The Army is once again trying to pinpoint the causes behind the bafflingly stubborn rate of suicide within its ranks. A new report now says it’s a leadership failure — inattention to pre-deployment problem behaviors — rather than the stress of repeated deployments itself. Next week they’ll come up with some other reason. Meanwhile they’re establishing all these fancy new programs designed to prop up the force’s mental health, yet overlooking what might be among the most fundamental cause of all: a profound and violent spiritual disenchantment with what the war represents and what it’s doing to our country, our troops, and of course the innocent civilians who suffer as well.
When I was called up, in January 2003, the Iraq war had of course not yet begun, and we weren’t officially told where we were even going until we were on the plane over there. But most of us had an inkling what this was all about, and some of us agonized about the morality of it all. Back then, if you’ll remember, everybody still thought Saddam had WMD, but even at that, it wasn’t clear to me that attacking him was the right thing to do, and I had a number of heartfelt talks with our unit chaplain about the morality of preemptive war. A devout and thoughtful man, the best he could come up with was that at our level we surely didn’t have all the facts, and our moral responsibility was to uphold our oath and carry out our orders faithfully.
It wasn’t fear at all — I clearly recalled the 1991 invasion, which was over in what seemed like a matter of days and involved very few casualties, and I expected this round to be quite the same. No, I was just deeply conflicted about whether we had any business going over there at all.
But, in the end, I told myself the same lie that everybody did — that we would be liberators, that the Iraqi people would throw down the welcome mat, eager to learn how to become a nation of democratic progress.
By the end of my tour, I realized what fools we had all been, and have spent my share of time wishing I hadn’t had any part of the whole debacle. But today’s soldiers know very well where they’re going, and why. They know it’s not because of any imminent threat to our homeland, or even for revenge on any past attack. They know that all the death and destruction they wreak has only one reason: because “that’s what we do.” Think about it — what does the USA export any more besides war and war-making machines?
Never in today’s soldier’s lifetime have we actually liberated any oppressed country. So here we are, engaged in two bloody occupations, defending unreliable and sometimes traitorous governments, and our soldiers have seen the cost up close and personal, even if they haven’t yet deployed. Some of them may be caught up in the “economic draft,” unable to find any other employment that would provide a decent living for themselves and their families. Others may be career soldiers, as I was, loath to give up a significant investment of their lives at this point. Others may have even seen too many war movies, and out of a sense of glory and adventure decide to roll the dice (it could be reasonably argued that these are half on the crazy side anyway, given to risky behaviors to begin with — why else would anybody join the Army these days?).
So, while the Pentagon is flailing about trying to pin the blame on back-to-back deployments, lack of leader attention, etc., it may be missing the crux of the problem — that we are asking our troops to risk their lives for The Wrong Reason, and at some point it will drive them insane.