The Spoils of War

07/12/2013 11:46 am ET | Updated Sep 11, 2013
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President Barack Obama is considering an early departure from Afghanistan. Regardless of the politics of the decision, many soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are breathing a sigh of relief.

William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union General during the U.S. Civil War once said, "It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."

As a former officer in the Indian Special Forces I wholeheartedly concur. I witnessed the horrifying reality that combat inflicts on those involved, transforming highly educated and well trained friends into shells of the people I once knew.

In some of the United Nations missions that I served in, I saw children turned into combatants in South Sudan and grown men become savages, capable of causing indescribable horrors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somalia, Sudan(Darfur) and Iraq.

The damages of war go far beyond what we once believed; society has now reached an understanding about the kind of moral, communal and psychological toll war can have on the soldiers, their family, community and even country.

Perhaps the question we need to ask if there is a need to bolster our quest for non-violence as a means to resolve disputes and differences?

The story of war is as old as time. However, today we have terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), chronic depression, cognitive impairment and traumatic brain injury to help explain the symptoms suffered by active and returning soldiers. Yet, are we any closer to treating these veterans? Especially in developing countries, is there the wherewithal to provide them with all the resources they need to return to the wives, children, homes and communities they left behind?

The United States in particular has taken steps to address the mental health of soldiers just as much as their physical health. Since the fateful events of 9/11 around 250,000 soldiers have been treated by the U.S.' Veterans Affairs (VA) for PTSD. Estimates suggest around the same number of veterans have also been treated for mild to severe traumatic brain injuries. Apart from PTSD, combatants also suffer from issues such as mood disorders, depression, anxiety, night terrors, may be at increased risk for substance abuse, and be more likely to commitviolent offences in civilian life.

Even in the U.S., where there is a greater willingness to respond to the mental health of veterans, there exist significant holes in their treatment. Homelessness amongst veterans is still pervasive and soldiers still struggle to access benefits and healthcare if they suffer from mental health issues rather than from physical wounds. In a compelling piece 'War Wounds', New York Times' Nicholas Kristof recounts the story of Maj Ben Richards who says that he wishes he lost his limbs during his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than his mind.

The story is different in the developing world. Despite the preponderance of research and evidence pointing to the fact that returning soldiers are in desperate need of mental health services, developing countries have been slow to adapt.

There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, many developing countries still do not have adequate overall services for their current and retired soldiers. Second, even in civilian life, mental health problems are not openly acknowledged or treated in many countries; this is even more pronounced in military life where hyper-masculinity and machismo are the expectation and reaching out for counseling would be interpreted as weakness. Third, in countries like India there simply aren't enough counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists available to provide the necessary services in a systematic manner to soldiers.

Take a developing country like India for example. Among the 1.1 million soldiers in the Indian Armed Forces,instances of suicide and soldier-on-soldier violence is on the rise. In 2010, that number was 101 and 2011 it rose to 119. Suicides actually killed more soldiers than active combat in counter-insurgency operations.

Studies have shown that soldiers in long-term combat situations, or those who do repeated tours in conflict zones, are negatively impacted by combat stress. Research by the U.S. Armed Forces showed that repeat tours in Iraqincreased the risk of PTSD amongst soldiers.

Suicide related deaths in the U.S. military however surged to a record 349 last year -- more than the 295 Americans who died fighting in Afghanistan in 2012. Statistics show that there is one suicide death every 18 hours.

When we see terrifying images from across the world of professional soldiers from developed or developing countries carrying out some of the most egregious violations of human rights, we have to pause for a moment to think of the triggers that cause such reactions. These soldiers actually reflect the moral compass of the society that sent them in the first place. Far away from families and friends, the pressure of combat brings the worst out of many. When atrocities happen, it is a failure of leadership at all levels of command.

The toll that war takes on a soldier is clear, but what sort of toll does it take on a community?

These problems don't just affect the returning soldiers' parents, wives, children, siblings, friends and neighbors. What are the social consequences of millions of psychologically scarred soldiers returning to their communities feeling hopeless and angry all over the world?

Is it a 'silent disaster' waiting to explode with unknown consequences?

The moral imperative during World War II has been replaced by the quest to gain control of resources and influence. Increasingly, countries declaring war have done so for political reasons. In the absence of moral reasoning, soldiers and society find it even more difficult to embrace the idea of putting young lives at risk in war.

And then there is the massive financial cost. A 2013 Harvard study notes that the combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could end up costing the U.S. between 4 and 6 trillion dollars including the medical care of veterans, leading to an enormous negative impact on the global economy.

No doubt war is hell -- but for reasons far beyond what we traditionally thought. War not only tears apart the people that partake in it, emotionally as well as physically, but also their families, communities, societies and even their countries. It is extremely expensive, not only in money, but also in human capital and potential. These costs are simply too great to bear.

Now more than ever, the time is ripe to explore the paradigm-shifting potential of 'soft power', brilliantly articulated by Professor Joseph Nye, one of the world's leading thinkers and intellectuals. Nye describes soft power as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion." He sees strong relations with allies, economic assistance programs, and vital cultural exchanges as examples of soft power. By using this soft power, it may be possible to stop internal conflicts in fragile states before they even begin. Soft power will allow countries to influence the world and achieve their goals through non-violent means.

Even with overwhelming might, we are seeing wars aren't won any longer. Mahatma Gandhi said "victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."

If the world cannot find a way out of war, then we may well be defeated as a civilization.

These are personal views of Siddharth Chatterjee. He is the Chief Diplomat at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and has also worked with UN Missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. He is a former Special Forces officer from India. Follow him on twitter:@sidchat1