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Retreating from Hell

A Different Memorial Day

by Col. DAN SMITH

“There is many a boy here today who looks on war
as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, Michigan  Military Academy, June 19, 1879

Monday May 26 is the fifth Memorial Day that U.S. ground forces have occupied Iraq. Over the last twelve months – or more precisely, since Memorial Day was May 28 last year – over the past 364 days, more than 615 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq. Iraq’s government says that its security forces suffered 1,424 fatalities over the same period while Iraqi civilian deaths attributed to the violence in the country totaled over 9,625.

Next month, the last of the “surge” brigade combat teams sent to Iraq last spring will rotate out of the war zone, dropping the U.S. presence to about 140,000 troops. Whether or not the fighting ramps back up or continues at its present lower “steady state” is anyone’s guess.  The attempt by Iraqi police and army units to “liberate Basra from “criminals and illegal militias” was at best a draw for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, On the other hand, after some intense fighting that involved U.S. ground and air units as well as some Iraqi army units, it appears – and  it may be just a surface phenomenon – that the Iraqi army has been able to move into a section of Sadr city, the vast Baghdad slum area  that is home to 2 million Iraqis, most of whom are followers of Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

While we pause and remember all who have died in Iraq and in Afghanistan this past year, we should also remember those who have been wounded. Here again, there are the soldiers from the U.S., coalition countries, and Iraqis. These are those who have lost one or more limbs, those whose wounds, not as severe, who were not even evacuated from the war zone.

And then there are those who have sustained brain injuries and those suffering from PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. This month’s release of a RAND study of 1,900 returning combat veterans suggests that 300,000 suffer from PTSD or depression while another 320,000 have some form of traumatic brain injury. Beyond the sheer numbers involved are the long-range concerns: only about half those afflicted by traumatic brain injury seek help, while an unknown number of those with PTSD are ticking time-bombs that can explode at any time or in any place for no apparent reason.

We see and hear these statistics and we have in the United States the ability and the facilities to help those so traumatized. But this Memorial Day we might also spare a thought for those in other countries – especially those “child soldiers – who are forces into the armed conflicts that still split many countries into two or more armed camps. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, in its just-released 2008 Global Report on Child Soldiers, points out that in countries that do achieve  the end of armed conflict, invariably it is the adult fighters who are afforded the “DDR structure” – disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration – that is part of the peace-making process. Child soldiers – those under 18 years of age – and especially females – are frequently screened out from the mainstream rehabilitation services on the apparent assumption that “re-integration” for them involves re-entry (or entry) into the education system.

Considering how recently the Bush administration conceded that brain injuries and PTSD were significant problems, it is hardly surprising that the world at large has given so little thought to the needs of those exposed to the traumas of war, regardless of place, age, gender or nationality. And the emotional and psychological damage can be further compounded for children who, escaping the battlefield and fleeing to another country in search of asylum, find themselves arrested and imprisoned.

What the world community must decide – and soon – is whether it has a “responsibility to protect” the psychological health of former child soldiers that is analogous to the “responsibility to protect” the physical being of non-combatants of any age. If the answer is “yes,” this acknowledgement must be specified in all agreements and enforced by regional or UN monitors overseeing the DDR process.  For the world to say “no” would be unconscionable, for if the wars of the 20th century and now the 21st century have taught anything, it is that violence to mind and spirit will revenge itself some way and some day.

Should the answer be “no,” societies in which civil strife was the norm for 20 or more years – not uncommon in Asia and Africa – may well discover that a significant percentage of adults who were child soldiers face a future of psychological struggle at least as intense as that afflicting many returning U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Curiously, General Sherman’s dictum, usually quoted as “War is hell,” emerged from America’s own Civil War. That war was both a national and, for those who fought, a personal hell of searing proportions. How many suffered from what we call PTSD, how many endured, how many exploded, will never be known because records would not have been made let alone kept. What remains from that war are the cold stone monuments raised to honor and remember the deeds of the dead.

This Memorial day, as no other before it, our task is to go beyond honoring the dead. It is to finally begin to implement the promise implicit in Sherman’s address to the Michigan Military Academy class of 1879 and explicit in the World War I vow to be “the war to end all wars.”  Truly, war begets nothing but the hell of more war.

Col. DAN SMITH is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.