Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is the US Army responsible for soldier's 'losing it?'

In World War I, army recruiters faced a problem.

Thousands of soldiers were being drafted to replace those cut down on the battlefields of Ypres and The Somme - but military commanders feared they 'weren't made of the right stuff.'

An astonishing number simply refused to fire their weapons at an enemy soldier - arguing that the Bible explicitly told them 'Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder.'

This issue of Christian morality was dealt with through psychology. During basic training, roundel-shaped targets were replaced with those resembling a human silhouette - in order to get soldiers used to firing their weapons at something that was 'man-shaped.'

It was this technique which ushered in the uncompromising brutality of modern military training.

In order to ensure that soldiers don't have even a moment's hesitation in pulling the trigger, today's warriors are trained using human-shaped targets and ultra-realistic video games that desensitize them to the moral quandary posed by shooting another person.

Some American soldiers are even forced to listen to loud and aggressive rock music, to get the adrenaline flowing during combat.

It makes their job - kicking ass, suppressing opposition and blowin' shit up - much clearer and easier.

But just what long term effect does psychological conditioning have on our soldiers?

Last week, when Sgt. John Russell turned his gun on his comrades - slaying five of them. It was a shocking and unprecedented act - the 'fraticide' of a soldier's own comrades. However, despite committing five murders, Russell wasn't vilified. In fact, Russell's father wasn't alone in placing the blame firmly on the military:

"They broke him," father Wilburn Russell tearfully explained. "He's not a violent person. For this to have happened, there had to be something going on that the Army's not telling us about."

Since the war in Iraq began, there have been an increasing number of horror stories emerging from Iraq - like the actions of Private Steven D. Green

After drinking heavily, he and four squad-mates murdered an Iraqi family - apparently in order to rape their 14-year-old daughter. After Green was finished defiling her, he shot the girl in the head and set fire to her body.

Stories like this are horrific. What makes them even worse is that they're committed by American soldiers on a supposed mission of 'liberation.'

Certainly, the actions of Green and Russell are atypical of the disciplined behavior of the vast majority of soldiers serving in Iraq - but there are far too many 'shocking' stories emerging from that theater of war for any of us to feel entirely comfortable any more.

The fact that 42% of reservists returning from Iraq now need treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder just goes to show the mental strain an active combat role has on a soldier - but how much of that strain comes from being desensitized into committing atrocities?

The words of disgraced soldier Sabrina Harman are particularly chilling to me.

This 31-year-old soldier was a guard at the notorious Abu Gharib detention facility in Iraq - and later convicted of cruel 'maltreatment' of the prisoners in her care.

Despite the damning photographic evidence proving her involvement in the atrocities, a private letter to her sister - written before she was accused of any wrong doing - reveals that even she knew that the actions she was forced to take part in were wrong:
"These people are going too far. Even I can’t handle whats going on. I can't get it out of my head. Not many people know this shit goes on. I don’t know if I can take it mentally. What if that was me in [the prisoner's] shoes? These people will be our future terrorists. It's awful and you know how fucked I am in the head. Both sides of me think its wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong."
Although Harman was convicted and given a 'bad conduct' discharge from the army, it's difficult to view her as the 'bad guy.' Increasingly, it's apparent that the US operation in Iraq is turning into something of a meat-grinder - churning through thousands of soldiers to achieve the arguably unobtainable goal of 'democratizing' the Middle East.

All I can say is that the rarity of these horror stories is a fitting testament to the bravery, professionalism and humanity of the vast majority of soldiers serving overseas. They're clearly facing horrific challenges and yet they keep 'soldierin' on.'

I hope, as the Iraq conflict wraps up, that President Obama will make good on the promises Bush Jnr. failed to live up to - and ensure that returning veterans receive the medical and mental care they need to put their horrific experiences behind them.

Despite the horrors of what Sgt. Russell and Sabrina Harman did - they're as much victims as anybody.


As usual, Tom has chipped in with some excellent facts which go a long way towards disproving the thrust of this article - read his comments below.

One article he links to has this to say:
"The lesson here, if there is one, is this: Treat your soldiers humanely and look out for their welfare. It won’t eliminate the stress of combat, but it will pay dividends."
To a certain extent, that seems that the US Army has done exactly that, if this is anything to go by:
"So far, Pentagon records show, there were 26 homicides in Iraq before Monday. In Vietnam alone, there were at least 450 homicides in the one category of "fragging" — the killing of an officer with a fragmentation grenade."
And in the army's defense, John M. Russell was evaluated the week prior to his shooting spree:
"He was referred to counseling the week before and his commander determined that it was best for him not to have a weapon," Maj. Gen. David Perkins explained.
According to preliminary reports, Russell actually wrestled a gun from his armed escort to commit his slaughter - he wasn't armed himself. Obviously the military had identified a problem and were making moves to deal with it - unfortunately, they weren't successful.

It's entirely possible to blame this incident on the government - for thrusting troops into an overseas combat zone that many Americans feel we have no place in. It's also possible to criticize the army - while they responded to Russell's psychological evaluation, people question why rapist and murderer Stephen Green - evaluated as being 'homicidal' - was allowed to remain armed and in a combat zone - with the opportunity to commit his crimes.

But ultimately, the thing we take away from this is just how difficult, challenging and traumatic active service can be - and in Russell's case, at least, the army has been surprisingly sympathetic to that. Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, the commander of Multi-National Division-Baghdad, surmised:
"A tragedy like this points to the challenges troops face. When something like this happens we've got to be careful not to judge too harshly."


Tom said...

I'm a big fan of freedom of speech.

But sometimes, I think that people who want to speak should have to take a statistics test every few years.

According to this, the number of troops who served in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 was 350,000. The number of troops who have served now is likely higher.

According to this, the number of murderers among them is 5. That gives a rate of 1.4 murderers per 100k people.

Accordting to this, the number of murderers per 100k people are 8.7. If we limit ourselves to 18-24 year olds, it's 29.3.

So we're talking about a murderer rate that is nearly 5 times less than the general population.

As to the soldiers, every one of which has joined or re-joined since 9/11: They're not victims.

They're heroes.

Roland Hulme said...

Wow! Can't argue with that at all!

Those statistics strongly suggest that the rate of murders is about an eighth of the national norm - DESPITE all the psychological stress I've written the post about.

Which, as I said, I can't really argue with.

And by that logic, the actions of Green and Russell can't be put down to psychological stress - it's likely they'd have had an 'incident' regardless of being in the army or not.

All that being said - psychological screening from the army should hopefully weed out unstable people before they join up, so hopefully those statistics SHOULD be much lower than the national norm.

This article suggests that Green was 'homicidal' before he was, well, homicidal.

That raises the question of why he wasn't removed from the army, instead of being given a weapon and let loose in a maelstrom in which he might have imagined he could do what he did without repercussion.

John Russell apparently also had a criminal record and his ex wife filed a restraining order against him.

Anyway. I'm in no way disparaging the brave soldiers serving in Iraq - I'm questioning what 'we' as the United States are forcing them to go through. Given everything they go through, I think it's a testament to their bravery and professionalism that we don't hear more horror stories.

Reading Sabrina's story, I know I'd have lost the plot long before.