10 November 2008

War Is Hell

I ran across the following while researching my new novel:

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reported tonight that: "The Army says that suicides among active duty personnel have doubled in recent years, and multiple deployments might contribute to that increase." Stacy Bannerman at Foreign Policy in Focus cites the following statistics from last year:
The suicide rate for army troops in Iraq is 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers, compared to the overall Army rate of 11.9 per 100,000 between 1995 and 2002. This rate is higher than the rate for all branches of the military during the Vietnam War, which was 15.6, and higher than during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which had a 3.6 rate for all branches. See, “Iraq: Low Army Morale, High Suicide Rate,” Reuters, March 25, 2004.
Dana Priest reported similar findings in January of this year in the Washington Post:
Suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2007 reached their highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980, according to a draft internal study obtained by The Washington Post. Last year, 121 soldiers took their own lives, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006.

At the same time, the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries in the Army has jumped sixfold since the Iraq war began. Last year, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002, according to the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan.

The Army was unprepared for the high number of suicides and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among its troops, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued far longer than anticipated. Many Army posts still do not offer enough individual counseling and some soldiers suffering psychological problems complain that they are stigmatized by commanders. Over the past year, four high-level commissions have recommended reforms and Congress has given the military hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its mental health care, but critics charge that significant progress has not been made.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed severe stress on the Army, caused in part by repeated and lengthened deployments. Historically, suicide rates tend to decrease when soldiers are in conflicts overseas, but that trend has reversed in recent years. From a suicide rate of 9.8 per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2001 -- the lowest rate on record -- the Army reached an all-time high of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2006.

Last year, twice as many soldier suicides occurred in the United States than in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I've heard first-hand anecdotal reports from VA psychiatrists that the incidence of PTSD is likewise higher for Iraq and Vietnam vets than for WWII and Korean Vets.

I have a theory. Smarter people than I throughout Western history have proposed that war is only justified if it is "just". Just war theory has a long and storied pedigree. Its principles have been widely debated and can be summarized briefly:
  • A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
  • A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
  • The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
  • The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
Why bring this in? Most agree that the allied intervention in the Second World War was justified by just war theory. The U.S. intervention in Vietnam less so. And the current Iraq (mis-)adventure even less. Neither of the last two undeclared wars were responses to existential threats—one was ideological (domino theory, etc.) and the second was (in my opinion) to open up markets for our oil and oil services companies and ensure the re-election of the wartime administration (the leader of whose father failed to preserve his presidency by pulling out of his 1991 adventure prematurely). The shock and awe Iraq attack did not redress the injury of 9.11.01.

Boys and girls, men and women are dying in the cause of an unjust war. They wonder why they are there; why their buddies are dying; why they are killing civilians and why civilians are killing them. In WWII, soldiers were killing Nazis and Japanese who meant to conquer them and destroy their freedoms and their way of life. Not so much in Iraq (or Vietnam). Pre-emption is not countenanced in just war theory. The 'full metal jacket' brainwashing effect on the fighters in Vietnam and Iraq fails to fully take because of the lack of moral justification or existential significance of the conflict; soldiers allow themselves to become killing machines and monsters for insufficient reasons. Their psyches revolt; their human(-e) sensitivities assert themselves. Their consciences refuse to die. The trauma of warfare is insufficiently anaesthetized. They become depressed. They commit suicide.

This is not to take issue with the idea that it is multiple deployments that are contributing to these increases in the incidence of PTSD and suicide. I'm all for science and direct cause-and-effect explanations. It's just a big-picture theory from my point of view, and it's going to play a part in the back-story and characterological motivation of the protagonist of my novel.

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