The strain on the troops

Too many wars, too few U.S. soldiers
By Robert H. Scales
Washington Post Op-Ed, 2012-03-14

[The emphasis is added.]

I guess I knew it would eventually come down to this:
Blame the Army’s institutions in some way
for the horrific and senseless slaughter
of 16 innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar,
allegedly by a U.S. infantry non-commissioned officer (NCO).
In their search for a villain,
the media seems to be focusing now
on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state,
where the accused soldier was stationed
before his fourth deployment to a combat zone.

Before we get too involved in attacking institutions,
perhaps it might be right and proper to suggest that
the underlying issue here is not about failure of our Army.
Perhaps the issue might be that
no institutional effort can make up
for trying over the past 10 years to fight too many wars with too few soldiers?

The accused NCO is an infantryman.
Two weeks ago I talked with infantry soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga.,
and I couldn’t help contrasting them
with those of my generation of Vietnam veterans.
What caught my attention were the soldiers’ amazing stories
of patient, selfless, introversive commitment.
First I took to heart
the enormous disparity in stressful, extreme experiences
between the infantry and other branches and services
that have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The senior NCOs I spoke to all had at least three, and in some cases five, tours,
virtually all in close combat units.
Contrast this with returning Vietnam NCOs and junior officers,
most of whom in that era had only one tour in Vietnam.

Of course infantry combat in Vietnam was perhaps more intense,
but close fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was more pervasive and lasting,
thus more likely to cause personal trauma in my mind.
The infantrymen I spoke to at Fort Benning were different from those in my generation.
They were more emotionally exhausted and drained,
less spontaneous and humorless.
My generation of professionals spent a great deal of time on Friday nights
at the officer’s club,
talking over a beer about the Catch-22 nature of Vietnam
and many of the stupid and hilarious experiences we endured.
None of this at Benning today.
No clubs, no public displays of hilarity and certainly no beer.
These guys seemed to view their time in combat as endless and repetitive.
My sense is that their collective, intimate exposure to the horrors of close combat
was far more debilitating than what we experienced.

This of course in no way justifies what happened in Kandahar.
But I think if someone wants to place blame,
it should be on a succession of national leaders who fail to recognize that
combat units, particularly infantry,
just wear out.
Lord Moran concluded
in his classic about combat stress in World War I, “Anatomy of Courage,”
the reservoir of courage begins to empty after the first shot is fired.
The horrors of intimate killing,
along with other factors such as
fatigue, thirst, hunger, isolation, fear of the unknown
and the sight of dead and maimed comrades,
all start a process of moral atrophy that cannot be reversed.
Lord Moran rightfully concludes that
nothing short of permanent withdrawal from the line
will bring soldiers back to normalcy.

The media is trying to make some association between
the terrible crime of this sergeant
and the Army’s inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder
and traumatic brain injury.
Perhaps the Army could have done more.
But I think Lord Moran had it more right;

the real institutional culprit is
the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of
one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets:
our close combat soldiers and Marines.

If someone just after 9/11 would have told me that
a very small Army and Marine Corps
would fight a 10-year-long set of close combat engagements in two wars
and still remain intact,
I would have called them crazy.
Well, we’ve done just that, haven’t we?
But at what cost to the few who have borne
an enormously disproportionate share of emotional stress?

[KH comment:
General Scales does not mention it explicitly in his article,
but I think a comparison with World War I "shell shock" is also appropriate:
the effect of prolonged exposure to the threat of death or mayhem.]

Panetta Warns Military Over Afghanistan Misconduct
New York Times, 2012-05-05


Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned on Friday that the spate of high-profile episodes of misconduct by some troops in Afghanistan not only discredited the entire armed forces, but also damaged America’s chances for battlefield success.

Mr. Panetta said episodes involving a few soldiers who “lack judgment, lack professionalism, lack leadership” could have far-reaching consequences.

“The reality is that our enemies are losing on the battlefield, and they will seek any opportunity to damage us,” Mr. Panetta said. “In particular, they have sought to take advantage of a series of troubling incidents that involved misconduct.”

The military has been stained by disclosures that young soldiers defiled insurgents’ remains in Afghanistan, that Marines urinated on Taliban corpses and that other troops burned Korans in violation of Islamic practice. When added to the massacre of villagers attributed to an Army sergeant, these episodes have cast American soldiers in a harsh light before the Afghan public.

Addressing troops at Fort Benning, Ga., Mr. Panetta said these well-publicized episodes “can impact the mission that we’re engaged in, they can put your fellow service members at risk, they can hurt morale and they can damage our standing in the world.” He added, “And they can cost lives.”

Those concerns were reiterated by the military’s top officer, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Friday in an interview that such misconduct “diminishes the extraordinary work the rest of the force is doing.”

He said the military had an ethos that “holds us to a higher standard,” and he disclosed that, as chairman, he was studying how a decade of nonstop conflict had affected the military as a profession.

General Dempsey dismissed one explanation for the episodes: that the military is exhausted and stretched to the breaking point. Instead, he said the tempo of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan — and the style of deployments — had disconnected the traditional chain of command.

