survive and get home in one piece.
Ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds the sort of violence that has resulted in the regular gunning down of innocents. American soldiers are not monsters. But as happened in Vietnam, the circumstances of this unwinnable Iraqi war are spawning monstrous behavior.
Finally, the US Army Medical Department announced last month a website to provide resources and information on mental health issues for soldiers and their families. And Agence France-Presse reported last week that soldiers aren't the only Americans dealing with the stresses from time spent in Iraq: the US State Department is now screening diplomats who spend time in the war zone for mental health issues.