Provocative New Information that Should Make Us Think Twice Before Sending Soldiers Into Combat (With Video from Wikileaks)

Via Nathan Smith
on Apr 15, 2010
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What are the real costs of war?

Though I am no pacifist, I do think that modern warfare is one of the things for which we are profoundly bad at considering the costs and benefits.

There is no need to rehash all of the nonsense leading up to our most recent armed conflicts. The interesting bit I wanted to pass on to you here, in case you haven’t yet heard, is that the deaths of US soldiers as a result of suicide, are now on a pace to approach the number of deaths on the battlefield.

The following is the lead sentence from a recent article in Time:

From the invasion of Afghanistan until last summer, the U.S. military had lost 761 soldiers in combat there. But a higher number in the service — 817 — had taken their own lives over the same period.

More shockingly, according to a report back in January from the Center for Research on Globalization,

Last year alone, more than 330 serving members of the US armed forces committed suicide – more than the 320 killed in Afghanistan and the 150 who fell in Iraq.


… over the past nine years, more US military personnel have taken their own lives than have died in action in either the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And this is not exclusive to the US. The same appears to be true for the Canadian armed forces.

Say wha?!

Those are the facts. The question is, Why?

Military leaders, according to the Time piece, are “frustrated” and “beffudled,” feeling that they have put forward many efforts to stem the tide, with little success. The authors of the piece suggest one possible explanation whose resolution is politically unfeasible:

… the elephant in the room in much of the formal discussion of the problem is the burden of repeated tours of combat duty on a soldier’s battered psyche…. The only way to apply the brakes will be to reduce the number of deployments per soldier and extend what the Army calls “dwell time” — the duration spent at home between trips to war zones. But the only way to make that possible would be to expand the Army’s troop strength, or reduce the number of soldiers sent off to war.

While I’m sure that the length and frequency of deployments is certainly an issue, the recent buzz regarding the Wikileaks video that shows what looks to be relatively unprovoked and deliberate killings of civilians (journalists and children among the casualties) offers yet another possible explanation.  (Full-length video below. If you haven’t seen it, you must.)

In response to this incident, officials invoked the old “fog of war” idea. Essentially, they claim, the soldiers acted within a context where information was unclear and yet they felt the need to strike at potentially threatening targets. My thought is that there seems to be something constitutively “foggy” about modern, urban warfare, especially against an insurgent population that is, in principle, indistinguishable from the civilian population.

A soldier is taught to protect civilians (even to the point of putting her own life at risk). This is part of the important psychological justification for the morality of what would otherwise be brutal killing. What happens when the soldier becomes aware that she cannot distinguish civilian from combatant, and then becomes aware of the fact that perhaps she (and certainly her companions) are guilty of violating the underlying ethical code of military conduct? What happens when that psychological barrier that justifies massive killing is eroded (quite possibly by forces entirely outside the control of the individual soldier)? The soldier would likely be left uncertain whether her actions in war could be truly justified. And then what happens when she is forced to do it again?

Suicide might seem like a noble end.

Update: Via friends on Facebook, see comments below, I’ve been directed to an alternate interpretation of the Wikileaks video.

Bob Owens writes:

War is a dirty affair where innocents die and evil men sometimes triumph.

The intensity and uncertainly of combat is increasingly caught on camera, as embedded journalists and combatants themselves capture images and video of the brutality. Even in an age where the fake violence of the video game and the cinema have desensitized many of us to imagined carnage, real images of war can still strike us like the bitter steel of a bayonet. This is especially true in circumstances where we are guided by politically motivated players — in not-so-subtle ways — to view a jarring slice of the horror of war presented through a flawed and incomplete prism.

[…] This is the first of three engagements for Crazy Horse 18 and Crazy Horse 19 that morning in the slums of New Baghdad. The pilots, primarily tasked with saving American and Iraqi lives from insurgent action, are now accosted by WikiLeaks for failing to discern camera-carrying journalists from militants. WikiLeaks would judge these pilots murderers for following the rules of war, and destroying an enemy force without first interviewing the armed group to discern intent. Their charges of impropriety ring hollow.

