The Significance of Stress

Some twenty years ago, fresh out of Brown University with a Master of Arts in Teaching degree, I took a position at a local high school as an English teacher. In many ways, it was perhaps the most stressful job that I have ever had. Even with my training and education, I felt completely unprepared and out of my element. I found the students extremely difficult to manage and the demands of the job overwhelming. Before long, my initial excitement at this new career was replaced by a mix of anxiety and depression. When I began having nightmares about the job, I knew that my mental health was seriously compromised. So I made the difficult decision to resign. I lasted less than a month.

In looking back at this experience, I cannot imagine what it would have been like if I had been forced to stay on the job. My imagination further fails me when I try to envision what it must be like for American soldiers in Iraq, who do not really have the option of abandoning their posts as I did and who have been thrust into an environment that makes my rowdy classroom seem about as stressful as an opium den. However challenged I was by teaching bored and non-compliant adolescents, I never lived in fear that one of them would shoot me or turn my wastebasket into an improvised explosive device. (The worst I faced in these pre-Columbine days was the occasional spitball.) I never had to fight for my life. I never witnessed death and destruction. I had it easy.

American troops do not have it easy. They are under inordinate stress. And because the war in Iraq has been mismanaged from the get-go and the military lacks sufficient personnel to fight such a “long war,” the stress is compounded by the imposition of lengthened and repeated tours of duty. There is inadequate rest for the weary. And the strain is increasingly showing, as revealed by the disturbing results of a recent survey, here reported by the Associated Press (via the Boston Globe):

Lapses found in battlefield ethics study

In a survey of U.S. troops in combat in Iraq, less than half of Marines and a little more than half of Army soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.

More than 40 percent support the idea of torture in some cases, and 10 percent reported personally abusing Iraqi civilians, the Pentagon said Friday in what it called its first ethics study of troops at the war front. Units exposed to the most combat were chosen for the study, officials said.

“It is disappointing,” said analyst John Pike of the Globalsecurity.org think tank. “But anybody who is surprised by it doesn’t understand war. … This is about combat stress.”

The military has seen a number of high-profile incidents of alleged abuse in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the killings of 24 civilians by Marines, the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the slaying of her family and the sexual humiliation of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

“I don’t want to, for a minute, second-guess the behavior of any person in the military — look at the kind of moral dilemma you are putting people in,” Christopher Preble of the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, said of the mission in Iraq. “There’s a real tension between using too much force, which generally means using force to protect yourself, and using too little and therefore exposing yourself to greater risk.”

The overall study was the fourth in a series done by a special mental health advisory team since 2003 aimed at assessing the well-being of forces serving in Iraq.

Officials said the teams visited Iraq last August to October, talking to troops, health care providers and chaplains.

The study team also found that long and repeated deployments were increasing troop mental health problems. [full text]

It seems not only unwise and unhealthy but more than a little unfair that the burden of fighting this godforsaken war should fall so heavily upon the shoulders of so relatively few Americans. If, as President Bush maintains, the war is really so “necessary for the security of the country” and “the stakes are high, really high in Iraq” and “it will require sacrifice” to achieve success, then shouldn’t he put the nation’s resources where his mouth is and demand that the burden of waging this all-important conflict be more universally shared? The fact that Mr. Bush has not sought to reinstate the draft and spread the sacrifice around speaks to both his cavalier willingness to exploit the troops and his understanding that such a move would be even less popular than he is. And so the war drags on—as do the men and women who fight on our behalf. And so we stress the significance of their acts but do not really act on the significance of their stress.

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3 thoughts on “The Significance of Stress

  1. Your comments are well taken but I think there is too much “projection” and not enough analysis. Stress is a life-saver just as much as it is a “problem” and I suggest that the stress our military undergoes is well within the range of experience they expect and for which they are trained. Here, I have some direct knowledge for these assertions.

    I do resent this Iraq situation and I do feel that we are in a situation we would have better avoided, but we are in it and we have to leave it on our terms not by caving into some pathological tribalistic barbarians. The American kids trying to keep the peace are an amazing lot and deserve all our support. The current military is the best behaved and least abusive of any military anywhere and any time. Episodes of misbehavior are astonishingly rare and the sense of honor and duty and service is simply a tribute to there training and leadership.

    This military of ours is about the best educated, the best trained and the most highly motivated military that has ever taken the field. It is much better than the last of the draft military we fielded in another unsupported war, and less than a tenth the size of U.S. forces in World War II. Our present military is a very, very professional military, better trained, better equipped and better led than any other force in history. Of course it is stressed…amazingly the U.S. Army today is actually about the same size as the legions Augustus sent into the field to control most of the known world (perhaps 300 million people on the planet then and 70 million in the Empire). Of course the military is undersized (the price of the Clinton years)and likely will be increased in numbers to meet the increasing demands. A larger military is needed, and paying the price for that will be a reasonable “sharing” by us all. I do not think a draft military is needed, wanted by our military leaders, and will do nothing to enhance our security or ease the burden. A larger professional and volunteer military is what is needed.

  2. Mr Wolberg, I agree with you…to a point. Our military was the best-trained, best-educated, most overwhelming force ever assembled. Then Pres Bush broke it, for reasons that are both selfish and cowardly.

