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[casi] The US mil kindergarden: Tired, Terrified, Trigger-Happy

 The US military kindergarden: Tired, Terrified, Trigger-Happy,1,1141025,print.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

Tired, Terrified, Trigger-Happy
By Andrew M. Cockburn
Andrew M. Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection
of Saddam Hussein" (Perennial Press, 2000).

November 19, 2003

Among the less publicized incentives propelling Iraq overseer Paul Bremer's
urgent dash to Washington last week was the concern in various quarters of
the administration that the U.S. expeditionary force in Iraq was in a
dangerously unstable state. "We are one stressed-out reservist away from a
massacre," remarked one senior official closely involved in the search for
an exit strategy.

He was expressing the fear that a soldier, possibly a reservist, pressed
beyond endurance by the rigors and uncertainties of his or her condition in
a hostile land far from home, might open up with a machine gun on an Iraqi
crowd, with obviously disastrous consequences for the future of the

In case anyone considers this contingency unthinkably remote, examples
already abound of overstressed U.S. soldiers behaving in a lethally
trigger-happy fashion. As U.S. soldiers get more and more stressed, their
tempers fray and you see more altercations on the streets, more browbeating
of ordinary Iraqis by soldiers and, as a result, a general deterioration in
the already tense relationship that helps convince Iraqis that the U.S. is
nothing but an ugly, arrogant occupying army.

In traveling around Iraq, I always stay well away from American convoys, for
reasons well known to all Iraqi drivers and best illustrated by an incident
(by no means unique) outside Fallouja last month. Gunners in an armored
column responded to a roadside bomb blast by opening up, apparently
indiscriminately, with heavy automatic weapons on traffic moving in the
opposite direction on the other side of the highway median. Six civilians
died, including four in a single minivan, some of whom were decapitated. An
82nd Airborne spokesman was later quoted as insisting that "the use of force
was justified."

Indiscriminate fire and other atrocities can be understood, if not
explained, by the degree of stress endured by hot and exhausted soldiers
terrified of an unseen enemy. U.S. Army Field Manual 22-51 addresses what it
calls "misconduct combat stress behavior," which it deems most likely in
guerrilla warfare. The manual notes that, "even though we may pity the
overstressed soldier as well as the victims," such cases must be punished.

The manual also identifies other stress behaviors, including looting and
pillaging, practices that many people in Iraq - including non-Iraqis -
report is widespread among the occupation force.

"I keep hearing rumors about our attached infantry company. Apparently they
are under investigation for a few 'incidents,' " a young officer based in
the Sunni Triangle wrote home to his family in August. "It seems that
whenever they get the chance, they steal money from the locals. I'm not
talking about small amounts of cash, I'm talking about a nice, fat bankroll.
They take the money during raids, while searching cars, while detaining

Questioned about various examples of misconduct, the official military
response in Iraq tends to range from professed ignorance about the incidents
to excuses like "these things happen in the heat of the action" to vague
promises of future investigation. Yet surely the anonymous author of the
U.S. Army Field Manual was correct in writing that "only a strong chain of
command and a unit identity which says 'We don't do that, and those who do
aren't one of us and will be punished' can prevent such behavior from

Despite this commendable official doctrine, professional military personnel
specialists are seeing a worrying trend in the profusion of stress-related
cases in Iraq.

"It's not surprising," says Maj. Don Vandergriff, who teaches military
science at Georgetown University. "After six months in an intense
environment, units start to degrade, especially when they are in combat and
are likely getting very little sleep."

Vandergriff is also fiercely critical of the Army's practice of constantly
rotating individuals, especially commanders, in and out of units. Morale and
cohesion of the Army in Iraq "is deteriorating at four times the rate it did
in Vietnam," he states.

The high command should be seeking remedial measures, but perhaps the best
we can hope for are the coldly realistic sentiments of the officer who wrote
about the looting.

"I really don't care for the Iraqi people, I don't care about helping them
get back on their feet," he wrote in his letter. "However, I don't condone
stealing from them, hurting them unnecessarily or threatening them with
violence if it is not needed. We will never win hearts and minds here, but
what these guys are doing is wrong. I am positive that this isn't happening
in my company, and that's all I can really affect."

With any luck, his superiors are developing the same sense of
responsibility. There is always that stressed-out reservist to worry about.

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