Soldier Blues


It’s becoming more apparent every day that the U.S. military has a serious morale problem. Depression, mild and severe, is plaguing the troops, sometimes with fatal consequences.

A recent survey by Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for soldiers and government civilians abroad, revealed that over one-third of soldiers rate their morale as low, or very low. Suicides of U.S. servicemen in Iraq are running up to three times the usual rate, and news headlines bring daily news of U.S. soldiers dying in Iraq.

As stories of low morale and soldier suicides began to surface last week, the Bush administration decided that news from Iraq was being negatively filtered by the media, leaving Americans under the misperception that things aren’t going well. Bush said he wanted to bypass the filter and tell the news of real progress directly to the American people. But while some things in Iraq may indeed be getting better, troop morale isn’t one of them.

After receiving hundreds of letters from unhappy troops, Stars and Stripes conducted an “unscientific” survey, questioning nearly 2000 soldiers in Iraq. One-third reported that their mission was “not clearly defined” or “not at all defined”. Thirty-one percent said that the war in Iraq was of “little value” or of “no value at all.”

Another reason why soldiers’ spirits are down is probably that they’re not fully equipped for combat. Around 27 percent of the Army surveyed rated their chain of command’s ability to get them supplies as “not good” or “poor.” According to the AP, nearly 30,000 American troops in Iraq still have not been issued the newest body armor, which has ceramic plates to stop rifle rounds. The body armor won’t be delivered until December, more than eight months after the war began. One soldier said that the vest they were given, “couldn’t stop a rock.” Stars and Stripes reports on the lack of appropriate supplies:

“While supply problems have not crippled operations, they have stymied some units. Troops had plenty of bullets, grenades, weapons and fuel, but they said they did not have enough of the plates that make flak vests impervious to bullets. Units also complained that they were sent into combat without enough medical supplies, and transportation companies resorted to building their own “gun trucks” because there were not enough to provide security for convoys.”

This isn’t to say that all U.S. soldiers have it so bad. In fact, there are fairly large discrepancies between different troops. While some of the armed forces live in now-empty palaces, far more make their homes in abandoned buildings, trashed by looters. In a Stars and Stripes article a soldier explains that they had to make do without even the provisions necessary to make a hovel into a home:

“My squad had to beg for permission to clean out a damaged building to sleep in. The building was full of car parts, dirt, animal droppings and anything else you can think of. Five months later, we are still crammed in that building. The only materials we have for improvement are materials we have found or begged from other units.”

Lou Plummer of “Military Families Speak Out”, an organization that gives family members of soldiers a means to express concerns about war, tells Matthew Rothschild on Progressive Radio of some of the negative feedback he’s been hearing from families:

“I get e-mails on a daily basis, from mostly military spouses, but some parents, telling me stuff like: My son’s been in Iraq for 4 months he hasn’t had a hot meal; it takes 5 weeks for letters to get to him; they’re getting rationed three liters of water a day; my son, when he does get a letter to me he’s asking me to send him stuff like toilet paper and toothpaste….”

Some soldiers are so unhappy that they’re killing themselves. Military officials have said at least 11 Army soldiers and 3 marines had committed suicide in Iraq over the past seven months, with more deaths being investigated as possible suicides. (The number of suicides in Iraq right now is about 17 per 100,000 personnel. The Army and Navy annually average about 11 suicides per 100,000 personnel, the Air Force about 9.5 per 100,000 and the Marines about 12.6 per 100,000)

Most have happened after May 1 when the Bush administration declared an end to major combat. Concerned by the number of suicides, the Army has asked a team of doctors to probe the causes of the deaths.

Experts suggest that the accessibility of weapons in Iraq can make it easier to act on a fit of depression. The Army has sent 478 soldiers home from Iraq for mental-health issues. While in previous wars, some of those cases may have been treated on-site, in this war, the Army doesn’t have enough mental-health resources in Iraq to treat many of the cases.

In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, U.S. Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd says these types of deaths are more likely to occur during breaks in the fighting, and not during major combat, when soldiers have time to think about their problems.

Almost all reports indicate that Reserve and National Guard soldiers have gotten the short end of the stick. Many say they feel like “second-class soldiers” who don’t receive the same equipment, support and treatment as active-duty members. Military.com reports:

“The National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers’ living conditions are so substandard, and the medical care so poor, that many of them believe the Army is trying push them out with reduced benefits for their ailments. One document shown to UPI states that no more doctor appointments are available from Oct. 14 through Nov. 11 – Veterans Day. The soldiers said professional active duty personnel are getting better treatment while troops who serve in the National Guard or Army Reserve are left to wallow in medical hold.”

Oddly, Gen. Richard Sanchez, commander of ground troops in Iraq, denies that there’s a morale problem. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the general said, “Are you going to find soldiers on any given day who are down on morale? Of course, I walk around and talk to all sorts of soldiers also, and I honestly believe our soldiers are doing very, very well.”

No matter what General Sanchez thinks, President Bush is exerting his concern about the troops by trying to keep it “mum” to the American public. He has said that the media “filters” news, like the morale survey, so that it has a negative spin. Or maybe its just that Bush wants to be the one in control of the news filtering. Michael Kinsley writes about this possiblity for the Washington Post:

“George W. Bush doesn’t really want people to get the news unfiltered. He wants people to get the news filtered by George W. Bush. Or rather, he wants everyone to get the news filtered by the same people who apparently filter it for him…Every president lives in a cocoon of advisers who filter reality for him, but it’s stunning that this president actually seems to prefer getting his take on reality that way.”

Whether or not Bush wants the public to know about problems in Iraq, it’s likely hear about them. A recent propaganda attempt by the military, in which copies of the same “fake” letter was sent to family members of troops-glorifying the experience in Iraq-wasn’t too sly to make it past the national media. Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times, gives examples of the Bush administration has been caught trying to shroud Iraq in a cloth of success:

“The P.R. campaign shamelessly included bogus cheerful form letters sent to newspapers, supposedly written by soldiers in Iraq. It also entailed sweetening up the official Web site of the United States Central Command. Until recently, the site offered a mix of upbeat stories and accounts of casualties and setbacks. Now it’s a litany of smiley postings, like “Soldiers host orphans in Mosul” and “Ninevah Province schools benefit from seized Iraqi assets.” You have to go to a different page for casualty reports.”

The message that the troops aren’t happy is coming through loud and clear. Ruth Rosen, of the San Francisco Chronicle, thinks that the situation in Iraq is so bad that a soldier revolt may not be so far off.

“Many [of the soldiers] viewed themselves as sitting ducks, rather than soldiers engaged in war. This time, the anti-war movement started before the invasion of Iraq. It may not be long before GIs refuse to follow orders or ask for discharges based on their conscientious objection to the occupation.”