Untold damage of Iraq and Afghanistan

In recent months the war in Iraq had mostly retreated from the national headlines. It took the disturbing news of an American soldier apparently gunning down five of his fellow servicemen in a Baghdad “combat stress clinic” to jump-start any major media coverage. The killings provided the kind of sensational firepower the cable news networks seem to require for any sustained coverage — but the incident also highlighted a grave problem, one that America increasingly will have to confront as two long wars go on.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert says that he “couldn’t have been less surprised” by the fratricide in Baghdad. “The fact that this occurred at a mental health counseling center in the war zone just served to add an extra layer of poignancy and a chilling ironic element to the fundamental tragedy,” he wrote on Tuesday. “The psychic toll of this foolish and apparently endless war has been profound since day one. And the nation’s willful denial of that toll has been just as profound.”

ptsd header - The Veterans Health Research Institute

A Washington Post report on Sunday laid out the bleak metrics for anyone who might care to look:

Since 2001, nearly 1 million soldiers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 300,000 of them have served multiple combat rotations, most lasting 12 to 15 months. Currently there are 160,000 soldiers in those war zones, and of those, nearly 30,000 are on at least their third or fourth tour, Pentagon data show.

An estimated 20 percent of service members return from the wars psychologically damaged, with depression or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares, hyper-vigilance and emotional numbing, according to a Rand Corp. study last year.

That’s tens of thousands of combat veterans with psychological damage.

And there is no end in sight for the predicament — for the near-term at least, the total number of troops in the war zones is going up, with President Obama deploying another 20,000 to Afghanistan.

That escalation sparked debate in a conversation I had with a couple of friends over the weekend regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question we grappled with: Now under Obama’s leadership, what exactly is the U.S. trying to accomplish in the region? None of us could come up with a clear answer.

Steve Coll suggests that Obama’s aid-driven approach is focused on hearts and minds, that it “seeks to alter the daily experiences and thus the political outlooks of Afghan and Pakistani civilians” and thereby drain recruiting pools for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But as I wrote about here recently, the concurrent heavy use of air power is exacting a counterproductive cost. As Coll also notes: “Four years ago, polls showed that eighty-three per cent of Afghans held a favorable view of the United States; today, only half do, and the trajectory is downward. Persistent civilian casualties caused by air strikes in rural Afghanistan are a major cause of this deterioration.”

That may help explain why a top U.S. military commander would try to mislead the public about U.S. air strikes gone wrong. The foolish thing about that tactic, of course, is that the illusion can’t last for long.

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