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 Sending mentally ill soldiers back to Iraq

Reckless disregard for soldiers’ welfare and for Iraqi lives

By Stephen Soldz 

03/27/06 "ICH" -- -- As the US military has difficulties recruiting and retaining soldiers for its never-ending war of occupation in Iraq, the armed services are resorting to increasingly desperate means of coping. The Stop-Loss option in soldiers’ contracts has allowed soldiers to be kept in uniform months or years after their term of service has expired. The National Guard has been sent overseas to a previously unprecedented extent. And military standards have been lowered, so that drug or alcohol abuse, pregnancy, and poor fitness no longer necessarily lead to dismissal of new recruits. 

Now word comes that “mentally ill” troops are being sent back to Iraq. [See: Some troops headed back to Iraq are mentally ill] This article refers to “a little-discussed truth fraught with implications,” but the implications discussed all have to do with the effects on the soldiers being returned, and these soldiers’ “effectiveness in combat.” In many instances, being returned to combat, and to a state of constant tension, will exacerbate the soldier’s problems, the article -- correctly -- suggests.  

The article indicates that the military is putting pressure on mental health professionals treating these soldiers to minimize the extent of their problems and to declare them fit for return to Iraq and combat. For example, some Army doctors are reporting that they are being told to diagnose combat-stress reaction instead of the more serious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Further, the article reports that professionals treating emotionally disturbed soldiers “are under pressure” to approve their redeployment to Iraq. I have written about the moral issues involved in mental health treatment of soldiers in Iraq [To Heal or To Patch: Military Mental Health Workers in Iraq]. The issues are similar for those treating the soldiers when they return if the professionals play any role in deciding whether or not the soldiers should return to combat. The mental health professionals are not in a position to make unbiased judgments as to a soldier’s readiness to return to combat when their own status and advancement in the military may depend upon how they exercise that judgment. 

One “implication” not even mentioned in the article is that sending “mentally ill” soldiers back into combat puts not only the soldiers’ own mental health at risk, but endangers Iraqis as well. What is the quality of decision-making by highly stressed soldiers, whether they suffer from “PTSD” or only from “combat-stress reaction”? These soldiers are armed with lethal weapons and are often in a position to make split-second life-or-death decisions. After all, “stress” is often used as a defense when other armed authorities, such as police, are caught engaging in abusive or even murderous behavior. Surely the effects of stress can only be magnified on soldiers who spend a year or more being assigned to a country where they can never feel entirely safe.  

We know from the memoirs of US soldiers in Iraq how alienated from Iraqis they feel. Thus, Colby Buzzell, in his My War: Killing Time in Iraq describes being “hit with the realization that I’m on the other side of the planet far away from home, and that I’m a stranger in a really strange land” (p. 297).  

These strangers feel so alienated from Iraqis that they have a number of names for them. As Kayla Williams tells us in Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army

“[W]e called them hajjis, but we also called them sadiqis… or habibis…. We called them towelheads. Ragheads. Camel jockeys. The fucking locals. Words that didn’t see our enemy as people – as somebody’s father or son or brother or uncle” (p. 200; emphasis in original). 

Of course, it isn’t only “the enemy” that terms like these describe, and who aren't seen as people. Ordinary Iraqis of all stripes are characterized as the “hajjis” or “the fucking locals.” 

Not surprisingly, in such a climate of alienation combined with pervasive never-ending danger, even mentally “healthy” soldiers have emotional difficulties. For example, Jason Christopher Hartley, author of the memoir Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq, describes attempting to refuse leave:  

“[I]n all honesty, I did it because I didn’t want to leave Iraq. One of the ways to cope with being in combat is to go crazy just a tiny bit and learn to enjoy the work… I was afraid that if I left, it would be difficult to get back into the ‘combat is fun’ way of thinking when I returned” (p. 279). 

If Hartley, by all indications a mentally healthy soldier, was only able to survive by going a bit crazy and, in his case, cultivating a love of combat, what happens to an emotionally disturbed soldier returned to that crazy-making environment? Does (s)he cower in terror, perhaps shooting at stimuli little more dangerous than his or her shadow, even if those stimuli happen to be Iraqi civilians? Or does (s)he perhaps cultivate an even greater love for combat, shooting at Iraqis as an expression of a game necessary to transform the pervasive fear? Undoubtedly each of these paths is chosen by some. Either possibility will increase the odds of adding to the massive Iraqi civilian casualties being generated by this war of occupation, estimated at about 100,000 in September 2004 and considerably higher at this point. [See my 100,000 Iraqis Dead: Should We Believe It? and When Promoting Truth Obscures the Truth: More on Iraqi Body Count and Iraqi Deaths and Les Roberts: The Iraq War: Do Iraqi Civilian Casualties Matter?]  

Soldiers in Iraq routinely make split-second decisions whether to shoot or not, such as at the innumerable checkpoints or when on convoy. We already know from a study published in the July 1, 2004 New England Journal of Medicine [Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care: see their Table 2] that 14% of Army soldiers and 28% of Marines returning from Iraq reported “being responsible for the death of a noncombatant.” To deploy mentally unstable soldiers [not to mention those with drug or alcohol problems] likely will increase these horrific numbers. This policy of returning potentially unstable soldiers to combat in Iraq is, thus, not only a serious threat to the mental health of the soldiers, but a threat to occupied Iraqis. This policy, already reprehensible because of the danger it poses to the long-term mental health of the US troops, is also in its reckless disregard for Iraqi lives yet another example of the innumerable war crimes being committed against the Iraqi people.  

Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is a member of Roslindale Neighbors for Peace and Justice and founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice. He maintains the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.

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