The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Iraq: The Undead and the Dead

April 19, 2009

For some time, the media has been losing interest in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Portland at the International Affairs symposium I previously mentioned, Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks named a handful of news agencies covering Iraq — and then claimed that no others remained in-country. He named his own paper, the New York Times, CNN, and McClatchey. He may have mentioned one or two more that I’ve forgotten, and he may have overlooked an outlet or two, but Iraq is clearly not receiving all that much coverage in the American media.

The blogosphere has largely followed suit and I’m as guilty as anyone. From September 2003, I’d estimate that three-fourths of my posts during my first two years of blogging dealt with the Iraq war and/or the wider “war on terrorism.” These days, the wars are more remote from the political debate — and I’m certainly not blogging about them very often.

This means that government statements about the U.S. wars are likely not scrutinized as closely as they should be. In my recent sojourn at Lewis & Clark, for example, I heard a claim about Iraq that I simply didn’t believe — but could not contest at the time. A U.S. military officer told a group of students that PTSD was not a major problem for the troops and that the military was certainly taking care of its soldiers’ mental health.

So I came home and did a little searching on the internet.

Last year about this time RAND released a very troubling study about the lasting effects of these wars:

Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

In addition, researchers found about 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression.

Many service members said they do not seek treatment for psychological illnesses because they fear it will harm their careers. But even among those who do seek help for PTSD or major depression, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider “minimally adequate” for their illnesses.

Those numbers, by a relatively conservative source, suggest that PTSD is a substantial problem and that the military may not be addressing the problem all that effectively. The study’s co-leader, Terri Tanielian, called this “a major health crisis.”

Indeed, the wider political implications are also clear. Part of the reason the war is off the front pages is that Americans now believe Iraq is going “somewhat well.” Many of my students certainly believe that Iraq is substantially more stable post-surge and that fewer American troops are dying in the conflict. “All is well.” Right?

The U.S. death toll in Iraq is “only” about 4300, but many more soldiers and family members may be dying or otherwise suffering significant harm as a result of the trauma of war long after the soldiers leave the war zone.

Slowly, for instance, some suicide data is trickling into the public sphere. ABC News, May 2008:

During interrogation by [House Veterans] committee members, [Dr. Ira] Katz [a VA mental health officer] was asked why he questioned a CBS claim that 6,200 veterans had committed suicide in 2005.

Then, three days later, he wrote in an e-mail that there were about 18 suicides a day, or about 6,570 per year, among America’s veterans.

Does 18 suicides per day sound normal?

The active-duty suicide rate is much lower, but the military’s top brass is clearly worried:

“We must find ways to relieve some of this stress,” said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee.

“I think it is the cumulative effect of deployments from 12 to 15 months,” he said, adding that the longer deployments are scheduled to continue until June.

He cited long deployments, lengthy separations from family and the perceived stigma associated with seeking help as factors contributing to the suicides.

Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, vice chief of naval operations, said suicides are the third leading cause of death in the Navy.

“We must eliminate the perceived stigma, shame and dishonor of asking for help,” he said.

Data also suggest that returning veterans are committing significant acts of violence against their family members.

I fear that these war-related issues are receiving even less attention than the ongoing wars.

+ posts

Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.