Warring on Warriors

Last week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates briefed President Barack Obama on Afghanistan and the Pentagon’s proposal to send 15,000 more troops there by late spring. Obama is expected to accept the plan as a “down payment” on his pledge during the campaign to put more troops into the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents. These troops are only about half the number requested by the field commanders, and Gates will return with a new request soon.

This decision — and the original campaign pledge — gave many pause about supporting Obama. It doesn’t serve the interests of either the United States or Afghanistan. After all, no U.S. “vital national interest” is involved. President George W. Bush chose to use military force as a form of retribution for September 11, 2001. And as long as foreign military forces are in Afghanistan, the Afghan people and government can’t exercise full sovereignty in accord with their traditions.

Nor is this decision a positive development for the U.S. soldiers and Marines expected to pick up the pace of operations in Afghanistan. With the “insurgents” adopting tactics from their Iraqi counterparts, the terrible toll of Iraq will be repeated, indeed compounded, in Afghanistan.

The units to be sent as “down payment” will be two Army Brigade Combat Teams and one of Marines. Originally slated for Iraq, they’re going to Afghanistan because security in Iraq has “improved” to the point that fewer U.S. troops are needed there. One unit that had undergone training for deployment to Iraq is already in the process of establishing its base camp in southern Afghanistan.

The Wrong War

Afghanistan isn’t the “good war.” It’s wrong not only for Afghanistan but for U.S. soldiers. Before he agreed to Gates’ request, Obama should have paid close attention to three recent developments.

The first was the Army’s announcement that once again in 2008, a record number of service members — 128 — committed suicide. No Pentagon official was prepared to go on record to discuss the causes of this annual record-setting death toll. Even off-record murmurings were generally confined to the usual financial, personal, legal, and work-related factors. But if one examines the records, what jumps out is the correlation between multiple combat tours (until recently 15 months’ duration), the number of cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and suicides. Over the last four years, 30% of suicides occurred during deployment and 35% after completing a deployment. As for PTSD among soldiers with multiple tours, the rates of occurrence continue to be substantially higher than among soldiers on their first deployment.

There has also been an increase in instances of domestic violence and an accelerating divorce rate for returning troops. For some months, the Pentagon has known that one-third of women serving in the military claimed they were victims of sexual harassment. Last week, CBS News, in a two-part report, said that nationwide police statistics reveal that in 50% of domestic violence cases, at least one person involved was in the military. Over the last 10 years, almost 90 women have been killed.

High-Altitude Assignment

The third development involves the particular geography of Afghanistan. The United States plans to base its reinforcements in an extremely rugged and high-altitude part of Afghanistan. Despite these conditions, the weight of equipment and protective personal armor the individual soldier is expected to carry has gone from a maximum of 65-80 pounds — even as an infantry platoon leader I never came close to carrying such a load on a “forced march” during training — to 130-150 pounds for a typical three-day mission. That’s as much as three times the recommended weight load of 50 pounds per Marine in a 2007 Department of the Navy study. The combination of high altitudes with thinner oxygen, rugged terrain that limits vehicle usage, and the weight of equipment deemed essential is causing a new kind of stress that is putting more troops out of commission. The Army lists 257,000 acute orthopedic injuries (muscular or skeletal stress or fractures) for 2007, up by 10,000 from 2006.

The increased number of troops Obama plans to send to Afghanistan — together with the growing number of temporary and, more seriously, “permanent non-deployables” from physical and psychological stress — could leave the Army once again resorting to enlist anyone who can walk and carry a weapon. That will include many who suffer from PTSD but who, being part of the “warrior culture,” are reluctant to seek help.

Obama was elected in part because the American public was tired of more and more veterans returning home mentally and physically damaged by experiences they didn’t need to endure. Obama may find that, if he continues down this path, “the war Bush forgot” will all too soon turn into “Obama’s war.” And he’ll have to shoulder the responsibility for all the damage done to Afghan civilians and U.S. soldiers alike.

Daniel Smith is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. You can contact Dan at dan (at) fcnl (dot) org or reach him at his blog The Quakers’ Colonel.