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Violent Veterans, the Big Picture

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Iraq War veterans seem to be killing and hurting themselves and others more than the veterans of any other war in American history.

Only two weeks ago, the New York Times reported nine murders and a rising number of rapes and other violent crimes against women committed by Iraq war veterans at Fort Carson, Colorado. One veteran beat his girlfriend to death. Another raped and murdered a mentally challenged teenage girl.

Some say this rise in veteran violence only reflects the better reporting of crimes and is not a rise at all, but the statistics are too startling for that to be true. Suicide rates are the highest they have ever been in the Army. The number of attempted suicides and self-inflicted injuries among soldiers has jumped six-fold since the Iraq war began and is continuing to rise. The rates of sexual violence against women inside the military are the highest ever seen. Domestic violence among veterans has reached historic frequency. And post-traumatic stress disorder rates appear to be higher among Iraq War veterans than among those who have served in Afghanistan or even, many believe, in Vietnam. One of the symptoms of P.T.S.D. is uncontrollable violence.

Psychologists usually blame the violence committed by Iraq War veterans on the stress of multiple deployments, the loss of close friends and comrades to bombs and bullets, and the military tendency to punish rather than treat G.I.s who break down at war.

These factors certainly all contribute, but the reasons for veteran violence and suicide lie much deeper than these. They begin in the family backgrounds of the troops, and are exacerbated by the nature of military training, the misogyny in military culture, the type of war we are waging in Iraq, and the remorse, fury and self-loathing that comes from fighting a war one doesn't believe in. None of these factors tend to be much discussed in the press, but they add up to a recipe for veteran violence:

Take the fact that half of all Army soldiers and Marine recruits report having been physically abused as children, while half of the women and about one-sixth of the men report say they were sexually abused, according to two significant veteran studies published in 1996 and 2005 respectively. A lot of people are joining the military to escape violent homes; some bring that violence with them. Most people inside the military know this. Most outsiders don't.

Now put these people through a sophisticated training program that has been honed over the years to produce highly efficient killers. In World War Two, only 15-20 percent of soldiers were shooting to kill; most were either deliberately missing or not shooting at all. As military psychologist David Grossman explains in his book, On Killing, military historians decided this was because no amount of conventional drill could overcome a human being's revulsion towards murdering his own kind. So the military concentrated on developing a psychological approach to achieve just this. It seems to have worked. By the Korean War about 55 percent of soldiers were firing to kill, and by Vietnam the rate had risen to over 90 percent. This psychological approach to training is what soldiers call "breaking you down and building you up again."

Build into this training the military's age-old bias and resentment of women. Even with a force that now includes women, gays, and lesbians, and rules that now prohibit drill instructors from using racial epithets and curses, drill instructors still routinely denigrate recruits with words like pussy, girl, bitch, lady, dyke, faggot, and fairy, and still portray wives and girlfriends as out to take your money and sleep with your friends. The everyday speech of ordinary soldiers is still riddled with sexist and homophobic insults, and troops still openly peruse pornography that humiliates women and sing the misogynist songs that have been around for decades:

"Who can take a chainsaw

Cut the bitch in two

Fuck the bottom half

And give the upper half to you..."

This hatred of women also comes out in constant sexual persecution and assault of female troops -- 90 percent report being sexually harassed and some 30 percent say they were raped or sexually assaulted by their own comrades. The hatred can also be directed at any man who is seen as "weak" or second-rate: recent VA statistics show that 59,345 men have reported sexual abuse in the service

Now, ship these people to a war that is based on lies, as just about every soldier in Iraq and American citizen now knows. There never were any WMDs, there never was a connection to 9/11. Ask almost any G.I., and you will hear that the only noble cause he or she can find in this war is to protect and defend one's comrades.

Now put this trained killer, who is unable to believe in his leaders' justifications for this war, into a battle with no front lines, where most of the victims are civilians, where the killing is close-up and gruesome, and where they use automatic weapons so powerful they can mow down an entire market place of women, children and old men in a few seconds.

As early as July 2004, 48 percent of soldiers and 65 percent of Marines in the war had killed, and 95 percent of both had seen bodies and human remains.

Keep these soldier at war for twice as long as was promised, then send them back, over and over. One third of the troops in Iraq have been deployed more than once.

Add in the drugs and drink soldiers take (and are given by their own medics) to numb them to the horror.

Then send them home to face what they have done and how they have been used, while making them wait for months and sometimes years for the medical and mental care they have been promised. It is testimony to human strength of mind that more veterans don't break down in one way or another.

So what can be done? Obviously the violence cannot be taken out of war or training. But more care can be taken with soldiers before we release them back into the civilian world. The military and the VA must recognize that these people are now trained killers, full of anger, resentment, hurt and trauma. Training and war has ripped away their civilian selves and disabled their ability to live normal lives. We owe them and their families help. Here's where to start:

* The military must do a better job of recognizing and treating mental distress in the field. Commanders who punish soldiers for seeking help should be dismissed.

* Sexism and sexual violence should be prevented and punished at every level, from verbal harassment on. Rules from the top are not enough. All officers and NCOs need to enforce zero tolerance for the persecution of women soldiers and civilians.

* Improve the debriefing of returning troops. At the moment, most are given no more than a questionnaire about P.T.S.D. and a rote lecture on managing anger and not beating up your wife. An effective psychological approach to counteract war trauma must be developed.

* Last but not least, stop sending our young to unjustified, hopeless wars, whether in Iraq or -- President-Elect Obama take note -- Afghanistan.

Until these steps are taken, we will be seeing more stories of murder and mayhem and suicide by veterans, like those out of Fort Carson. A lot more.


Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq , forthcoming from Beacon Press in April, 2009. Her articles on female soldiers won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism in 2008. This article is based on Benedict's two years of interviewing Iraq War veterans and her research for the book.

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