It was not my intention in this post to judge the merits of the Wikileaks post. For my part, I find it confusing and strange. I don’t see the nearby ground troops that are apparently being threatened by these insurgents. I don’t see any attempt by these people to engage aggressively or to cover themselves from potential enemy fire. Does carrying a weapon (or being a member of a group of men, some of whom are carrying weapons) in the vicinity of armed conflict make you a target? US military rules of engagement state that if “the subject usually has a weapon and will either kill or injure someone if he/she is not stopped immediately and brought under control. The subject must be controlled by the use of deadly force with or without a firearm.”

To be clear, my claim is that these issues are sufficiently foggy as to undermine an important psychological barrier that allows soldiers to see their participation in violent conflict as justified. I speculate that this may have something to do with a rise in suicide rates.


About Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a philosophy professor at Houston Community College - Northwest. He's a father of two and husband to fellow elephant columnist, Joana Smith. As a philosopher, he specializes in Descartes, the philosophy of mind, and phenomenology. He's interested in all kinds of things, but he blogs primarily about politics, spirituality, and good, green living. Follow him on twitter @smithnd. And share your thoughts in the comments; he doesn't bite.


4 Responses to “Provocative New Information that Should Make Us Think Twice Before Sending Soldiers Into Combat (With Video from Wikileaks)”

  1. smithnd says:

    Good discussion with veteran friends on Facebook:

    Sarah: Hey, I know you didn't ask for my opinion, but… Your proposition suggests that the soldiers who committed suicide were involved in mass killings. Unless that's a a verifiable fact, it's a bit speculative, no? Certainly, if one feels guilty for having participated in unjustified mass killings (and being forced to repeat the action), then that loss of control would be a huge stressor. But is that really the experience of the soldiers who committed suicide?
    Yesterday at 8:05pm ·

    John: Well the idea behind your post is a good one, the Army puts a lot of money and effort into suicide prevention, having been through hours of mandatory sucide prevention courses and many more supervisor's courses for managing Soldiers with suicidal ideation I can attest to the fact that a great deal of effort has gone into keeping soldiers mentaly healthy. Even so, with all the efforts given Soldiers continue to take their own lives. I am by no means an expert, but as a verteran of several deployments I can tell you that time in combat zones does take a toll. But those soldiers who choose to take their own lives usually have more going on personally than just a deployment. Of note is that while suicides are increasing in the military they are significantly below the national average.

    I do feel a need to adress the wikileaks article you posted. I've read the 15-6 investigation on that incident, and believe that the indignation that's come as a result is comepletely misplaced. Those reporters from the AP, had not contacted anyone in the US or ISAF to inform them they would be inbedded with a taliban group, nor did they tell anyone they would be operating in that area. Granted, for purposes of maintaining credibility, they were probably pretty restricted on the latter. BUT, people upset about the Apache pilots attacking what looked to them like people preparing to attack a US unit in an area where they had been attacked several times in the preceeding days (including twice that day) need to keep in mind that when reporters imbed with any unit you accept the risk that the unit you've imbedded with may loose. Those facts coupled with the fact that the Apache target screen where they can observe the same video you watched is about the siize of an iphone, and is being done while in flight. War sucks, it sucks even more when people who don't fight it feel justified in nitpicking every damn thing you do, especially some egg head from wikileaks who watches videos in the comfort of their own home.
    Yesterday at 11:24pm ·

    Nathan: Sarah, Jon. Thanks for your comments.

    Sarah: I didn't mean to suggest that the people who committed suicide were involved in mass killings that were unjustified (other than the killing that occurs in the course of war itself). What I meant to suggest was that the "fog of war" could undermine the clear psychological boundary between justified and unjustified killings to the extent that it erodes those barriers that otherwise allow a soldier to essentially maintain sanity/believe in the mission/justify actions taken. That's the purely speculative part, to be sure.