Recent lapses in discipline “do not represent a tear in the fabric of the profession,” General Dempsey said. He did acknowledge, though, that “mentoring has suffered a bit.”

For example, the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan has pushed troops out of large bases — where they would serve under the supervision of senior officers — and distributed them to remote forward outposts under the watch of noncommissioned officers and junior leaders.

This decentralized deployment pattern has placed a “new burden on junior leaders to be even more observant, more aggressive, more responsible” for the performance and behavior of young soldiers under their command in the field, General Dempsey added. “We have to reconnect leader to led, and hold leaders accountable at every level,” he said.


Report Faults Military’s Strategies on Drug and Alcohol Abuse
New York Times, 2012-09-17

Despite a well-documented increase
in the abuse of alcohol and prescription medications among military personnel over the past decade,
the Defense Department's strategies for screening, treating and preventing those problems
remains behind the times, a major new report finds.


[Could that “well-documented increase in the abuse of alcohol and prescription medications among military personnel over the past decade”
have anything to do with the fact that
the Army and Marines, at least,
have been heavily involved in grinding, hazardous combat over that same decade?]

When the strains of war lead to infidelity
[Article also available here.]
By Rebecca Sinclair
Washington Post Op-Ed, 2012-11-16

Rebecca Sinclair is married to Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair,
a former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan,
who is being tried at Fort Bragg, N.C., on charges
including adultery and sexual misconduct.

[The emphasis in what follows has been added
by the author of the current blog.]

Like most Americans, I’ve been unable to escape the current news cycle
regarding several high-ranking military generals entangled in sex scandals.
Unlike most Americans, however, for me the topic is personal.
My husband, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, is one of the officers.

Spectators will try to make this scandal about many things:
the arrogance of powerful men;
conniving mistresses;
the silent epidemic of sexual assault in the armed services.
But these explanations obscure an underlying problem:
the devastating influence of an open-ended war —
now in its 11th year —
on the families of U.S. service members.

Let me first address the elephant in the room.
My husband had an affair.
He violated our marriage vows and hurt me tremendously.
Jeff and I are working on our marriage, but that’s our business.

Jeff also needs to answer to the Army.
That is his business, not mine, and he accepts that.
I believe in and support him as much as ever.

I wish I could say that my husband was the only officer or soldier
who has been unfaithful.
Since 2001, the stress of war has led many service members
to engage in tremendously self-destructive behavior.
The officer corps is plagued by leaders abandoning their families
and forging new beginnings with other men and women.

And many wives know about their husbands’ infidelity but stay silent.

For military wives, the options are bad and worse.
Stay with an unfaithful husband and keep your family intact;
or lose your husband, your family and the financial security
that comes with a military salary, pension, health care and housing.
Because we move so often, spouses lose years of career advancement.
Some of us spend every other year as single parents.
We are vulnerable emotionally and financially.
Many stay silent out of necessity, not natural passivity.

In many ways, ours is a typical military story.
Jeff and I married 27 years ago.
While he rose through the officer corps,
I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees
and taught at community colleges in the places where we were stationed.
We later had children.

Since 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have destabilized our life.
We have moved six times in 11 years.
On average, our kids change schools every two years.
Between five deployments, site surveys and training operations,
Jeff has spent more than six of the past 10 years away from his family.

None of this is meant to excuse infidelity.
I expected more of Jeff, and I think he expected more of himself.
But we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t recognize the larger reality.
My friends who are married to other combat leaders
have been my anchor during this crisis.
We understand that our soldiers may come home disfigured or injured
in such a way that we will become lifelong caregivers.
We also understand that they may not come home at all,
and if blessed with a reunion,
they may carry emotional baggage few could understand.
My friends know that it could have been their heartbreak as much as mine.
This is the only time in U.S. history
that our nation has fought a decade-long war with a volunteer Army.
Doing so has consequences.
Nothing good can come of families being chronically separated
for a decade or more.

[The next two paragraphs of Mrs. Sinclair's article are specific to the charges against her husband.]

Jeff’s case has its own complications.
He was involved with a woman who confessed to a superior officer.
As a servicewoman, she stood to be charged with criminal conduct
under the military code of justice.
She alleged sexual assault, and no such allegation should ever go unanswered.
We are confident that the charges will be dropped.
Hundreds of text messages and journal entries came to light in pretrial hearings last week
that establish the affair was consensual.
The woman in question admitted under oath
that she never intended to have Jeff charged,
and Jeff has passed a polygraph test.
Ironically, if Jeff had decided to leave his family he would be in the clear.

There are many accusations against Jeff,
some of which have already fallen apart.
Jeff has been charged with possessing alcohol in a combat zone;
a visiting dignitary gave him a bottle of Scotch
that remained unopened on a bookshelf.
His personal computer was used to access pornography;
time stamps and Army records show that he was out of the country or city
when most of the files were downloaded.
We expect those charges, too, to be dismissed.

But the damage has been done.
It will take years for Jeff to shed the false image of a hard-drinking, porn-dependent aggressor.

The other generals will also struggle to rehabilitate
reputations they spent decades building.
All of these men are human beings, with strengths and fallibilities,
and they have families who are under real strain.
How we address this strain will say much about what kind of country we are;
it will also determine how stable and strong our military is.