Worldview: Wounded minds

The US military in Iraq has achieved a 90 percent survival rate for wounded soldiers. It’s probably the highest of any war in US history. Thanks mostly to faster and more effective medical treatment, as well as better body armor, horrific wounds are less often fatal. But this is only half of the story.

Wounded minds are a casualty of war every bit as serious as bullet-ripped flesh and shrapnel-shattered bone. Nearly 20 percent of US soldiers returning from Iraq are reporting mental problems attributed to experiences there.

The lessons of the Vietnam War are clear. Extreme combat stress can create walking time-bombs that threaten to explode or implode later in life. The current situation in Iraq offers the classic recipe for what the US military now calls ‘stress injury’. (Note how the name keeps changing over the years: ‘shell shocked’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘posttraumatic stress disorder’, and now ‘stress injury’) Coalition soldiers in Iraq can never feel safe because of the tactics of the enemy. Every day and night the pressure is on. Their minds potentially are being injured every day and every night.

Creating Killers. Another factor that is likely to make the number of US veterans with mental problems climb higher is their enhanced ability to kill. This is probably at an unprecedented level right now, although it cannot be measured easily.

It may be surprising to many, but humans are not natural-born killers. Most mentally normal people have a powerful psychological ‘safety catch’ that makes killing another human extremely difficult if not impossible. In World War II, for example, only about 15-20 percent of American combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles at the enemy. In the Korean War, the firing rate was about 50 percent. This can not be explained away as cowardice as most of the men who would not fire their rifles still put themselves at great risk and did not abandon their posts or their comrades. It was fear of killing, not fear of dying, that prevented them from firing at the enemy.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, the US military has solved this problem. They learned during the Vietnam War era that the closer training resembled actual combat situations, the easier it became for soldiers to kill. As a result, firing rates rose to 90 percent in the Vietnam War. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman details this in his important book, On Killing (Back Bay Books, 1995). He concludes that by creating tens of thousands of unflinching killers, the US military brings devastating power to the battlefield. However, he adds, there is a steep psychological cost for the men who must live with their actions when the war is over. Ease in killing does not mean ease in living with the memories.

Now, in the 21st century, the problem is even more serious as the US military uses computer simulations to train troops. The US is probably mass-producing the most effective killers in the history of warfare. Their readiness to kill, coupled with the constant stress of danger, make US veterans of the Iraq War highly vulnerable to mental problems.

Time will tell if the US military devotes the resources needed to heal the minds of its warriors. If they fail to do so, waves of deeply troubled veterans will find it difficult to fully rejoin society and all America is likely to share in their pain at some level sooner or later.

Worldviewis a regular column by World News editor Guy P. Harrison. He is at [email protected]

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