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One-Third of Troops in Iraq Support Torture, Majority Condone Mistreating Innocent Civilians

A recent study shows startling findings about the widespread abuse of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops. When the "surge" fails, will we take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror?
 
 
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Two weeks ago, the press reported on the findings of a five-month-old study dealing with soldiers' ethics and mental health from the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army Medical Command. Some accounts focused on an alarming statistic in the executive summary of the report: 10 percent of the Soldiers and Marines interviewed reported "mistreating noncombatants (damaged/destroyed Iraqi property when not necessary or hit/kicked a noncombatant when not necessary)." The articles raised the specter of widespread mistreatment of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops -- an issue darkly hinted at by previous -- but seemingly isolated -- reports of rape and murder, such as in Haditha, Iraq.

Some of the press accounts of the surgeon general's study, "Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) IV; Operation Iraqi Freedom 05-07," also reported the more detailed findings from its chapter on "Battlefield Ethics." The information became more disconcerting; the problems were clearly more serious and pervasive than the executive summary indicated:

  • "Only 47 percent of soldiers and only 38 percent of Marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect."
  • "Well over a third of soldiers and Marines reported torture should be allowed, whether to save the life of a fellow soldier or Marine … or to obtain important information about insurgents…."
  • 28 percent of soldiers and 30 percent of Marines reported they had cursed and/or insulted Iraqi noncombatants in their presence.
  • 9 percent and 12 percent, respectively, reported damaging or destroying Iraqi property "when it was not necessary."
  • 4 percent and 7 percent, respectively, reported hitting or kicking a noncombatant "when it was not necessary.
  • The study also reports that only 55 percent of soldiers and just 40 percent of Marines would report a unit member injuring or killing "an innocent noncombatant," and just 43 percent and 30 percent, respectively, would report a unit member destroying or damaging private property.

It is notable that these are the responses the survey team received; there are probably more soldiers and Marines who may have been reluctant to respond completely and accurately to an Army questionnaire on such sensitive topics. Therefore, the data recorded should be regarded as a floor, not a ceiling.

Regardless of just how frequent the abuse may be beyond the survey results, these are descriptions of behaviors that can only alienate the Iraqi population against the U.S. military presence there, and against any among that population, including its politicians, who welcome or even tolerate our presence. It is not just that we are not winning; we are helping the enemy. When the historians explain why America lost the war in Iraq, this study should be prominent evidence.

Reacting to the surgeon general's devastating study, our commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus, said he was "very concerned" and that he had been writing "a memorandum to our leaders and to our troopers to discuss these kinds of issues and to note that we can never sink to the level of the enemy" ("General to 'Re-Educate' Troops on Values," UPI, May 9, 2007). It is the kind of reaction one might expect from a politician being careful to offend no one (except Iraqis), or perhaps a bureaucrat who believes memoranda make the world go around.

If he read the entire study from the surgeon general, Petraeus probably hopes that no one else reads it. The study seeks to explain the reasons for our troops' abusive behavior, and that explanation casts devastating illumination on the logic of this war. It also provides a prospective explanation for why the "surge" of American troops in Iraq, which Petraeus has accepted as his mission, can only make things worse.

Page 38 of the surgeon general's study states that "soldiers who screened positive for a mental health problem (anxiety, depression or acute stress) were twice as likely to engage in unethical behavior (i.e., abuse of Iraqi civilians) compared to those soldiers who did not screen positive." Subsequent pages make the same point about Marines.

What causes the "anxiety, depression or acute stress" that can result in the abuse? For Army personnel, deployment tempo is a major factor: "Soldiers deployed to Iraq more than once were more likely to screen positive for acute stress," notes the report. And perhaps even more significantly, given the rotation schedule in Iraq: "Long deployment length [described as one year] continues to be the top concern for … soldiers."

The study recommended extending the period of time soldiers spend at home with their families to 18-36 months, while also decreasing the length of deployments in Iraq to under one year.

As the study noted, Marines typically deploy to Iraq for six or seven months, and the study found that "because of shorter deployments, Marines tend to have fewer deployment concerns" and the resultant stress from that cause (16). But the Marines engaged in the same "unethical" behavior toward Iraqi civilians. The study made it clear that Marines share other conditions with soldiers, especially involvement in combat.

