Sending out the foot soldiers

23 May 2007

US leaders show no concern for those they send to fight in Iraq, says Bill Countryman

The Bush administration’s current strategy in Iraq is imposing longer tours of duty on the military and more frequent rotations back into the conflict. There are political problems with this, given that the war is increasingly unpopular. Even Republicans in Congress are pleading for a different course of action.

The administration argues that members of the military are committed to do what is necessary, even if it means great personal danger. True as this is, it is at least unwise for the command to ignore the costs. The armed forces already know, from studies they commissioned, that such extended tours greatly exacerbate the danger of serious mental and emotional trauma, which can produce wrongful acts in the field and can also destroy an individual’s capacity to return to “normal” life afterwards.

We have seen this before in the many veterans whose lives were shattered by their experiences in Vietnam, at great cost to themselves, their families, and their communities. The disturbing thing is to find that the administration knows exactly what it is doing, and is still unwilling to rethink its policy.

Principled pacifism, of course, has a short answer to this: “What else did you expect? All war is intrinsically destructive.” But even those of us who accept the possibility that war is, at times, the lesser evil in our imperfect world still recognise a significant difference between sending one’s fellow human beings to fight for a just cause to which the community as a whole is committed, and merely sending them as instruments of policy without concern for their future well-being.

The great achievement of Florence Nightingale a century and a half ago (at least, so I read the story) was to convince the British officer corps to begin treating their soldiers as human beings, offering them a way to send their wages home, and giving them decent nursing care. It was a small beginning, but a great shift in perspective.

The Bush administration seems to be turning its back on the tradition Miss Nightingale began. Military hospitals have fallen into a disgraceful condition. And concern for human costs, whether in lives lost or in lives damaged, seems not to figure in the government’s deliberations.

As the Iraq war grinds on with no prospect of a conclusion, the people of Iraq have the greater suffering. I have no wish to minimise that. But our government’s treatment of our

own soldiers is also deeply disturbing. It suggests that, from the administration’s perspective, they are not part of the American “we”. And this makes me suspect that this is a question of class issues.

The war is being fought largely by people of working-class or lower-middle-class origins. It is being directed by men from much wealthier backgrounds, whose connections protected them from serving in the war of their own youth. Their failure to provide adequate medical facilities, I fear, represents a return to thinking of soldiers as mere instruments.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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