If you know of the infamous face slap in the film Patton, you know that war-related psychiatric problems have long provoked controversy and sometimes been blamed on cowardice. It doesnt help that whats collectively known as "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD) doesnt show up on X-rays, brain scans, or blood tests.
Actually, "old blood and guts" applied the slapping treatment twice. But his brilliance and aggressiveness saved countless American and even German lives.
The researchers, from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, surveyed more than 6,000 Army and Marine infantry either before or soon after they deployed. Before, about 5 percent of respondents met the strict criteria for PTSD – about the same percentage as in the U.S. general population. After completing their tour, about 6 percent of Afghanistan veterans and twice that number of Iraq vets were diagnosed with the stress disorder.
There was a general correlation between the amount of combat and level of stress disorder; almost a fifth of the troops with the stress disorder reported being in more than five firefights. But its not just combat that causes the disorder, and the conflict in Iraq is tailor-made to mess with a soldiers head.
Its a guerrilla war in which soldiers frequently die without warning from remotely detonated explosive devices. In Vietnam, our troops often complained that the enemy couldnt be seen. But in Iraq, it may well be that the enemy isnt even there.
When there is face-to-face combat, attacks are usually instigated by the enemy; 92 percent of respondents reported being attacked or ambushed, the study found. Soldiers see the suffering of innocent civilians everywhere because they are the enemys main target; three-fourths of respondents said they observed ill or injured women or children they couldnt help.
But thats hardly the end of it.
Forty percent of our Iraq troops are from National Guard and Reserve units (though they werent part of this study.) While they are performing admirably, many just werent psychologically prepared for war. Not that anybody is exempt from PTSD, a large portion of the troops in the study were from the crack 82nd Airborne Division.
We also have many soldiers in support units that may have expected war, but not up close and personal. This led to the fiasco in which Jessica Lynchs maintenance battalion couldnt defend itself because it failed to keep its weapons clean.
Viet vets: They served us then; they serve us now.
Yet the worst mental enemy in war is uncertainty. In Vietnam and Desert Storm you knew when youd be leaving. But President Bill Clinton slashed the Army from 18 divisions to 10 and President Bush wont expand it. Thus were both stretching reserves to the breaking point and bitterly disappointing troops who were told theyd soon be home with their families.
Yet there is good news. The casualty rates for the Iraq and Afghan wars are tiny compared to previous wars. Restoring somebodys psyche is rather easier than raising the dead. Further, weve come a long way from the Patton treatment. Indeed, theres a government center devoted exclusively to studying and treating PTSD.
And although Vietnam vets also had a high stress disorder rate, the representation of the vet who "goes postal" with an automatic rifle, is an addict, or cant keep a job that doesnt involve holding a cardboard sign is a media myth.
Viet vets are as successful, if not more so, in virtually every way than those who didnt serve. Indeed, all vets – combat and otherwise – give society a special group of people with different perspectives than non-vets.
Our troops can face down and defeat any enemy, including the mental demons of war. Then they will provide a rich source of tough, motivated civilians for decades to come.
Michael Fumento (U.S. Army Airborne, 1978-82) is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. Read Michael Fumentos additional writing on the military.