Artillery: March 28, 2004

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The suicide rate among American troops in Iraq has gone up, as it usually does during a major war. This has become big news. What has not been reported are the details, and how changes in army basic training during the 1990s led to soldiers committing suicide, and worse. 

The suicide rate for army troops in Iraq over the last year has been 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers, compared to the overall Army rate of 11.9 per 100,000 between 1995 and 2002. This is higher than the overall rate for all branches of the military during the Vietnam war, which was 15.6, and a 3.6 rate for all branches during the 1991 Gulf War. The lower rate in 1991 can be attributed to the fact that the fighting was over in less than a week, and there was no extended period of irregular warfare afterwards. It was a "good" victory, with few casualties and a quick trip home. 

It's the army that always has the most trouble with suicides. The other services, except the marines, have far fewer of their people getting shot at or living in austere conditions, thus putting fewer people under the kind of stress that leads to suicide. The higher suicide rate in Iraq can be attributed to the higher percentage of married and reserve troops, and the lower amount of stress training and screening in basic training for non-combat troops. 

Older, married and reserve troops always experience more stress when in a combat zone, and it is stress that leads to higher suicide rates. Israel discovered this, for example, when it noted that the growing number of mental health casualties in the 1970s and 80s were disproportionately among the older reserve troops. During the 1991 Gulf War, which only lasted a hundred hours, the older reserve troops suffered a higher rate of non-combat casualties, including the mysterious "Gulf War Syndrome." 

It's the non-combat troops who are having most of the problems with suicide, and bad morale in general. This has always been the case when support troops are subjected to combat conditions. Unlike past wars, where the infantry suffered about 80 percent of the casualties (even though they comprise less than ten percent of the troops in Iraq), with the armor and artillery troops taking most of the rest, in Iraq the losses are spread around more evenly. In Iraq, where you have, on average, a 2-3 percent chance of getting killed or wounded during a one year tour, the chances are about the same for combat and non-combat troops. This has put the non-combat troops under an unusually high degree of stress. 

Combat troops have been much less affected, and there are reasons for this. Since the 1980s, American infantry has been among the best trained in the world. This means that they will take fewer casualties in combat and are much better prepared to handle the stress. This is because American combat troops are carefully selected, and then screened in training, to eliminate those who cannot handle stress. An infantryman who can't handle the stress of combat is liable to get himself, and some of his fellow grunts, killed in combat. 

The combat training for support troops went in the other direction during the 1990s. It was then that the army instituted low stress basic training for non-combat troops, in order to accommodate the new policy of women and men taking basic training together. This unpopular (in the army) policy was imposed via presidential and congressional pressure to provide women with more opportunities in the armed forces. While the army then quietly proceeded to create a separate basic training program for combat troops, the new policy left the non-combat soldiers more susceptible to stress if they were sent to a combat zone. 

The main purpose of stress in basic training was to identify those who could not handle the stress of combat, or a combat zone, before you had to send them there. Recruits who could not handle stress were dismissed, and those who could, learned how to handle it in a military situation. At the time, the only overseas activities were peacekeeping, which was pretty low stress if you weren't an infantryman doing combat patrols and dealing with the unruly locals. The support troops lived in pretty comfortable camps and rarely got shot at. 

There are other factors increasing the stress among troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those less capable of handling the stress. The higher proportion of married troops, especially young, active duty troops who are married, are, like everyone else over there, in closer touch with the folks back home. Email and inexpensive long distance phone service make it more difficult to get problems at home out of your head. During past wars, a major cause of stress from home was the "Dear John" letter (a girlfriend writing to break up with her boyfriend overseas.) But now a lot of the "Dear John" letters are about getting a divorce, and this causes a lot more stress. Older troops have trouble with this, but it's much harder on the younger troops. There are also a lot of troops who are single parents, and email of phone calls indicating problems with the kids are very stress inducing. 

Iraq and Afghanistan are much more stressful than the earlier peacekeeping duty. This, plus ill effects of the "feel good" training policies of the 1990s are now getting people killed. This possibility was brought up during the 1990s, but was generally ignored. It's not a good idea to ignore military history, because reality will eventually assert itself and people will die for someone else's illusions. 

 


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