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):
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 onâ€”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.