'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 9 April 2012

Psychological and physical traumas after Iraq and Afghanistan

Dignity comes in many forms. Lt Col. Tammy Duckworth lost her legs in a helicopter crash which came under RPG fire in Iraq. She is the current Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the United States Department for Veterans Affairs.

In November 2012 she will stand as the Democratic nominee for the 8th Congressional District of Illinois, standing against conservative Republican Joe Walsh, having stood and lost for the 6th Congressional District in 2006.

Duckworth is standing on a platform of strong social cohesion, especially protecting Medicare. She has made the point that there are hidden costs to the ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Advanced battlefield aid has meant the return of many combat troops that would not previously have survived their injuries. The accelerated use of IEDs in both theatres amplified the injury rate.

Liberal democracies have a duty of care to their returning service personnel. Costsofwar's (Part of The Eisenhower Research Project at Brown's Watson Institute) research concludes:

  • Over 6,000 US troops have died, as have 2,300 Pentagon contractors
  • Over 550,000 disability claims have been registered with the VA as of fall 2010
  • Nearly 70,000 allied troops have been wounded
  • A RAND study screening of returning troops found 26 percent likely had some kind of mental health condition.
  • Toxic dust exposures in theater have been associated with high rates of respiratory, neurological, and cardiovascular disease in returning troops
  • The middle class is somewhat overrepresented, the poor and the very wealthy underrepresented among the casualties[1]

550, 000 disability claims in a population of 311, 591, 000 people represents a disability claim of 0.176% of the population. Which means that as a result of the war on terror, 176 in every 100 000 have filed disability claims in the United States. These are hidden costs.

But more difficult to gauge, assess, treat and hence reintegrate soldiers are psychological traumas. In the Canadian film "Passchendaele", there is a general sense of the inhumanity of war, that men cannot prepare for its horrors, and that, also, bodies becomes twisted into shapes by explosions that are incomprehensible to the human mind. The documentaries are starting to emerge on Iraq and Afghanistan that deal with this explicitly. The three-part documentary series by the British Broadcasting Service, Our War, is one such attempt, which incorporates a large percentage of footage shot by the troops themselves and only recently released by the Ministry of Defence (first, second, third).

Though politicians may be desperate to draw a line under Iraq and Afghanistan, as the two theatres of the War on Terror that incorporated substantial troop deployment, the media may come to delve deeper into it as the picture of what the aftermath actually looks like becomes clearer. A Daily Mirror investigation concluded that mental health problems in the UK military stood at 2, 510 in 2010, and those with severe PTSD, at 185. These are diagnosed mental injuries. It seems probable that given the machismo culture of front line military forces, any mental problems would be preferrably self-medicated.

The war on terror as a name and venture is soon to be confined to history but the hidden costs will still be very much a part of our liberal democracies for decades to come. Identifying this, and giving voices to those who have important things to say, such as Tammy Duckworth, will be vital to the relationship between civil society and our armed forces in the coming decades.

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