April 15, 2010

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

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.

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