Men without a mission make poor soldiers
British troops are reported to be “struggling to find the fighting spirit”, while more than 10 per cent of Czech soldiers stationed in Kuwait have already taken up an offer to return home because “they did not feel ready for war”. Experienced US aircrew have resigned over mandatory anthrax vaccinations and more than half of UK forces have declined voluntary jabs. All of this suggests a lack of trust that could easily spill over into other areas of combat readiness. Every conflict seems to come with its own syndrome nowadays. It is beginning to look like the effects of Iraq syndrome could be felt before the fighting begins. Are we about to witness the first war with widespread pre-traumatic stress disorder?
Nations and soldiers preparing for war have always faced apprehension and fear. In the past, they would have overcome this through a firm conviction in what, or who, they were fighting for. Today, principled values and beliefs are notably absent. Among political and military leaders, debate over long-term goals has been replaced by a narrow focus on options and procedures. Although wars are unpredictable, discussion of the campaign takes a familiar form, involving threat analyses and scenario planning. But a mechanistic risk calculus, training and modern fire power may not suffice to compensate for individuals’ increasing risk aversion, stress and lack of willpower.
We should learn from the story of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This originated in the experience of US veterans in the aftermath of Vietnam. They suffered not so much from dejection at their defeat in Southeast Asia as from rejection on their return home. Shunned as pariahs and labelled psychopaths, the PTSD category offered moral exculpation and access to compensation. But whereas older conditions such as “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” had been held to be specific to a soldier’s background and psyche, the new diagnosis was applied more generally, assumed to derive from the fundamentally traumatising experience of war.
PTSD spread to encompass relatively common happenings such as accidents, muggings, harassment and even workplace disputes. It entered the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1980, and aid agencies now commonly assume that whole populations suffer from it in advance of detailed analysis. Ironically, most veterans diagnosed with PTSD have had no combat experience, which points to a self-justifying reconstruction of current problems through a narrative of past trauma. Research also suggests that PTSD is more serious and more common among international relief and development personnel than it is among the locals they seek to support.
This indicates a cultural construction with causes amplified through our particular western obsession with risk and stress, often in pursuit of remediation or recognition.
Medical categories are not the only social products. The concepts of a “person” and of what is “normal” or “acceptable” are unique to particular cultures at particular times. Many more people present symptoms of stress and depression to their doctors today than a generation ago as the definition of such disorders has widened while the primacy of values such as resilience and composure has been eroded. Trends to psychologise social problems were prevalent before the second world war but were kept in check by a Soviet Bloc that held to the importance of structural issues in understanding inequality and conflict. The end of the cold war and national liberation struggles, combined with the capitulation of working-class movements to more individual agendas, opened the flood gates.
Today, individual safety has come to dominate over collective purpose.
Viewed from this perspective, war has become pathologised. It is seen as the social expression of a psychological disorder that makes troops and commanders ill. As strategic or national interests get pushed down the agenda, so the wellbeing of those engaged takes precedence - making it impossible to fight effectively. But if the whole point of war is to “bring the boys home safely”, then why bother sending them at all?
The demise of belief in a “strong” self that promotes social values worth defending is problematic. Research has shown that beliefs held by people before a disaster account for variation in trauma symptoms far better than the characteristics or severity of the experience itself. Values, belief and understanding are important in fighting, winning and surviving war. Yet planners display a technical fixation with strengths and weaknesses. In his speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on November 11, prime minister Tony Blair suggested that the struggles ahead “will test not just our ability to fight, but our character, our resilience and our belief in our own way of life”. If so, then it may be time we held a full and frank debate about who we are now, what we are for and where we are going.
Accusations of lack of readiness and complacency fall wide of the mark.
There are battles that have to be fought at home before there is any possibility of winning abroad. The reluctance to argue what it is we are for, rather than merely identifying what we are against, is tantamount to running away from this fight. The absence of debate covers for our absence of cohesion and precludes developing a renewed sense of unity. People pull together in adversity when they identify with one another beforehand.
Otherwise, they are more likely to fall apart.
It is not courage and ability that is in question - it is conviction and will. In previous conflicts, many people felt there was something worth fighting for. They would defend what they believed in. This sentiment was often strongest among those classes who, as officers, took heavy casualties leading their men “over the top”. By the time of the Vietnam war, many middle-class American youths refused to fight in a war they did not support. For the first time, evading the draft became seen as excusable, rather than an act of cowardice.
Today, fewer still are willing to fight, let alone interested in fighting.
The anti-war protesters reflect this inner bankruptcy at its starkest.
Fearing the consequences of any action, they passively object to war, rather than actively opposing it, thereby revealing a broader unwillingness to fight for anything. But it is those people who should be fighting to win the argument as to what we stand for who have abdicated their leadership role. Such intellectual cowardice combined with our increased aversion to risk invites acts of terror and gestures of defiance.
Veterans of what has become known as “the first Gulf war” remind us that armies march on far more than their stomachs. Military morale also depends on a sense of mission and domestic support. Reports about boots that don’t fit, guns that can’t fire and tanks that won’t move are hardly new. They point to a broader discomfort. In the past, a soldier’s sense of being part of a broader purpose suppressed moans about kit. Today our technological superiority over our enemies is overwhelming, but do we have the stomach to fight that comes from a firm conviction and belief in our way of life? Without this, pre-traumatic stress disorder may well affect us all.
First published by Times Higher Education Supplement, 21 February 2003