Wednesday, June 20, 2007


It may be hard to believe, given the amount of violence in the world, but human beings are not ‘hard-wired’ to kill. They must be ‘trained’ to take the life of another, whether by a system such as the military, or by a culture which ‘teaches’ that killing is acceptable in certain circumstances. The other motivation, and this is experienced at an individual level, is a belief that killing is acceptable because it is necessary in order to ‘save’ a nation, life or honour.

Without these ‘reasons’ or justifications, most human beings, no matter how well trained she or he may be, will be traumatized by the act of killing. Particularly when those being killed are, in the main, civilians or those who could argue they are fighting to free their country from foreign occupation, as in Iraq, or foreign meddling, as in Afghanistan.

Soldiers are no longer ignorant cannon fodder. They are educated and have a capacity to be informed in a way that soldiers in the past did not. It is not hard for a soldier to know that, while the Taliban has been defined as ‘enemy’ in this war in Afghanistan, it is the same Taliban which was previously armed and supported by the United States. Neither is it hard to know that the majority of Iraqis want the Occupation to end and support attacks against Coalition forces - the insurgency is therefore a legitimate resistance against foreign domination. Coalition soldiers may have believed initially that the Iraqis would welcome them with flowers as a liberating force, but they can have no illusion now that they are anything but hated by the people they have invaded.

The ‘rules’ of war therefore are conflicting and confusing and justification for the slaughter being inflicted upon the peoples of both Afghanistan and Iraq is hard to find for anyone of reason who has been brought up on a diet of civilized values: human rights, rule of law, justice and freedom. A soldier will do what he or she has been told to do and, in the beginning, may well believe all that they have been told about their reasons for going to war. But wars have a life of their own and, the longer they go on, the harder it is to deny the truths which stare everyone in the face. Some people have a greater capacity for denial than others, but for many, therein lies the path to madness. These are, in essence, ‘war’s walking dead.’

Which is why it is hardly surprising that Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom are all finding that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing exceptionally high levels of post-traumatic stress and suicide. Vietnam had the same sort of impact and for all the same reasons.

So much so that families, war veterans and MP’s have called for an independent inquiry into the mental health of Australian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Federal Government has acknowledged that two soldiers took their own lives after returning from duty, but some say as many as five have committed suicide and the number can only be expected to rise. So far, 121 soldiers have been discharged for mental illness upon their return to Australia. About two dozen have serious psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Families say the soldiers who commit suicide on their return are the hidden casualties of war.

Private Geffrey Gregg, 25, took his own life seven months ago, after suffering years of psychological trauma following deployment in Afghanistan. In 2002, at the age of 21, he was caught in a fierce fire-fight that left 11 Afghan civilians dead. Several SAS troops involved in the action were disciplined. Gregg was not among them, but on his return home his partner said he was a changed man, suffering nightmares and constantly seeking reassurance that he was a good person. He was discharged as medically unfit in 2004 and diagnosed with PTSD.

The national president of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Association, John "Blue" Ryan, said an independent inquiry into deaths in the past three years was the only way to help other soldiers scarred by war. Mr Ryan said veteran support groups believed there could have been up to five suicides among soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr Robert Marr, of the Australian Medical Association for the Prevention of War, said it was likely the Vietnam and Iraq wars had greater psychological impact on soldiers than the two world wars, as there was no clear enemy and no front-line.

In the UK, thousands of soldiers have gone absent without leave (AWOL) since 2003 and the Army continues to downplay the gravity of mental problems caused by their tours in Iraq.The UK Ministry of Defence estimates there have been 10,000 AWOL incidents since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 1,100 servicemen are currently ‘on the run’ from the Army.

Many of those who are absent without leave – a crime punishable by life imprisonment in the UK – say they ran away because the Army refuses support for mental trauma. Others say that army life is not what they expected and does not match the image presented by recruiters.

In the US, the problem is even greater with record numbers of soldiers going AWOL and soaring rates of PTSD being reported.

“When we kill another human being, there's a price to pay,” said Dave Pelkey, a helicopter pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and Cambodia five times; has been divorced five times and who is now counselling soldiers who have served in Iraq. “We try to put a barrier around our heart and our emotions, but there is a price to pay.”

His story was a common one. Vietnam vets share the same sorts of horrendous experiences: memories too graphic to share even with their wives; memories which stay with them, moulding and distorting their character and remaining as powerful decades on as they were at the time.

