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 --
[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).
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 a 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. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Stephen Soldz
Toward a Society