    Over the past couple of years, the army has made its recruitment goals only by lowering them, both in quantity and quality. The number of persons with a HS diploma has dropped from 90% to 80%. How can you run a 21st century army with high-school dropouts? You can’t. The percentage of persons enlisting with criminal records has also risen, although I cannot recall the exact numbers.

    So, given this, how are we going to “grow” our military? And you blame Clinton: Dick Cheney wanted to gut the miliatry even further; John Kerry voted against cuts in the military that Cheney wanted to implement while SecDef under George I. So stop trying to foist this on Clinton, and wake up and face reality: the military is not going to “magically” expand, unless you are willing to pay a lot more money in taxes. But we can’t have that, can we. Are you calling for tax increases?

    And your line of reasoning is specious, and your choice of words telling. “Pathological tribalistic barbarians.” Repeat that a few times and let it sink in. People who want to run their own country, who resent an imperialistic occupation of their country are “pathological tribalistic barbarians.” These are NOT the people who attacked us in 9/11. Not even close. And yet you verbally spit on them with such disgusting terms.

    The insurgency is broad-based and enjoys widespread popular support. And our president does not have, and has never had, a strategy to “win.”

    You admit going in was a mistake, but you say leaving would be worse. In other words, more people have to die because we have to cover our mistake.

    Yes, our troops have done a fantastic job. But to expect them to continue to perform at a high level when we “surge” by extending their tours and shortening their leaves is fantasy. Pure Fantasy. People aren’t machines. They are living a horror every day, and yet the president simply demands more and more of these fine troops. There is a breaking point.

    So where are all these troops going to come from, Mr Wolberg? And how are we going to pay for them? Our president put through tax cuts in wartime. That is not only unprecedented, it is foolish, and an indication of where Mr Bush’s priorities are. He asks for more from our fine troops, and less from the rich. Can’t have someone give up a new yacht to buy armor for the troops or the humvees, can we? The priorities are despciable.

    Mr Bush is not, and never has been serious about Iraq. He thought it would be a cakewalk, and win him admiration as a “war president.” Remember that? He hasn’t used that term in a while, has he?

    Iraq was a war of choice. And because of it, the real perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocity are still at large, and still plotting against us. What happened to “bin Laden: Wanted Dead Or Alive”? Remember that fine piece of presidential rhetoric?

    And this war has already lasted longer than WWII. Imagine that: we defeated two major land/sea empires in less time than it’s taken to pacify a mid-sized country. Why is that, Mr Wolberg? Could it be that FDR had a strategy, and George II thought that it would be enough to “stay the course”?

    So, please Mr Wolberg, I ask you to show some seriousness. Fantasy, tough rhetoric, and wishful thinking will not extricate us from this mess, and that’s all Mr Bush has to offer.

  3. Couple of points: I think your H.S. numbers are a bit off..hard for a kid to (1) join and not have at least a H.S. education and (2) stay in for the training. Of course there are exceptions, and the opportunity for GRE kids remains. It is doubtful if anyone is entering any branch without apptitutde above the main stream population as measured on any of the standard tests, The technology required for many tasks exceeds that of the general population. One does not sit in a “Boomer” or an Abrams or even walk the streets without cabability. The spirit of these kids is phenomenal, as is their dedication to their mission. The level of technical proficiency required is extraordinary as well. The draft is not the answer and no one in or out with understanding wants a draft. Expansion will happen because there is a population set of people who see challenge, patriotism and being able to learn kind of more interesting and worthwhile than “normative” careers.

    The notion about who the Islamofascists are is an interesting notion. Here I stand with my favorite iconoclast Chris Hitchens and indeed, there is evil in the world, and indeed, these are pathological, and very stupid, miserable folks that do most of the damage, such as blowing up their own children, cutting off the heads oif anyone they don’t like, and triying to impose barbaric ethics on everyone. Hmmm…it is odd that we have no problem describing the barbarism of the Nazis or Stalin, but seem to wonder at fools with a peculiar set of other beliefs.It really is ok not to like bad people and it really is ok not to waste time finding a deeper philosophical posture that really doesn’t exist.

    As for our welcome or not, I would point out that it would appear that the Kurds seem to have a viable shop going…there are now even tourist flights, instant cash machines, colleges and 80 daily newsparers published in Mosul and nearby areas. More books are being translated in Kurdistan from Western languages in one year than have been translated in the entire Arab world in the last 5 years. Similarly, the Basra folks seem to want the Brits and Aussies, and Italians and Japanese to hang around. There too is one of the most thriving economic pictures anywhere in the Middle East. Interestingly, as I recall, the Kurds are Sunnis and the Basra folks are Shiites. The Marsh Arabs, at last, have their marshes back, and are doing quite well. The Marsh Arabs want the security that they have again, and the ability to speak for themselves and live the lives they choose.

    All these folks, perhaps 60% of the population are doing reasonably well. Certainly the folks in Basra and Mosul are doing better than the majority of Iranians or folks in Beirut or Syria–I don’t think there are 8 independet papers published anywhere in the Arab world, never mind 80.

    Our involvement in Iraq will end. There will be a day after. Our responsibity is make certain that there will be a safer world for us and our kids, and we cannot abandon the Kurds, the folks in the south of Iraq, or the Marsh Arabs.

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