by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 1, Rabi' al-Thani, 1433)
The enterprise of US perpetual war is confronted with a persistent problem. Spiraling rates of psychological and social problems in returning war veterans is placing enormous stress on the narratives that the US government has constructed around the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While the United States touts the patriotism and dedication of its military personnel, invoking them as totems on the altar of the holy nation-state, a new Pew Center poll finds that only one-third of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan thought that the wars were “worth fighting.”
If Abu Ghraib is the arch-symbol of US brutality — practices of torture that are now carefully screened from public eye — its effect lives on in US society through the mental breakdowns of military veterans after they hang up their uniforms and return home. The website for Iraq Veterans Against the War notes that while over 4,000 military personnel have been killed in Iraq alone, many more live with physical and mental disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), Military Sexual Trauma, and Major Depressive Disorder.
In addition, mental illness issues in veterans often lead to suicides and suicide attempts. According to a troubling 2010 study, there are an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans who are receiving some type of treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department. Seven percent of the attempts are successful, and 11% of those who don’t succeed on the first attempt try again within nine months. The VA’s suicide hotline has been receiving about 10,000 calls a month from current and former service members.
PTSD has become one of the military’s greatest anxieties, none the least because it seems to overwhelmingly affect men. Some studies speculate that around 275,000 veterans may harbor post-traumatic stress disorder. According to statistics, female soldiers are far more prone to depressive disorders rather than the intense, brain-scrambling anxieties, anger bursts, and emotional withdrawal that characterizes PTSD. The US military’s investment in a glorifying cult of masculinity — Superman exporting Manifest Destiny across the frontiers of the world — means that the debilitation accompanying PTSD is particularly rough on the collective ego of the institution.
The mental illness is also worrisome because it translates into a marked financial drain on the military — veterans discharged with a PTSD diagnosis are entitled to benefits and services. Since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 211,819 combat veterans have been treated by the Department of Veteran Affairs for PTSD, a small cross-section of the total number of soldiers with this disease (many decide not to seek help from the VA or are too debilitated to navigate the department’s bureaucracy). Many veterans returning to civilian life feel abandoned by the military or the civilian health care industry. A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine identified a “critical shortage of health care professionals — es-pecially those specializing in mental health — to meet the demands of those returning from the theater in Iraq and Afghanistan and their family members.”
Contrary to imagery of a brotherhood in arms solidified for the defense of the nation, the US military is deliberately misdiagnosing soldiers in order to discharge them without financial or health benefits — this tops the psychological damage carried by the soldier with social stigma. For instance, Captain Susan Carlson was diagnosed with “personality disorder” by Army medical doctors pressured by her commander — Carlson is one of 31,000 cases since 2001 — in an effort to cut her loose without assuming financial responsibility of her medical care.
The issue is snowballing into a public relations debacle the military can ill afford at this time. Vietnam Veterans of America, an advocacy group, has sued the Defense Department to release records that will show that thousands of troops have been unfairly discharged for personality or adjustment disorder since 2001. In effect, the military does not hesitate to criminalize and abandon its soldiers, dismissing them to swell the ranks of the homeless on the streets. Many of the veterans combine psychological problems with severe physical injuries that leave them unfit to rejoin society. In the approximately 10 years since the beginning of the Iraq War, more than 30,000 soldiers have suffered injuries — ranging from slight wounds to the crippling loss of limbs or paralysis.
As with the other lobbies and vested interests of the US military industrial complex, War Inc. prefers to route the costs of its enterprises to the civilian base. In other words, communities and families dealing with impoverishment and diminished futures, are taxed with the burden of dealing with mentally ill veterans. The stress is splintering an already weakened social fabric. The influx of disturbed veterans returning to civilian life has resulted in a spike in violence against women. The statistics for rape, domestic violence and sexual assault of women by ex-military personnel have dramatically increased.
For instance, male veterans with PTSD are two to three times more likely to engage in violence against their partners than veterans without PTSD symptoms. Given the fact that many military personnel use sexual violence as a way of spreading fear amongst the Iraqi or Afghan populations — the prisoner population, in particular — it’s not surprising that the effects of this are rebounding on their own families.
Significantly, the extremity of the situation has significantly altered the perception of US wars amongst the veteran population. According to the Pew Center poll, half of post-9/11 veterans (51%) who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan say relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism. Even as the military creates elaborate ceremonies justifying the use of young men as cannon fodder in brutal wars against populations, many of the men returning home as ghosts of their former selves are finding that violence cuts both ways. Even as they allow themselves to be programmed to destroy lives and communities in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not so easy to turn the off-switch on returning to the United States. Unfortunately, their rude awakening to the realities of US War Inc. doesn’t benefit the US society very much. Transformed into ghosts alienated from family or community life, by and large ignored by the military bureaucracy that has no further use for them, they discover what it means to join the ranks of the disappeared.