The Rise of the Trauma State: Afghanistan and America’s Unwinnable War

This is a guest post by Erik Goepner, a visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute. During his earlier military career, he commanded units in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently a doctoral candidate at George Mason University, and his main research interests include civil war, trauma, and terrorism.

Post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts 11 to 20 percent of U.S. military members after they serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. The military expends significant effort to provide them with needed care. Commanders move the psychologically injured out of the combat zone. Medical and mental health providers deliver needed aid. And, commanders may temporarily suspend individuals’ authority to bear firearms to minimize any threat they pose to themselves or others. For good reason: studies indicate that combat veteran status and PTSD associate with a two to three times increase in the risk of violence against others.

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Forced assignments

The Bush administration built an enormous embassy in Iraq — and now cannot find volunteers from the State Department to fill it. Nearly 50 diplomats will soon be sent to Iraq on a “forced assignment” — or be fired if they refuse to go.

Perhaps because State’s HR Department fears that many will resign or accept termination, it had to send a threatening letter to 250 employees. That’s five candidates for each slot.

The BBC reported yesterday that about 300 “angry diplomats” attended a meeting in response to the government’s notice:

Senior diplomat Jack Croddy, who once worked as a political adviser with Nato forces, highlighted safety fears of staff who would be forced to serve in a war zone.

“It’s one thing if someone believes in what’s going on over there and volunteers, but it’s another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment,” Mr Croddy said.

“I’m sorry, but basically that’s a potential death sentence and you know it. Who will raise our children if we are dead or seriously wounded?

“You know that at any other [country] in the world, the embassy would be closed at this point.”

State is offering a couple of carrots to encourage volunteers to take this hardship post — more money, generous leave, and greater choice in their next assignment.

Then again, no one can take along a family. Plus, as the McClatchy News Bureau reported this summer, flak jackets and kevlar are required apparel in the Green Zone. And employees cannot really go outdoors very much. McClatchy quoted a leaked memo:

“As a result of the recent increase of indirect fire attacks on the International Zone, outdoor movement is restricted to a minimum,” it states. “Remain within a hardened structure to the maximum extent possible and strictly avoid congregating outdoors. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is mandatory until further notice.

“Public places that are not in a hardened structure – such as the Blue Star Restaurant – should be frequented only in conjunction with the use of your PPE.”

Juan Cole has taken up this cause and called for the U.S. to close the embassy.

Diplomat Jack Croddy seems to be leading a revolt of the striped-pants crowd. The AP reported that his remarks quoted above were met with “loud and sustained applause” at the meeting.

AP also noted that 1200 of the nation’s 11,500 foreign service officers have served in Iraq since 2003. Some of those who have served also spoke out at the meeting — noting, for example, the failure of the Department to provide mental health care upon their return from Iraq. Many suffer post-tramatic stress disorder — just like 15% of troops who served in Iraq.


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