Monday, February 02, 2009

Warring on Warriors

Four reports over the course of the weekend point to rapid “transformation” of Afghanistan from “the war Bush forgot” to “Obama’s war.” The first wa a short notice that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would brief the president on troop levels in Afghanistan.

The second is the Army’s announcement that once again in 2008, a record number of service members – 128 – committed suicide. No “Pentagon official” was prepared to go on record to discuss the causes of these annual record-setting deaths. Even off-record murmurings were generally confined to the usual factors: financial, marital/personal, legal, and work. But if one examines the records, as the New York Times did (January 30, 2009), what jumps out is the correlation between multiple combat tours (until recently 15 months duration), the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicides. Over the last four years, according to the Times, thirty percent of suicides occurred during deployment and 35 percent after completing a deployment. As for PTSD among soldiers with multiple tours, the rates of occurrence continue to be substantially higher than among soldiers on their first deployment.

A third related story is the increase in instances of domestic violence and the accelerating divorce rates involving returning troops. For some months, the Pentagon has known that one third of women serving in the military claimed they were victims of sexual harassment (unfortunately not further defined). Last week, CBS News, in a two-night report, said that nationwide police statistics reveal that in 50 percent of domestic violence cases at least one person involved was in the military. Over the last ten years, almost 90 women have been killed

The fourth, compared to the above, might seem trivial, but for those in and out of the military who have experienced the condition, it can be a source of debilitating pain. And with more troops headed for Afghanistan, the situation will only get worse.

That part of Afghanistan where the U.S. plans to base the reinforcements it is sending into the war is extremely rugged and at an extremely high altitude. Despite these conditions, the weight of equipment and protective personal armor the individual soldier is expected to carry has gone from a maximum of 65 to 80 pounds (which even as an infantry platoon leader I never came close to carrying even on a “forced march” during training) to between 130-150 pounds for a typical three-day mission (Washington Post, February 1, 2009). That’s as much as three times the recommended weight load of 50 pounds per Marine in an unidentified 2007 Department of the Navy study (WP). The combination of high altitudes with thinner oxygen, rugged terrain which limits vehicle usage, and the weight of equipment deemed “essential” is causing a new kind of stress whose “bump-on” effect is increasing the numbers of non-deployable troops. The Army lists 257,000”acute orthopedic injuries (muscular or skeletal stress or fractures) for 2007, up by 10,000from 2006.

The increased numbers of troops President Obama plans to send to Afghanistan, together with the growing number of temporary and, more seriously, “permanent non-deployables” (20,000 according to the Army) from physical and psychological stress could leave the Army once again scraping up anyone who still is walking and can carry a weapon. But those so identified are increasingly likely to be many who suffer from PTSD but who, being part of the “warrior culture,” are reluctant to seek help.

Since the start of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001, the Army has been found wanting in the provision of equipment to troops in the field, in the administrative attention paid to wounded troops who have been returned to the U.S., and in the joint responsibility with the Veteran’s Department for continued care for the physical, mental and financial well-being of those who have fought the “war on terror.” Barack Obama was elected in part because the American public rejected the idea of witnessing the return of more new veterans, wounded or not, traumatized or not, by the experience of constant combat with an adversary that outlasted three great empires because they knew the terrain, were used to the thin air, were much more mobile than the outsiders., and above all were more committed to the struggle than the occupying power

In the late 19th century, the U.S. Cavalry found itself stymied in the effort to force the Lakota and a few other Native American tribes onto reservation\ns. Warrior for warrior, the Plains Indians were one of the most accomplished light cavalry forces in the world. They knew the land, they were highly mobile, they were committed to the struggle to retain their way of life – and for years they ran rings around the soldiers for seven, eight, or nine months a year depending on the severity of the weather. The soldiers finally won because the tribes had no central organization and because they had to go into “winter quarters” when the snows came and severely limited their mobility. The Army, with better logistics and sturdier animals (mules instead of horses), was still able to campaign and eventually prevailed.

In about four months, the 2009 fighting season in Afghanistan will be intensifying. Another three months will see the elections for the presidency of the country. Those months can be expected to see concerted efforts by the insurgents to disrupt or even force cancellation of the balloting by the bullet.

For his part, President Obama seems committed to his campaign statements concerning the upswing in the number of U.S. warriors destined for Afghanistan. But he also has the next four months to initiate a diplomatic and foreign aid surge that could preempt the insurgency’s appeal – and its threats – to good governance, even if it is “Afghan style.” Taking this course might just give the Afghans the incentive to rebuild their country and, in the process, get America’s warriors home sooner rather than later and with fewer casualties.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insightful summary. I think it is so sad that Obama who finally gives us hope could be so sadly mistaken about Afghanistan. History shows no one can defeat them in war, even our earlier so-called success did not take. I do hope FCNL is urging him to reconsider?

3:53 PM  

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