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Growing discontent of U.S. troops

By Eric Ruder | November 19, 2004 | Page 4

THE MAINSTREAM media love to interview gung-ho soldiers when they're revved up for a mission, but there's another side of the story that hasn't appeared on our TV screens.

"Using Vietnam as a model, one of the things that fed the deep disenchantment of troops was the failure to see success defined in military terms," Tod Ensign, director of the GI rights group Citizen Soldier, told Socialist Worker. "Many Vietnam vets reported that they would go into a village, have a firefight, clear it and maybe kill a few Vietcong--or, who the hell knows, a few civilians--and then they'd move on. And when they would return, they would encounter fire again or booby traps.

"In other words, the enemy had not been defeated, and it appeared that no end was in sight, and no victory was attained. That's a key component of morale. Falluja would be a likely example of that happening. You go through, you wipe out whole neighborhoods, you destroy mosques and schools and even people's homes."

Even if the U.S. succeeds in "taking" Falluja, as it claims, it will be impossible to keep resistance fighters from returning. And the very experience of battling a resistance using classic guerrilla strategies is devastating to troop morale.

Rob Sarra, an infantry sergeant who served in Iraq at the start of the war and is now a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, explained last week at a campus antiwar group meeting in Chicago that soldiers are dangled like "bait" in the streets to find out if the street has been cleared. If they get shot at, then they've succeeded--in flushing out their target. If they don't, then they move on.

But soldiers who conclude that they're being used as targets will undoubtedly be left with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Last month, troop discontent appeared through the media's smokescreen of war cheerleading when a platoon of reservists refused a combat mission. Soldiers from the 343rd Quartermaster Company disobeyed orders to carry out a futile mission--delivering fuel that had already been deemed contaminated.

That story got headlines around the world. But only a couple papers reported on the refusal of National Guard soldiers at Camp Shelby, Miss., to conduct training exercises. Three officers disobeyed orders--with the support of their platoon--and were detained for a short period before being reassigned.

The incident was sparked off when troops weren't given a hot meal they had been promised--a minor indignity that uncorked their anger at other injustices, ranging from pay and promotion to other poor conditions at the base.

Undoubtedly, these two incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. "This is only conjecture, but I generally operate on the principle that for every one bad thing you hear about, there are 10 others that happen," said Ensign. "I'm certain there have been other acts of resistance."

Even after soldiers leave the battlefield and come home, the battlefield doesn't necessarily leave the soldiers.

Former Army sergeant Matt LaBranche is filled with despair since returning to the U.S. He lies at home, haunted by images of an Iraqi woman who died in his arms after he shot her--and of the children injured by his gunfire. "I'm taking enough drugs to sedate an elephant, and I still wake up dreaming about it," said LaBranche. "I wish I had just freaking died over there."

A recent study by Army officials found that 17 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq suffered from intense psychological trauma, including major depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. But mental health experts say that the crisis must be deeper, because the study included only those willing to report their problems--and didn't include reservists, who tend to suffer such problems at a higher rate than full-time military personnel.

"The bad news is that the study underestimated the prevalence of what we are going to see down the road," Dr. Matthew Friedman, director of the Veteran Administration's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, told a reporter.

And despite the pledges from the military not to abandon veterans like after Vietnam, a 2003 Army study found that too few psychiatrists had been sent to Iraq. Only this year did Congress allocate more money to deal with the looming mental health care crisis--a paltry $5 million a year for the next three years.

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