Sunday, 17 May 2009

Newsflash: wars don't bring out the nice in people

Last week, Stuff featured a very poignant article about one Sgt John M Russell, a soldier with the US army. Russell was only a matter of weeks from finishing his third tour in Iraq when he took a weapon and shot dead five of his fellow soldiers. He wasn't a 'mean' person, Russell's family have said - he simply cracked under stress.

The article describes the US forces in Iraq as troubled by violence between soldiers, and suicides. Mental health services are offered to soldiers, but the imperative in military culture to be strong, mentally and physically, deters them from seeking help.

Something I don't understand about warfare is that it requires soldiers to suspend any moral qualms they might have, and kill other people - military, sometimes civilian - because the leaders of their nation-state have decided it's a good idea. Very occasionally, wars are fought over important principles. Men and women serving in Iraq can't take comfort from knowing they're on the side of right: they're fighting an unwinnable war without popular support, which has shattered Iraqi society and polarised their own.

Violence damages the people who inflict it, just as it damages those who suffer it. There's no psychologically healthy way to take the lives of others - it seems to me that violence and suicides among soldiers aren't things that can be patched up with a visit to the doctor, but an inevitable consequence of the brutality of warfare. What mental health treatment can, or should, equip people for the business of killing?

'In the Valley of Elah' is a difficult-to-watch but worthwhile film which explores the effects of violence on the psychological wellbeing of US soldiers.


katy said...

"Men and women serving in Iraq can't take comfort from knowing they're on the side of right"

You might be surprised... I have a friend who is a member of the US military, currently stationed in Africa, and a friend in the UK military, currently in Afghanistan. They are both intelligent men but buy the propaganda about US/British activity in the middle east and see what they are doing as of importance.

As for Iraq now, obviously UK troops are now out and US troops will be out next year which means that the end of the occupation is in sight. Will this also mean the end to the insurgency and violence??

Anita said...

I've always wondered if one of those most psychologically damaging parts of the Vietnam War for soldiers was believing that they were on the side of right when they were there, then coming back to a "home" which believed something very different. It must've been very hard to wend their way through the cognitive dissonance and the realisation that the actions they'd had such pride in might be something to be ashamed of.

stargazer said...

what makes the situation even worse is this:

Army psychologist Douglas McNinch was inadvertently caught on tape by his patient, "Sgt. X," explaining that he and other Army clinicians were "being pressured to not diagnose PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and diagnose anxiety disorder NOS [instead]," and revealing that the Army's medical boards were rejecting "his diagnoses of PTSD, saying soldiers had not seen enough trauma to have 'serious PTSD issues'."

Why the discouragement from correctly diagnosing PTSD? Money, of course. PTSD doesn't just go away. It's a serious anxiety disorder that its sufferers learn to manage, if they're lucky — but because it's also "a condition that obligates the military to provide expensive, intensive long-term care, including the possibility of lifetime disability payments," the Army is extremely interested in denying the diagnosis, no less the appropriate treatment, meaning there isn't a hell of a lot of luck to be had by returning soldiers suffering this life-fucking disorder.

all of which increase the possibility of incidents like this happening. i think the discussion about mental health treatment to equip people for killing is secondary to the discussion about helping people who are already suffering. and being denied the support they require. as these soldiers return home, it's putting american communities directly at risk, because any one of these misdiagnosed ones could break at any time. but even more importantly, it's just such a rotten way to treat the soldiers.

i don't know what the situation is here in nz as regards mental health treatment, including proper diagnosis and ensuring that they get the services they need. this is the one area where it would be unforgivable to skimp or cut costs in any way.

Anonymous said...

Personally I think the best thing we can do for soldiers is not send them off to kill and be killed in the first place.

But I'm not sure I feel that those who participate in imperialist wars, particularly in non-conscript armies, can be expected to evade the consequences of their actions. Sure, the law may say that a soldier has no choice in where they are sent, but it's clearly an immoral and unethical law, and I think people have a responsibility not to obey those kinds of laws - because the consequences for the soldier of refusing to kill somebody are much lighter than the consequences for his victims if he obeys.

katy said...

Anon, I agree with you, but the problem is that many (most?) of the soldiers who went off to Iraq did so thinking it was the right thing to do. I went to Myanmar/Burma in early 2004 and local people said to me, "I wish the US would invade this country, we want to be liberated too". A lot of people bought that the invasion and occupation were for a moral good.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt they were sincere Katy, that they thought they were doing what was best for Iraq, but I think they have to a certain extent to be held to account for their mistakes, even if they were sincere.

Basically what I am saying is I don't think a sick soldier somehow deserves preferential treatment to any other sick person.

AWicken said...

Grossman, D., On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Little, Brown and Co, 1995

One of the many interesting observations he makes is that mental trauma *in the field* was at record lows during Vietnam, but after the soldier returned home it reached high levels, and attributes this to a variety of factors including the average soldier's homecoming reception, all of which go to reconciling the acts committed in the name of the country with the individual's conscience (although that's a very restricted summary of much of the book).

And personally, if a government makes the choice to damage another country, civilians, and its own soldiers via war, it seems only reasonable to me that it owes everybody the war harms an honest and immediate attempt to repair the damage. It's not preferential treatment - it's cleaning up the mess it made.

Anna said...

I agree AWicken - offering medical and psychological help to veterans is a) fixing up the the state's own mess, b) consistent with the care and compensation other people get for non-war illnesses or injuries, and c) a matter of basic human decency.

That's a different matter from a person being held responsible for an illegal act they've committed during war - it's a convention of our society that criminals should get medical care and humane treatment like everyone else.

What I think, though, is that warfare is ultimately an unhealthy activity - if not always during the event itself (as the research AWicken cites suggests), then during the reintegration into society. So, from my point of view, giving someone mental health 'treatment' that reconciles them to killing folks is fairly arse-about-face.

Anonymous said...

AWicken I see your point but I don't like the fact that you are creating a moral equivalency between the soldiers of the invading, imperialist army and the soldiers of the defensive, anti-imperialist army. The former make a choice to go overseas. OK, they would face military discipline if they refused to go, but that's a pretty small penalty compared to the inhabitants of the invading country. They literally have no choice, since they are fighting to defend their homes and families.

I think the only way we can ever hope to stop wars is if the soldiers of imperialist armies refuse to fight in them. And by saying that the invading soldiers are victims too, we're taking away any incentive to do that.

The protesters in the sixties had it right, I think. The American soldiers were baby killers. Yes, being called baby killers traumatised them - but I think it's really revealing that they apparently had such cognitive dissonance that they could kill, rape and murder and still feel good about themselves, and it was only when other people called them on it that they started to suffer trauma - a trauma much lesser than the trauma their victims suffered.

Ultimately war is the fault of the state that starts the war by invading another state. But that doesn't mean invading soldiers have no responsibility - they are enablers.

I support giving these soldiers enough treatment to ensure that they are not a threat to anybody else. But I think it's also appropriate to ask them "so you're upset - how do you think the daughters, sisters and mothers of the people you killed feel?"

AWicken said...

Even a soldier in the most "just" war one can think of, on the good side, is still required to perform acts that are anathema to about 98% of the population - an "anti-imperialist" fighter is still required to do gross things to another human being, albeit an evil SS officer or whatever.

And the smaller the cog one is in the machine, the less one can really know about the wider questions of whether the war is "just" or a charade by your own leadership - the Nazis convinced some people that Poland invaded Germany, remember.

I agree that war criminals should be prosecuted - I just don't think it's as simple as saying "you fought for the imperialist power, so you don't deserve PTSD treatment or a decent prosthetic limb"