Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Pentagon reports that our troops may be a danger to themselves and others

The Pentagon has just released a detailed report on the mental health of our soldiers in Iraq. The report was completed in November, but was not released until now; Pentagon officials have not explained why the public release was delayed, a move that kept the data out of the public debate as the Bush administration developed its plan to build up troops in Iraq and extend combat tours.

News reports about the findings are deeply disturbing, although no one who believes in the Biblical account of human nature should be surprised. From the New York Times article yesterday, this summary:
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 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’s 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 Pentagon’s analysis also identified sources of anger besides lengthy and repeated deployments that could lead to ethics violations...Most of all, there were uncertainties about deployment: 40 percent of soldiers rated uncertain redeployment dates as a top concern.

When the administration decided in January to send more troops to Baghdad to try to reverse the spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq, it sought to ease the strain on the armed forces by announcing its intention to expand the active duty Army and Marine forces by 92,000 troops. But it takes years to recruit, train and equipment an expanded ground force, and the decision to increase the size of the military was made too late to relieve the stress on the forces now in Iraq....

The report noted a direct relationship between involvement in intense combat and soldiers who exhibited signs of anxiety, depression and acute stress. Almost 30 percent of soldiers who were engaged in “high combat” were discovered to be suffering from “acute stress,” according to the report.

Particularly shocking is this finding:

The report said psychological ailments and built-up anger resulting from combat stress increased the likelihood that the troops would lash out at civilians. The survey noted that only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Troops who had high levels of anger were twice as likely to violate ethical standards, the report found. The survey found that 40 percent of troops who scored high on measures of personal anger reported insulting or cursing at a civilian, and 7 percent reported having hit or kicked a civilian. Among those low on measures of anger, only 1 percent said they had hit a civilian, and 16 percent reported insulting noncombatants.

The Iraq war, experts say, 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 that’s important is keeping yourself and your buddies alive. Nothing else much matters.”

--by Benedict Carey, The New York Times, Sunday, May 6
The ubiquitous prayers for our troops are not enough. We need to take seriously our roles in teaching young Christian men and women. Patriotism in itself is not sufficient. We need soldiers who have been trained from childhood in their churches to care for all people created by God, so that they will have built-in restraints that will help them when they are in these positions of extreme stress. And surely the military chaplains can help with this under battlefield conditions.