Fueled by reports from both inside and outside the military service, there has been quite a bit of public concern about the mental health of the American fighting force.
Some blogs and e-mails from troops report the frustration, fear, disorientation and anomie that are the hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, in a study reported last week in USA Today, Army psychologists recommend that, to alleviate battlefield stress, military units be given a month’s rest every 90 days.
After more than four years in Iraq, the strains on the Army are beginning to become glaring, and the deleterious effect of stress is only one of them. But a month-long break?
For one thing, the Army is so small that it can’t perform its missions now, and even the proposed small increase in end strength will not be nearly enough. The length of the Army combat tour has recently been increased by 25 percent because we don’t have enough troops in Iraq, and the Army is talking about the possibility of yet another extension. Pulling units off their missions for a quarter of their time in Iraq would negate whatever value accrues to extending the tour in the first place. And you don’t have to be a psychologist to conclude that troops would opt for rest at home over rest in Iraq every time.
In addition, it isn’t entirely compelling that marginally more rest is the cure for battlefield stress anyway. One of the lessons of PTSD is that even coming home doesn’t help. If permanent removal from combat won’t work, it’s difficult to envision how a month’s rest, with the certainty of going back to fighting, will be any better.
When I was in Vietnam, particularly during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and in 1972 with the Vietnamese Airborne Division in Quang Tri, we were in combat nearly continuously for very long stretches, many months at a time. To be sure, combat is stressful, and I never met anyone who was exempt from the fear that is the everyday lot of the combat soldier. But while PTSD wasn’t entirely absent, it was not the problem it appears to be in Iraq. Why?
The answer may lie in strategy and tactics, not time off.
In World War II, our strategy included an unambiguous end to the conflict: the unconditional surrender of the Axis. Troops were deployed overseas and usually came home only when they were killed or badly wounded or when the war was over. In addition, a very large percentage of the adult male population served in uniform; most people were in the same unpleasant situation, and sympathy was something anticipated only by the families of the dead, not the survivors.
There was more ambiguity in Korea and Vietnam, but all these conflicts were markedly different than the war in Iraq in one very striking sense: the nature of the combat.
Most of the casualties we sustain in Iraq are the result of improvised explosive devices, and you are just as likely to be killed or wounded if you are a support soldier driving a truck as you are if you’re an infantryman in a firefight…perhaps more likely. And this danger is wholly one-sided, the result of being a passive victim of an act of violence, not much different than an unarmed Iraqi civilian.
In previous wars, we loaded our weapons, and we and our enemies went after each other, often toe to toe, until the engagement was decided by the withdrawal of one side from the field, even if temporarily. There was a strong sense that we were in control of our fate, that we created our own victory through superior intelligence, logistics and tactics.
But if you are a casualty in Iraq, it’s almost certain to come from just being unlucky. It is easy to develop a feeling of impotence and hopelessness if your perception is that you and your commanders have no control over whether you live or die.
Our troops don’t need more time off. They need better leadership.
Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.