    Jon: Thanks for your insight. I didn't put this in the post, but I'm pretty sure the Time article indicates that the suicide rates in the military are far above the national average, even when demographic factors are taken into account.

    Also, thanks for replying to the Wikileaks video. I watched and was totally puzzled. The one moment when the guy with the RPG leans around the corner, I thought was significant and ominous, but otherwise it just didn't look like those guys were planning an attack at that moment. Of course, I probably don't know how to recognize when an attack is really being planned. Also, I was surprised that these guys didn't seem to be worried about this Apache helicopter circling above them (was is that far away or is it that quiet?). The fact that they weren't looking for cover and weren't apparently mounting an attack made it seem pretty unprovoked.

    One final thing, and this is a danger of the blogosphere to be sure. I threw a couple of things together in a pretty stream of consciousness way. I was trying to be fair, but also provocative. So, I hope I wasn't one of those nitpicking eggheads. But, and I think you would have to agree, collectively we need to be better informed and more involved in understanding what we're committed to when we commit to war, i.e., what are the real costs and potential benefits.

  2. smithnd says:

    More from Facebook:

    Michael: Interesting piece; you are definitely a great writer and perhaps an even better debater than I remember. However, I would be curious to see statistics on military suicides versus civilian suicides, how many went to combat, how many were going through divorces, etc., before speculating too much. As to the wikileaks video, I would consider some of the material posted here:
    Yesterday at 11:01pm ·

    Julia: Michael, in the article that Nathan has pasted below you'll see that the Army has a suicide rate that is double the national average, when it 30 years ago it used to be below it.
    6 hours ago ·

    Nathan: Michael – Jon questioned about the same thing, but Julia's right, the Time article is pretty clear.

    I wrote a reply about the Wikileaks video. I am pretty puzzled by the whole thing–I don't think they were fair in framing it as "murder"–but at the same time it does not appear to be provoked. There is the one time when the individual leans around the corner with the RPG (which looks ominous), but otherwise, those guys did not appear to be directly engaged in combat or even preparing for any kind of imminent engagement. They weren't looking for cover, only two of them had guns, and they were lazily slinging them by their sides. I could be missing something here, but they didn't look

  3. smithnd says:

    More from my friend, John, via Facebook:

    Nate, no worries my friend. I was referring more to the guys from Wikileaks that posted that video knowing full-well it was out of context and would stir up controversy. I actually have several reports and the 15-6 investigation that was made public if you'd like to read them. But the cliff's notes version is that those guys had been under fire all day, and while the people don't exactly look menacing in the video, the Apache crew had tracked that group of people attempting to sneak up on the US checkpoint for several blocks. Their behavior was consistent with someone getting ready to ambush the soldiers, the Apache pilots (correctly in my opinion) made the decision to protect the guys on the ground. Sarah was a pilot so she can probably speak more intelligently than I on the subject. But speaking from experience, those Apaches can fly far enough away from the action while using the FLIR (forward looking infrared) to the point where you go boom long before you ever hear or see what's flying in your direction.

    However, I absolutely agree that people in power need to better understand what it means to unleash the military on a situation. Things often get broken, blown up, and killed, That's what we're paid to do. I've grown tired of the arm chair quarterbacking from all sides. If the plan is to use us, then do so, but do so with the understanding that it's not always going to be done cleanly or without unintended consequences.

    I would put our military's conduct up against fighting force in the world, and I am 100% confident that we are the best trained, most professional, and morally straight organization bar none. Granted, I'm a little biased.

  4. Tim Dalrymple says:

    Nathan, I haven't read the articles you cite or the comments, but what are the suicide rates among soldiers during peace time? I have heard that suicide rates have increased recently, but I'd just like to have some context and a better barometer with which to judge how much the rate has increased.

    I would be interested to know how the suicide rates among American soldiers compares with the suicide rates of Americans in general (especially American males), and how the suicide rates among soldiers in battle compares with the rates in peacetime. Do you have that information?