Monday, November 12, 2012

The Forever War: why are so many U.S. soldiers killing themselves?

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SGT Ruth Knowlton stands watch as vehicles passes through Salang Tunnel. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Harper)

For the Veteran's Day holiday, consider this from Timothy Burke, an historian at Swarthmore College, posted to his blog Easily Distracted:

… why [are] Americans are not talking more about whether it is the wars we’re involved in and the sociopolitical context of post-9/11 service that are significantly to blame for this trend. I recognize that serving military, leaders and rank-and-file alike, cannot raise this point without violating the principle of civilian control. “Ours is not to question why”. So when the military sets out to ask, “What can we do about suicide rates”, they can’t raise or even consider the rejoinder, “Don’t send soldiers to be occupiers, don’t fight counter-insurgency wars unless you absolutely must, don’t ask soldiers to be nation-builders, don’t purposefully imagine your wars as endless and without hope of final victory.” If the military turns to experts and pays them for advice, they can’t purchase a product which includes even a discussion of those points.

Which is why it falls to Americans, both citizens and leaders, to step up to the plate and have the conversation that our serving military can’t have. Occupation under the best of circumstances is a peculiarly stressful mission for militaries. It’s much worse when some proportion, maybe most, of the populations in occupied territories hate or resent their occupiers, and worse again when the occupiers don’t know the local languages, don’t understand the local cultures, and have few if any points of historical connection to the places or people where they are deployed.

… A soldier enlisting today knows that whomever wins in November, we will still be fighting the Global War on Terror in terms which have deviated very little from their initial post-9/11 envisioning. A soldier enlisting today knows that there are many people inside the Beltway who are actively spoiling for a war with Iran, and anyone who has seen military service since 9/11 has to guess at some of the probable contours and consequences of such a conflict. Even before actually seeing service in a GWOT theater, serving military might begin to feel the emotional consequences of this knowledge, particularly if they’re training with or coming to know soldiers and their families who have already endured deployment. We are in a forever war now and there is virtually no one in political leadership who holds out even a faint hope that we might think otherwise about the uses of our military and our role in the world.

…Our current soldiers can’t look around and feel they are part of a universal fellowship, a shared sacrifice. They don’t see their whole hometowns there with them. Their units aren’t made up of the scrappy street kid from Brooklyn, the WASP from Boston, the surfer dude from California, the professor’s son from Ann Arbor, the guy whose dad made a fortune in railroad shipping. The US military is really our last, best meritocracy, one of the few American institutions that’s become more egalitarian and fair over time. It’s a model in many ways for the social aspirations that we’ve trashed and lost and forgotten. Inside its boundaries, that is. But outside? Our military is also professionalized and apart. It’s not a mirror of America any longer. It’s not even that most of us don’t serve or imagine serving. It’s that people don’t care much at all about what the military does or endures, beyond increasingly hollow and ritualistic appreciations for our “soldiers abroad”.

…Historians with a long view might recognize the evolving contours of this situation. It rarely turns out well when a society with imperial commitments makes heavy use of an increasingly professionalized, socially detached military with a warrior ethos and a high degree of skill who feel that their suffering is unappreciated and unrewarded. …

My emphasis. The whole thing is even better (and more coherent) than these excerpts. Go read it all.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

What has gotten me is the ads for a charitable group called Wounded Warriors and what they are doing for veterans and how we can help-- except does that mean the VA is being cut back and not providing the help we promised as a people to those who went to war for our country? I think it's good that there are charities but help for trauma and injuries seems it's a national responsibility! This is no place to cut budgets.

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