Last Sunday’s New York Times Sunday Styles section had an article entitled, “After War, Love Can Be a Battlefield” by Leslie Kaufman. The article was about the stresses and strains that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have placed on soldiers’ marriages.
Major Levi Dunton told the Times that “he had trouble being involved with his family. He didn’t find joy in being a parent to his two boys, 3 and 5 months. Little things made him angry.” He made it clear, however, that other soldiers had it a lot worse.
According to the article, “Divorce rates for its personnel have been on the rise since 2003, the first year of war, when they were 2.9 percent. In 2004, divorce rates in the Army soared to 3.9 percent, propelled by a sharp rise in divorce among the usually much more stable officers corps. That rate has dropped, according to Army demographics, to 1.9 percent for officers and 3.5 percent for the entire Army in fiscal year 2007–which represents roughly 8,700 divorces in total. Female soldiers are the exception; they divorce at a rate of about 9 percent.”
The Pentagon is trying to address the problem by holding marriage retreats in which they are encouraging spouses to have better communication with each other.
The military’s diagnosis of the problem will undoubtedly revolve around the horrors of war and the effect that war has on the psyche of the individual.
That diagnosis is undoubtedly true but perhaps only partly. Unfortunately the military won’t be able to have its soldiers confront another probable cause for their depression and malaise–deeply seated guilt over the wrongful killing of other human beings.
American soldiers serving in Iraq know that they will never be criminally prosecuted for killing Iraqis. In their minds, they are loyally serving their government by obeying the orders of their commander in chief. On the conscious level, they convince themselves that they are fighting to preserve America’s freedom and values. They are convinced that they are risking their lives for a noble and heroic cause–helping the Iraqi people.
Any priest or psychiatrist will tell you, however, that a person’s conscience and subconscious mind cannot be tricked so easily. When a person has engaged in grave wrongdoing, it is virtually impossible for him to escape the consequences of a conscience that begins to eat away at him. Moreover, the subconscious mind begins bedeviling him, producing all types of aberrant and dysfunctional behavior.
While it’s true that some people, such as pathological serial killers, seem to experience no guilt or crises of conscience when they kill people, most of the soldiers in Iraq are ordinary Americans for whom the concept of right and wrong is very important to their lives.
My hunch is that U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq who are experiencing despondency, depression, malaise, and disintegrating family life are suffering from much more than post-traumatic-stress-disorder arising from rough battlefield conditions. My hunch is that they are also suffering the consequences of severe guilt arising from being part of a military force that attacked another country needlessly.
Every U.S. soldier knows that none of the people he killed (or maimed) ever attacked the United States and neither did their government or any of their countrymen. Deep down, every U.S. soldier in Iraq knows that he had no moral or legal right to kill the people he killed.
How can the wrongful killing of another human being, even if not subject to criminal prosecution, fail to produce depression, despondency, guilt, and malaise in most soldiers who have done the killing?
Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.