The study categorized three levels of combat involvement: high, medium and low, as determined by how much time soldiers and Marines spent "outside the wire" of base camps, garrisons or the infamous "Green Zone" in Baghdad. The study found a "linear relationship between combat level and screening positive for anxiety, depression, acute stress and any mental health problem."

Then, the study noted:

Thirty percent of soldiers in the high combat condition screened positive for a mental health problem compared to … 11 percent for the low combat condition, with soldiers from the high combat spending 56 hours a week outside the base camp compared to approximately … 12 hours for soldiers in the low combat condition."

As above, the number of troops reporting they experienced "anxiety, depression or acute stress" should also be regarded as a floor to the data. Just as was the case from Vietnam, it may be years before we, and the rest of American society, know how many of our soldiers and Marines have been permanently and deeply scared by their combat experiences in Iraq.

The study continued:

At no time in our military history have soldiers and Marines been required to serve on the front line in any war for a period of 6-7 months, let alone a year, without a significant break in order to recover from the physical, psychological and emotional demands that ensue from combat. During World War II, entire units were withdrawn from the line for months at a time in order to rest and refurbish. Even during Vietnam, weeklong combat patrols in the field were followed by several days of rest and recuperation at the base camp.

Yet, in Iraq neither soldiers nor Marines experiencing high levels of combat receive significant in-theater periods of recovery. ... Arguing that the intensity of the combat operations in Iraq is not comparable to those of previous wars such as World War II and Vietnam and, therefore, recovery periods are unnecessary demonstrates a lack of appreciation of what constitutes combat in general and ignorance as to the level of combat soldiers and Marines are experiencing in Iraq. Being in mortal danger for hours on end, every day of the week for months at a time is at best physically exhausting and mentally draining.

It must be noted that the study was written in November 2006, shortly before President George W. Bush announced the "surge" that Petraeus would command. The surge, as implemented by Petraeus, is doing everything exactly wrong for the soldiers and Marines described in this study, namely:

  • The surge has increased the frequency of soldier deployments; it requires them to serve 15 months in Iraq on each deployment, rather than 12, and it reduced to 12 months the period they can expect to be at home with their families to recuperate.
  • Most importantly, for both soldiers and Marines, the surge exacerbates their already prolonged exposure to combat. It is not just a question of operations being more intense; a fundamental aspect of the surge is to locate soldiers and Marines outside their base camps and garrisons into forward locations, in the middle of towns and cities, in civilian neighborhoods.

The soldiers and Marines are being asked to mingle on a 24-hour per-day basis among the very same civilians we now know have been on the receiving end of widespread abusive behavior from soldiers and Marines previously stressed out by the mismanagement of how we deploy them.

The surge plan is to take those factors that alienate our soldiers and Marines from Iraqi civilians, make those factors worse, thereby increasing the likely alienation from those civilians, and then telling the soldiers and Marines to live among those civilians 24 hours a day and to protect them.

It is a prescription for disaster: more stress, more abuse, more alienation, more sympathy and support for the enemy, more combat, more stress, and so it goes on and on.

Petraeus told us he was writing a memo to his soldiers and Marines, exhorting them to interact with Iraqi civilians in a positive manner. He is not altering how, when or where our troops are being deployed, either inside Iraq or to and from it. Making their circumstances worse, Petraeus now tells our troops to simply "suck it up."

Our soldiers and Marines are in an utterly impossible situation: Their leadership creates circumstances that cause their alienation from the Iraqi civilian population and then forces them to live among those same alienated people.

The ill-logic of this war -- started for reasons no one now accepts -- continues to astound. It is impossible for our soldiers and Marines to endure it without great cost to themselves or the civilians who surround them, almost certainly both. Having failed to alleviate the circumstances of their stress but aggravating them, many political figures in the Pentagon and Congress will surely declare themselves shocked and repelled by the unavoidable results. The next step is the inevitable punishment of the perpetrators, but only the ones they will prefer to identify lower on the totem pole than themselves. The leadership of this war will prance on, pointing the finger of blame at someone else when the inescapable failure becomes unmistakable.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.

 
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