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A War's Premise Must Justify the Troops' Suffering

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As is often the case, it takes a tragedy to force an issue.

With the massacre of 17 Afghans in a Kandahar village, including nine children, a crime allegedly committed by an American soldier on his fourth tour, the burden of multiple combat tours and its damage to the troops, including PTSD and suicide, has finally taken center stage (see here, here, and here).

And perhaps it takes a retired general, freer to speak than his active-duty colleagues, to connect the dots, as retired Major General Robert H. Scales did recently, writing in The Washington Post. Making his point in the title of his op-ed, "Two Many Wars, Too Few U.S. Soldiers," he wrote that rather than blaming the Army, "Perhaps the issue might be that no institutional effort can make up for trying over the past 10 years to fight too many wars with too few soldiers?"

Getting specific, the general cites "a succession of national leaders who fail to recognize that combat units, particularly infantry, just wear out." Exhibiting an officer's first duty to his troops' welfare, he states that "the real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines."

Clearly, the counter to "too many wars with too few soldiers" is fewer wars. And how do we reduce the number of wars America has been lurching into? By requiring far more stringent and sturdier premises for going to war. A war's premise must be so sound as to justify the resulting suffering it inflicts on its troops. Accordingly, a soldier wounded in the execution of that premise must find validation in it. (The "too few soldiers" problem is remedied by reintroducing the draft, a step that would, in a flash, tighten up a proposed war's premise.)

Shamefully, the premises of America's recent wars have been constructed of flimsier stuff (and thus account for the plural, "wars"). Afghanistan was initially premised on striking back at al-Qaeda for the 9/11 attacks, but then, in a process of premise-creep, morphed into establishing democracy and nation-building, and now into stabilizing the security apparatus before exit. Iraq was premised on a fiction and the fear that fiction whipped up: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and would use them. And, looking even further back, what again was the premise for Vietnam?

Addressing the psychic wear of war, General Scales evokes Lord Moran's study, "Anatomy of Courage," of World War I. Summarizing the study, Scales writes, with the power of a poet, that "the reservoir of courage begins to empty after the first shot is fired." He goes on to state, "The horrors of intimate killing... start a process of moral atrophy that cannot be reversed," except by pulling the soldier off the line.

Consider, then, the brutal damage to a soldier's mind and heart of firing thousands upon thousands of rounds, and of taking thousands upon thousands of rounds of fire, and of repeating that horror tour after tour, year and year. By contrast, in Scales' war -- Vietnam -- a tour of duty was one year. His sense of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is that their experience is "far more debilitating."

PTSD is the diagnosis for this serious ailment, but, unfortunately, it's become in the media and for the public an acronym almost as meaningless as ATM. We need to get past the acronym and consider truly what post-traumatic stress disorder means: It means constantly reliving the horror of war, the heart-hammering stress, a life and mind disordered.

Consider also this grim statistic: The number of suicides committed annually among U.S. soldiers now exceeds the annual number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Talk about an indictment of premises!

I would not pretend to imagine anything of the suffering of the soldier with PTSD, or of the suffering that can find relief only in suicide. I can only assume that, in that suffering, the premise of one's war -- Does it justify my suffering? Was it worth it? -- gets re-examined over and over and over again. In the end, it must mean everything to the suffering veteran if his/her war's premise serves as a stabilizing tent pole, as an exclamation point and not a question mark.

And, not to be forgotten, there is the suffering of the innocent civilians we kill, as in that Kandahar village now in the news, attacked while sleeping in their homes.

Circling back to premises: It is our political leaders who decide on a war's premise. It is also they who, in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, bear responsibility for the "decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse" of our troops and their unfathomed suffering. But with no skin -- or mind or heart -- in the game, that suffering remains abstract to the political decision-maker.

And now a new war looms -- against Iran -- with Republican presidential candidates ready to march.

Thus it is up to us, the public, Democrat and Republican alike -- all of us beneficiaries of an increasingly beleaguered military -- to step up and push back. In other words, fellow Americans: occupy the premise.

Carla Seaquist is the author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is the author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," included in the forthcoming volume "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."