The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Wounded Home Front

A supporter of the Iraq War reckons the costs of “small wars”.

Published on January 1, 2011

Covering the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, I learned that most of the land mines that the Soviets laid were designed to maim, not kill. The Soviets knew that a dead body causes no tactical inconvenience. It only removes the one dead person from the field. But a wounded person requires the assistance of people all the way down the line who could otherwise be fighting. Likewise with the home front in a war. The dead leave an awful vacancy in the lives of loved ones, but those who are seriously wounded or psychologically traumatized can disrupt families and society more. Families of the dead can move on, as difficult as it may be, and as awful as it may be to say; the families of the seriously maimed, physically or psychologically, never can.

Army Col. Ross Brown, a squadron commander in Iraq, told me this story:

After a suicide bomber killed four of my soldiers, my Command Sergeant-Major (CSM) and I spent a night picking up their body parts. I walked around one side of the blast area while my CSM covered the other side. An 18-year-old soldier walked behind me towing a body bag. As I came upon a limb or other body part, I would place it in the bag and move on to the next body part. After six hours of walking the blast radius, I had a full bag. Although I knew the soldier beside me was young, and even as I tried to protect the youngest soldiers from seeing such terrible things, I had to use him to assist me that evening. The next day I had him see a psychologist, and had him see one again after we returned from Iraq. However, less than a year later, I signed paperwork releasing him from the Army for post-traumatic stress disorder and long term psychological damage.

To be sure, the dead and the psychologically wounded of that terrible evening will have ripple effects upon their families and the larger society for years to come. And this is merely one story. Nancy Berglass, director of the Iraq-Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund, says “hundreds of thousands of active duty and former active duty troops are dealing with significant mental health [and drug dependence] problems that have not been adequately addressed.” In each instance of psychological disturbance, there is a story, perhaps as bad as Col. Brown’s, behind it.

The long tail of suffering that extends from the war front to the home front, and from dead and wounded soldiers and marines, sailors and airmen, to their wives and children, and to their children’s children, is statistically numbing and heartrending. Of the 2.2 million American troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, several hundred thousand have sustained physical and psychological wounds. The figures of 4,417 dead from Iraq and 1,368 from Afghanistan (as of November 10, 2010) are well-known and oft-quoted. But the physically wounded from both wars number more than 40,000, a staggering number, and roughly three-quarters of them have been wounded in a serious life- and family-affecting way. According to the Army Office of the Surgeon General, between 2001 and 2009 doctors performed 1,286 amputations, three-quarters of which were of major limbs.

Then there are the psychological wounds, to which Col. Brown’s story attests. Between 20 and 35 percent of deployed troops test positive for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. More than 100,000 soldiers today are on prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and 40,000 are thought by the Army to be using drugs illicitly. At least one in six service members is on some form of psychiatric drug. The effect on wives and children is immense. There have been around 25,000 cases of domestic violence in military families in the past decade: 20 percent of married troops returning from deployment are planning a divorce. Problems in family relationships are reportedly four times higher following a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. In families where one of the spouses is deployed, instances of child abuse are 40 percent higher than the norm. In 2009 alone, 74,646 criminal offenses were committed by soldiers.

In 2009 alone there were 334 military suicides. Marine Corps suicides are now 24 per 100,000, compared to 20 in the civilian population. Eighteen veterans a day die by their own hand. As for active duty troops, Berglass says they are taking their own lives at the rate of one every 36 hours. These may not seem like such high numbers, but keep in mind that in the 1990s the Army and other armed services were touted as the most disciplined and psychologically healthiest sector of the population.

Then there is homelessness. Homelessness is only partly a sign of insufficient financial means. At a deeper level it can be about the inability to cope with the complexities of modern life following a period of sustained trauma. Veterans for America estimates that 10,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are now homeless. During the Vietnam War, the number of homeless veterans exceeded the number of fatalities (58,000), and experts have told me that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming homeless at a quicker rate than those of Vietnam. One third of the adult homeless population are veterans, even as veterans represent only 11 percent of the population.

Furthermore, young male veterans of the Iraq War had an unemployment rate of 21.6 percent in 2009, more than double that of the general population. Foreclosure rates in military towns are running at four times the national average. Then there are the rates of underwater mortgages, in which the family owes more on the loan than the value of the house. There are no adequate statistics for this regarding the military, but experts assume the rate is much higher than for the civilian population because war means deployments, and deployments mean moving locations at a quicker rate than in a peacetime Army. That, in turn, leads to more disadvantageous house purchases. I have heard stories of returning wounded veterans with amputated limbs who have trouble finding jobs and whose mortgages are in foreclosure or underwater. Though these stories may seem apocryphal, they make unmistakable sense given the other statistics. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales indicates that such statistics are central to what “land warfare does to a ground force.” Too few troops have been carrying too heavy a burden for too long, he told Government Executive reporter Katherine McIntire Peters. There was a debate back in the dark days of 2006, when America’s land forces were suffering their highest numbers of casualties, about whether Iraq would break the Army. Such numbers indicate that it has already done so, at least partially.

Edith Wharton, in a somewhat obscure antiwar classic, A Son at the Front (1923), writes of war’s “jaded appetite”, of “the monster’s daily meal”, devouring all the “gifts and virtues”, “brains in the bud”, “imagination and poetry”, of so many young men. But at least Wharton is writing about World War I in France, where there is an authentic home front to which the wounded and traumatized can return, where all of society is “swept” into the great effort, compared to which all else is trivial. So the hotels and households of the rich are “shrunken” and “understaffed.” Hallways in Paris are “piled with hospital supplies.” Every family has someone at the front: War is the subject of nearly every conversation. Indeed, the cruelest fate for the seriously wounded and those psychologically oppressed by awful memories is to return to a civilian society with distinctly other matters on its mind. For unlike the war Wharton wrote about, we in America famously constitute an army at war and a nation at the mall.

