This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Individual soldiers have their breaking points. So do armies.
We don’t know the story behind a staff sergeant’s alleged massacre of Afghan villagers March 11, but it’s reasonable to assume he was not a paragon of mental health. The fact that he was on his fourth combat deployment may have had something to do with that.
The entire U.S. Army might be described as on its fourth deployment – or fifth, or eighth – since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq broke out, respectively, in 2001 and 2003. It’s hardly facing collapse, but symptoms of stress – such as a spiking suicide rate – are all too evident.
The massacre is Afghanistan appears to have been an isolated incident. So, presumably, were the murders carried out in 2010 by the Joint Base Lewis-McChord “kill team.” So were the abuses of Afghan corpses by other groups of out-of-control soldiers. Taken together, though, the isolated cases start to look like a pattern of creeping disciplinary exhaustion, or perhaps a struggle to attract high-caliber recruits.
Has the country demanded too much from its military over the last 10 years?
This isn’t a question of failure; it’s a question of human capacity. Consider previous wars.
• American soldiers and Marines fought in the trenches of World War I from October 1917 to November 1918. Few were under fire for more than a year.
• The units that landed in Normandy on D-Day fought from June 1944 until May 1945. Some soldiers had fought previously in North Africa or Italy, but others were replacements who arrived later. Most probably saw less than a year of combat.
•In Vietnam, the draftee’s tour of duty was about a year, though some volunteered for more.
There are a lot of apples and oranges in these comparisons. Soldiers in earlier wars didn’t have Skype or email, and they often suffered appalling privations. But better food and bedding haven’t erased the fear and stress of living under fire. Nor have material comforts in combat zones done much to relieve the stresses on families left at home.
You have to go all the way back to the Civil War to find large numbers of American soldiers who spent as much time within sight of their enemies as today’s longest-serving troops.
The U.S. Army has been going to unprecedented lengths to preserve the mental health of its troops. But this may be a bigger problem than psychiatry can solve. Ten years of unbroken war could be pushing the limits of even the world’s most capable ground force.
What the Army may need most right now is a good, long rest.