By Fr. George Welzbacher
March 25, 2012
Every American worthy of the name surely was saddened by the news that an American soldier had gone berserk in Afghanistan, breaking into Afghan homes in the middle of the night and killing men, women and children in an orgy of violence. Every decent human being will instantly have felt compassion for the killer's victims. And what a nightmare of terror must have been theirs, compressed into those few moments when, suddenly awake, they realized, too late, what they were facing. Dismaying, too, is the political consequence. As if the recent "Death to America!" riots in Afghanistan's cities weren't enough, riots triggered by the news that copies of the Quran had been tossed into the fire at an American Army base, add now to the mix this midnight massacre, which follows all too soon President Obama's shouting from the rooftops that all of our forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014, with whispered hints that the process might even be completed by the end of 2013. One can only conclude that an essential component in any realistic plan for the defeat of the Taliban has now been irretrievably lost. By "essential component" I am referring of course to winning the support of most of Afghanistan's diverse populations.
Like the precipitous withdrawal of all of our troops from Iraq, after military victory had been achieved but BEFORE political stabilization had been sufficiently secured, our impending retreat from Afghanistan sends a message to the world and to our troops: in Iraq as in Afghanistan our whole enormous effort, with its vast expenditure of treasure and its loss OF MORE THAN FOUR THOUSAND AMERICAN LIVES AND OVER 30,000 INJURED, seems now to have been for nothing, nothing at all! Or at most for precious little!
As this message sinks into the minds of our incredibly dedicated soldiers, and our National Guardsmen and Marines, volunteers all and conspicuous for courage, who have been engaged on repeated tours of duty, day after day, year after year, over the course of more than a decade in dangerous combat in mountainous terrain and in the squalid streets of Afghanistan's villages and towns, their frustration, their fury as they have seen their heroic efforts nullified by their own political leaders seems now to be rising to critical levels. Tragic as was this recent atrocity, is it really any wonder that under the steady ratcheting up of rage and frustration one of our soldiers "cracked"? One, notably, who, despite previous traumatic injury to his brain and the loss of part of his foot, was serving on his FOURTH tour of combat duty.
On this appalling turn of events a thoughtful commentary was submitted to The Washington Post by a former commandant of the U.S. Army's War College, Major General Robert H. Scales. On March 15th his essay was reprinted in the Star Tribune. May I share his report with you here.
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Overtaxed Troops Crack Sooner or Later
Star Tribune, March 15, 2012 reprinted from The Washington Post.
Robert H. Scales
I guess I knew it would eventually come down to this: Blame the Army in some way for the horrific and senseless slaughter of 16 innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar, allegedly by a U.S infantry noncommissioned officer.
In their search for a villain, the media seem to be focusing now on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where the accused was stationed for his fourth deployment to a combat zone. Before we get too involved in attacking institutions, perhaps it may be right and proper to suggest that the underlying issue here is not the failure of our Army. Could the issue perhaps be that no institutional effort can make up for trying, over the past 10 years, to fight too many wars with too few soldiers?
The accused NCO is an infantryman. Two weeks ago I talked with infantry soldiers at Fort Benning, GA., and I couldn't help contrasting them with those of my generation of Vietnam veterans. What caught my attention were the soldiers' amazing stories of patient, selfless commitment. I took to heart the enormous disparity in stressful, extreme experiences between the infantry and other branches and services that have come back from Afghanistan.
The senior NCOs I spoke to all had at least three, and in some cases five, tours, virtually all close-combat units. Contrast this with Vietnam-era NCOs and junior officers, most of whom had only ONE tour in Vietnam.
Of course, infantry combat in Vietnam was perhaps more intense. But close fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was more pervasive and lasting - and thus, to my mind, more likely to cause personal trauma. The infantrymen I spoke to at Fort Benning were DIFFERENT from those in my generation. They were more emotionally exhausted, less spontaneous, humorless.
My generation of professionals spent a great deal of time on Friday nights at the officer's club, talking over a beer about the Catch-22 nature of Vietnam and many of the stupid and hilarious experiences we endured. None of this at Fort Benning today. No clubs, no public displays of hilarity and certainly no beer. These guys seemed to view their time in combat as endless and repetitive. My sense is that their collective, intimate exposure to the horrors of close combat was far more debilitating than what we experienced.
This of course in no way justifies what happened at Kandahar. But I think if someone wants to place blame, it should be on a succession of national leaders who fail to recognize that combat units, particularly infantry, JUST WEAR OUT. Lord Moran concluded in his classic work about combat stress in World War I, "Anatomy of Courage," that the reservoir of courage begins to empty after the first shot is fired. The horrors of intimate killing, along with other factors such as fatigue, thirst, hunger, isolation, fear of the unknown and the sight of dead and maimed comrades, all start a process of moral atrophy that cannot be reversed. Lord Moran rightfully concluded that nothing short of permanent withdrawal from the line will bring soldiers back to normalcy.
The media are trying to make some association between the terrible crime of this sergeant and the Army's inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Perhaps, the Army could have done more. But I think Lord Moran had it more right. The real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and IRREPLACEABLE national assets: our close-combat soldiers and Marines.
If someone just after 9/11 had told me that a very small Army and Marine Corps would fight a 10-year-long set of close-combat engagements in two wars and still remain intact, I would have called them crazy. Well, we've done just that, haven't we? But at what cost to the few who have borne an enormously disproportionate share of emotional stress?
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Robert H. Scales is a retired U.S. Army major general and former commandant of the Army War College, and president of the consulting firm Colgen. He wrote this for the Washington Post.
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