This is not necessarily a function of our prosperity, given that in relative terms the economy is stagnant and many people are out of work. Nor is it a matter of hostility toward the military: The post-9/11 Middle Eastern wars have not bred aversion to the soldier’s profession as did Vietnam. It is a matter of the particular wages of what are termed “small wars”—that is, hot, irregular wars that are big enough to be intensely fought and are seemingly endless, but are limited in that they do not demand a state’s total resources, and therefore leave the home front unscathed and unaffected, without context for the horror occurring thousands of miles away. Big wars are fought in response to a direct threat to the homeland, and by definition involve the whole society; they are wars that play to the strengths of a mass democracy. But small wars are imperial wars, even as proponents of small wars eschew the term; they are fought to preserve the balance of power and to stamp out disorder in far-flung places, motives beyond the grasp of the home front. Small wars, because they are often unconventional, lack a well-defined narrative. There is no army to follow as it marches toward its objective. Thus the home front finds these wars confusing—that is to say, meaningless.

The wounded and other uniformed warriors who come home to such a confused and distracted society suffer a very special kind of loneliness and alienation. They might also fall prey to a dose of “cynicism”, according to the French war reporter and novelist of the mid-20th century, Jean Larteguy, who wrote of paratroopers in Vietnam and Algeria unable to adapt to the mores of civilian society after having gone through an intense and lengthy bonding experience defined by constant combat in irregular, small wars.

Because of modern communication, today’s fighting men and women are arguably under greater degrees of stress regarding family issues than ever before, even as they find it difficult to talk to their families once they are back home about what is really on their minds. In the barracks every night in Iraq or Afghanistan, there is a constant stream of communication with spouses and children via email and various websites. But these troops are psychologically cut off from loved ones even as they are electronically connected to them. I can remember several instances, when, as an embedded reporter, I was in a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation facility in the Middle East, overhearing American troops having heated arguments with their wives or girlfriends over a phone line, while other soldiers lined up impatiently behind them, waiting to use the same phone. Indeed, domestic disputes take on an especially intense urgency precisely because the means of contact is virtual, and yet in no way does this prepare individual soldiers for what they will encounter when they do arrive home, particularly if they are wounded or come to suffer a variant of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The returning soldier, too, is burdened by the particular experience of small, irregular wars. Col. Brown explains that when soldiers are killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), “catastrophic explosion rips them apart.” Those soldiers who survive will see and hear explosions in their minds continually, which only amplifies their fear. This fear is cumulative and debilitating over the course of a deployment. In a conventional war you most fear being in the front lines; in an unconventional one you can be killed almost anywhere, at any time, so there is no time or place for fear to dissipate.

Furthermore, in an unconventional war, in which a soldier sees his comrades killed and lose limbs in explosions, there is no tangible measure of accomplishment as there is in a conventional war, where large swaths of territory are rolled up. This adds to the soldier’s demoralization. And as soldiers deploy and redeploy to war zones, he and his family suffer the knowledge of what the last deployment did to them, knowing that they now have to relive it. And as the years go on, with no end in sight to at least one of these wars, Brown notes that military communities at bases in the United States become more insular, more psychologically cut off from the rest of the home front.

In A Son at the Front, Wharton countenances the efficacy of war in providing for historical progress: “The liberties of England had been born of the ruthless discipline of the Norman conquest”, and “more freedom and a wiser order” had been born of the “hideous welter of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.” It is thus tempting to argue, or at least to think, that over the course of the decades, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan will bear fruit. After all, even a weak democracy in Iraq will be the first of its kind in a major Arab country, and, in addition, Iraq might become a de facto ally of the United States, with a civil society engrossed in domestic problems rather than confrontations with Israel. Moreover, the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power to restart his weapons program and become the new, anti-Western “Nasser” of the Arab world were dreadful. Afghanistan, too, could yet evolve as a new Silk Route nexus of Central Asia.

But even if the United States gains strategically from these two invasions, this is mere abstract historical thinking. Policy is about the here and now. It is about taking or not taking action based on a near- and middle-term cost-benefit analysis. To subsume policymaking completely to long-range historical projections is to risk constantly getting involved in grand schemes, and to ignore the concrete effects that such policies have on real people—both Americans and others. Thus, in the face of this human devastation, there is little absolution for those like myself who supported the Iraq War. Of course, the results of the Iraq War were born as much by the disastrous way in which the war and postwar phase were carried out as by the decision to invade itself. That could well be true of the war in Afghanistan as well. Still, to talk of complete absolution given these statistics is too convenient.

And yet there is a danger of taking this line of argument too far. For to focus solely on the hell to which so many families have been subjected is to blind oneself to the very real great-power responsibilities the United States has. For example, if U.S. military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s had resulted in, say, 500 American dead and 5,000 seriously wounded, physically and psychologically—rather than virtually none, as was the case—would those deployments still have been worth it? I think so, because they stopped an ethnic killing machine. But where do we draw the line? When does this many or that many dead or this many wounded or that many traumatized add up to failure? The question has no good answer. But it is important that we always ask it.

For years covering the military I was told by Marines and Army Special Forces troops that they did not want anybody’s pity, and that media fixation with the dead and wounded has the effect of turning all soldiers into victims. They prefer to think of themselves as warriors. That’s a fine attitude for them to have, but for the home front to think similarly would dehumanize it. The home front gropes for a way to connect with the wounded and their families. The fact that this is much harder to do than we suppose it ought to be is a particular wage of small wars—wars which we should do all in our power to henceforth avoid.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.