When I was in the US Army, we did bad things. So have all militaries in other wars. Let us not mince words -- when armies (navies or air forces) go to war, the worst behaviors are brought to the forefront alongside heroism and camaraderie.
Why? I am not sure. It is not just the slaughter around you, but the thought that anything goes because it is chaos. Rape as an instrument of warfare and other heinous means of harming "others" is not a 21st century invention any more than wanton slaughter of civilians began recently.
But peculiarly American ailments are breaking down the US military after more than a decade of war. There are very high rates of suicide and a sickening frequency of sexual abuse.
Our soldiers are killing themselves -- one every 25 hours according to one estimate. Such a suicide rate is astounding, shocking and saddening. Yes, from my generation, before PTSD was even diagnosed, I had friends who took their own lives after returning from combat. But most deaths during and after Vietnam were from combat, disease, homelessness or a combination thereof.
In 2012 alone, 349 suicides occurred among active duty troops. Were we to add all those who had returned from Iraq and/or Afghanistan earlier, the toll would certainly be far higher. And there are the familial casualties - not merely divorces but intra-family murders, too.
The crimes and tragedies of the American military unquestionably have always existed in other armed forces, even to far more gruesome levels. But, we have the most well-trained, volunteer participants in our armed forces. I believe that, and hope it is true. No American wants to hear of a crazed US soldier shooting to death more than a dozen innocent Afghan villagers, or to learn again of a new My Lai massacre or of horrific crimes in Korea or World War II committed by our forces. We were fighting in all cases despicable enemies, but to stain our reputation is a sad commentary on the effects of warfare.
But something is truly amiss in the armed forces of the United States. Unwanted sexual contact incidents -- which may include abuse, assault, and other non-consensual actions -- rose to an astonishing 26,000 in 2012. While this total includes all genders, the vast majority was males affronting females. One of three women in the US armed forces has said they have been subjected to unwanted sexual contact (of some 207,000 women on active duty). Secretary Hagel, senior uniformed officers, and even President Obama have said this must stop. Reports, commissions, retraining -- I am sure all will happen.
Ultimately, there is deep and abiding damage that these long, long wars do to a thinly stretched force. The engrained damage is not only physical injuries but also psychological and moral, weakening the command structure and sense of human responsibility.
I saw this in the 1970s when people returned from horrendous experiences, saw it in Central America in the 1980s and elsewhere. We become unhinged, disconnected, unmoored.
There is no blame or indictment of the American armed forces implicit. These are normal, good people who volunteered for an unending torment of deployment and potential death.
But don't we see what that does? Abu Ghraib? Pissing on corpses? Killing innocent villagers? Committing suicide or doing violence once back? Perhaps we did worse things in prior wars, but our forces should be better now, right?
We want a professional, intact, clearheaded Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy. I am, however, increasingly convinced that reconstructing the American military will be far more difficult that refurbishing tanks, Humvees and helicopters.
It will mean repairing people.
*Daniel N. Nelson leads a consulting firm in Northern Virginia.