Column: The Public Eye: Our Military is Suffering Because of the Iraq War By Bob Burnett

Friday January 13, 2006

One of the singular events of 2005 was Congressman John Murtha’s announcement that he had changed his position on Iraq. Calling the occupation “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion,” decorated veteran Murtha said, “The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq ... Our military is suffering.” 

Unlike President Bush, Murtha makes weekly trips to Washington-area hospitals in order to visit with soldiers wounded in Iraq. There have been 16,000 such casualties, in addition to the more than 2100 deaths. The Columbia Journalism Review called the growing number of wounded one of the top five under-reported stories of 2005. The Bush administration prohibits pictures of coffins returning from Iraq. They’ve also told the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to not give out the names of the wounded. 

In October, the Cleveland Plain Dealer profiled four wounded Ohio veterans. All suffered traumatic injuries. They are typical in that they have had severe difficulties adjusting to civilian life due both to their injuries and the psychological after-effects: “survivors guilt.” 

Congressman Murtha spoke movingly of his visits with the wounded. “I have a young fellow in my district who was blinded and he lost his foot. And they did everything they could for him at Walter Reed, then they sent him home. His father was in jail; he had nobody at home—imagine this: young kid that age—22, 23 years old—goes home to nobody.” 

Murtha noted that in addition to their grievous physical injuries, “50,000 will suffer from what I call battle fatigue.” Roughly 10 percent of all the soldiers treated at the Landstuhl Army hospital in Germany had “psychiatric or behavioral health issues.” 

In July 2004, the PBS News Hour reported, “about one-sixth of troops returning from Iraq showed symptoms of mental health problems but many are not receiving treatment.” This finding was consistent with long-term studies done on Vietnam War veterans, where 15 percent showed signs of depression, severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

There are approximately 160,000 members of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq at the present time. (The exact number isn’t known due to the presence of Special Forces’ personnel.) Assuming that over the three year course of the war the total personnel assigned is roughly double this amount—many troops have served multiple rotations—the probabilities are one in twenty of receiving a serious wound and one in six of incurring a major psychological disorder.  

These grim statistics are made worse by the fact that the United States has a limited pool of personnel to draw upon. Our former overseer in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, revealed on Jan. 9 that the White House denied his request for more troops. Journalist Fred Kaplan wrote in the Jan. 1 New York Times that approximately half a million troops are required for a successful occupation. But such a number would require reintroduction of the draft, an option that the Bush administration will not entertain. Meanwhile, in 2006 the Army needs 80,000 new recruits to replenish its combat forces; it expects to recruit only 8000. For these reasons, Kaplan reported that, “the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated that … the military could not sustain more than 123,000 troops in Iraq for much longer.” 

Therefore, troops stationed in Iraq must remain there as the war goes on. Seymour Hersh noted in the Dec. 5 issue of the New Yorker, “There are grave concerns within the military about the capability of the U.S. Army to sustain two or three more years of combat in Iraq. Michael O’Hanlon, a specialist on military issues at the Brookings Institution, told me … ‘If the President decides to stay the present course in Iraq some troops would be compelled to serve fourth and fifth tours of combat by 2007 and 2008, which could have serious consequences for morale and competency levels.’” 

Of course, having to continue to serve in Iraq, with no end in sight, will accelerate psychological stress and make our troops more accident-prone. 

The administration keeps a tight lid on the information coming out of Iraq, particularly as it pertains to troop morale. Hersh reported, “Many of the military’s most senior generals are deeply frustrated, but they say nothing in public, because they don’t want to jeopardize their careers … A retired senior C.I.A. officer with knowledge of Iraq told me that … in a congressional tour there … The legislators were repeatedly told, in meetings with enlisted men, junior officers, and generals that ‘things were f____d up.’” 

Those of us who oppose the war in Iraq have generally based our argument on the logic that we were wrong to invade in the first place and the occupation is doing more harm than good. However, there is another line of reasoning—the stance that Congressman John Murtha takes, “Our military is suffering.”  

A good and sufficient reason to end the war is to save our troops from further misery. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.