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Eliot Daley Headshot

Repeated Military Deployment Is Like Waterboarding

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AP File
AP File

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' alleged slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians highlights the folly of our repeatedly deploying a tiny fraction of Americans to fight our wars. Because we have eschewed universal military service, we currently rely on a tiny cadre of 309,670 soldiers to do our killing and suffer our casualties -- less than 1% of our population. This means that our soldiers must be plunged in and out of combat tours of duty over and over again.

Sgt. Bales is a prime example: he had been sent into battle, faced death, then came home to comfort and safety. Then he was thrust back into battle, facing bombs and bullets and possible death once more, then home to comfort and safety. Again, back to face death, and home to safety. And yet again, back to face death once more.

This is the equivalent of waterboarding, where the victim is repeatedly subjected to impending death, only to be rescued momentarily, before being imperiled again and again. Research psychologists describe the phenomenon of "forward panic" as a key trigger of atrocities, and these repeated deployments seem perfectly designed to generate just such forward panic.

Of course, not all the atrocities are inflicted on others; suicide rates among current military personnel are at an all-time high. And the percentage of military who exhibit clinical signs of stress runs 20-30% among those who have served repeated deployments. Given how easily we safe at home exhibit instantaneous road rage, it's a miracle that the rates aren't even higher.

Consider how typical the stress of this forward panic has become for today's military: some 47% of those serving in combat have been redeployed -- brought home to safety and then sent back into terror. By contrast, those who served in combat in prior wars typically were sent out once to face danger, stayed until their term was finished or the war was over -- typically 2-3 years -- and then the survivors came home to safety once and for all. Many serving in the Iraq and Afghan wars have spent more cumulative time in combat than those who fought in our Civil War, our two world wars, Korea and Vietnam -- and they suffer the waterboarding-like terror of redeployment to boot.

There is a word for what we are doing: exploitation. We as a nation are exploiting these brave and loyal countrymen and countrywomen in order to spare ourselves the personal unpleasantness of fighting and killing and dying on some hellish field of battle. But the on-field and post-action suffering they are paying as the price for our exploiting them is now demonstrably intolerable and immoral.

There is a simple, honorable and truly American solution to this: reinstate universal military service, and share equally in the terror and suffering of combat. (Yes, I'm very familiar with all the arguments against this, including the well-publicized sentiments of some senior military leaders who naturally prefer permanent professionals rather than having to train recruits. But they'll do what they are told by their citizen employers, and look how well they did with the rag-tag recruits who won two world wars for us.)

There is another reason to reinstate universal military service, perhaps even more important than equalizing the burden of combat. If millions of Americans realize that their well-ordered lives may be disrupted and that their very lives may be obliterated the next time we go to war, we just might temper our blood lust and muster a bit more skepticism the next time one of our leaders tries to convince us that it's such a wonderful idea to go shoot up some bad guys.