Stacy Bannerman, the author of “When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind” and an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, says US soldiers who have served - or are serving - in Iraq are killing themselves at higher percentages than in any other war where such figures have been tracked. According to a report recently released by the Defense Manpower Data Centre, suicide accounted for over 25 per cent of all non-combatant Army deaths in Iraq in 2006.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is the result of subtle biological changes in the brain chemistry as a response to severe stress, which alters the way the brain stores memories. During a particularly intense episode, the body releases massive amounts of adrenaline and the physiological alterations associated with the intense emotional reaction create memories that disrupt normal life. The markers of post-traumatic stress include nightmares; avoiding reminders of the traumatic event; hyper-arousal, a physiological response to stress that can lead to irritability and restlessness; and drug use and alcohol abuse, says Bannerman.

Among soldiers who develop PTSD, “there was a strong relation between combat experiences, such as being shot at, handling dead bodies, knowing someone who was killed, or killing enemy combatants.”

More than any previous war, she says, the Iraq war is likely to produce the highest number of soldiers suffering from PTSD. There is considerable psychological distress associated with going into a country under the auspices of liberating a people, only to have them rise up against you and it lingers long after the war has ended. Adding to the pressure is that many mental health officials believe that the nature of urban street fighting and insurgent warfare, coupled with heavy reliance on National Guard and Army Reserve troops, will result in higher rates of PTSD among this group of veterans than those in previous conflicts.

Another reason for the escalating mental health challenges is that, while soldiers typically spent one tour of duty in Vietnam, troops are serving two, three and occasionally four rotations in Iraq. An additional challenge is the moral ambiguity of fighting a war without front lines, where the combatants are or are dressed as civilians. Many veterans are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile experiences such as shooting at civilians because they had failed to stop at a checkpoint.

PTSD is an affliction as old as war itself. It was officially recognised in the US as a war-induced psychological ailment in 1980. Before that, it was known by a variety of euphemisms, including shell shock and, perhaps most accurately, after the American Civil War of the 1860s, as ‘soldier's heart’. The American Civil War was another of those conflicts where it was difficult for people to believe in the cause for which they were fighting. Even worse, the ‘enemy’ was at times a relative or a friend. And, contrary to common belief, it was not really a war fought for something as ‘noble’ as ending slavery – that reason came later as the ‘icing’ on top of the economic and political ‘cake’ which was being divided up between opposing sides. It was a ghastly war. All wars are ghastly, but this was particularly so and, like all wars, it involved civilians as well as soldiers. Civilians were targeted, by omission or commission, just as they are today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What does it do to us when we kill and maim unarmed civilians? What does it do to us when we kill and maim small children and mothers with babes in arms? What does it do to us when we lay waste to the land and turn homes to rubble? It does what it has always done – it wounds us in heart and mind. It may wound professional soldiers less than reservists or conscripts, but it wounds all the same.

Some soldiers in all wars will experience mental and emotional distress because of what they experience, but more soldiers, as history records, suffer when they are fighting wars in which they do not believe; in which they cannot find meaning, purpose and justification for the killing and suffering they inflict and the deaths and injuries that they experience. This was seen most clearly in Vietnam veterans and this is the war which has most in common with those being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iraq war is into its fifth year. Australia has been lucky so far in terms of deaths and injuries, although our troops have not been serving in the most dangerous areas and our numbers are low. At this point, there are more than 3,230 American military fatalities and as many as 650,000 Iraqis. The number of American wounded is around 23,400. The number of Iraqi wounded statistically may run into the millions.

The number of Coalition soldiers, including Australians, who are - or will be - psychologically and emotionally wounded, is not yet fully known. What can be reasonably assumed is that the numbers are already in the tens of thousands and will continue to rise. The price of war is always high; the price of unnecessary, illegal or immoral wars is even higher. The Iraqis and Afghans may see millions dead or maimed, but when the war is over, they will be at peace. The Coalition forces, many of them at least, will not. And they are not the only ones who will suffer, for mental illness impacts upon the whole family.

We should be asking our political leaders for an answer to the question: What is the price of a ruined life? The moral responsibility for any war rests with our Governments. If they make the decision to send us to war, then surely they should be responsible for picking up the pieces - all of them – for as long as it takes and no matter the cost.


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