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National Defense

The Other War


On the 21st of January during his second inaugural address, President Obama made clear his intentions to bring home the majority of combat troops deployed in Afghanistan in 2013. A few might stay as advisors to the Afghan army, though even that remains in doubt given the mounting number of coalition casualties inflicted by so-called “friendlies”. There was no conditionality: no call for total victory first, no demand for an agreement with the Taliban as a precondition. America would finally accept that the Taliban could not be eradicated as long as Pakistan continued to harbor them in the Pashtun tribal areas: Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires.


Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan (2001 to 2013) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003 to 2012) each lasted longer than any other war in American history: the next two longest were Vietnam (1965 to 1972) and the American Revolution (1775 to 1782). The two campaigns were carried out simultaneously in widely separate theaters against different enemies; only after the American occupation of Iraq and the arrival of foreign jihadists did they take on a somewhat similar cast.[1] Mr. Bush should have heeded Mr. Lincoln’s advice to his Secretary of State Seward: “One war at a time.”

These wars have produced only losers: Saddam Hussein and his barbarous clique of thugs certainly lost, but it is impossible to say that the Americans or the Iraqi people won. The future of the government, of democracy, of the very existence of Iraq as a unified state remains unclear. The death of Saddam was bought at the price of hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties: too dear a price to be imposed from the outside.

In Afghanistan, the results are even less clear. The Taliban were driven from the cities and most of the country’s provinces, but they found refuge amongst the Pashtun tribes on the frontier with Pakistan and are as dangerous now as they ever were. The future of the Karzai government is in serious doubt, despite the formation of a large, national Afghan army: one rife with Taliban infiltrators. On the other hand, the U.S. did not go to war to oust the Taliban, but to eradicate Al Qaeda and capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. Both of those objectives were achieved with brilliance and daring, though the Mr. Bin Laden eluded his hunters for a decade.

A decade of war cost the American taxpayer $1.4 trillion dollars and counting[2], twice the amount of the Troubled Asset Relief Program that rescued the American financial system in 2009. Afghanistan alone – “the right war” according to President Obama – cost $600 billion dollars, about $2,000 for every single inhabitant of the United States.  As a comparison, Vietnam cost the United States $750 billion in 2013 dollars[3]. These wars are well ended.

soldiers             More importantly, these wars cost the lives of 6,663 servicemen and women[4] with thousands more suffering physical and psychological scars. That does not approach the sacrifice of the almost 60,000 American fatalities in Vietnam, but the widows and orphans, the devastated families, do not know the difference. For these people, the war will never end.

Twelve years is a long time for an individual to be engaged in any activity, but most especially in war. Yet our volunteer forces have faithfully and silently performed their duties throughout that whole period, enduring extended deployments, multiple deployments, hardships and crises unimaginable to the civilian population back home. There remains an unspoken promise: “never again” would our troops be reviled, ignored, despised, forgotten, as they were during and after Vietnam. They would be supported; they would be cared for; they would receive everything they needed from a grateful Republic.

Superficially at least, that is the case. The Armed Forces are the most respected institution in the Republic, more so than any branch of government[5]. Soldiers have drinks bought for them, wounded veterans receive the finest medical care available. But in a wider sense, I think we have failed them, and the truth of this can be found in the casualty lists of the Other War.

The Other War

The Other War is inseparable from the War on Terror. It has been fought at the same time and with the same soldiers. There were no IED, snipers or ambushes in the Other War and all of the casualties were self-inflicted. This conflict was as implacable and relentless as any human foe and its reach extended beyond the fields of battle in both space and time. It continues to claim lives.

The rate of suicide among active duty soldiers and veterans increased alarmingly during the decade plus War on Terror and remains disconcertingly high.


Through much of the first decade, America lost more soldiers to self-inflicted fatal injuries than to enemy action, accidents and illness in Afghanistan. Army and Marine Corps personnel have been most susceptible with significant increases in Army suicides in 2004 and Marine suicides in 2006. Repeated and prolonged exposure to combat stressors and to the wounding and death of brothers in arms is undoubtedly responsible for part of this difference. If it were possible to look within each branch of service and analyze the suicide rates by military specialty, I would hypothesize that the combat arms (i.e. infantry, engineers, artillery, armor) would contribute disproportionately to the total.


Deployment to combat zone is stressful enough. In the Second World War, the Army High Command estimated that a soldier reached peak efficiency after 30 days of combat[6]. After 120 to 140 days of combat, the psychological stress of facing imminent and sudden death every day ground a soldier down to uselessness. In both the European and Pacific theaters, American forces suffered 1 casualty due to combat exhaustion for every 4 soldiers wounded in action. That ratio could rise to 1:2 in periods of unusually intense or prolonged fighting.[7]

The Army’s experience in Vietnam was significantly different. Combat exhaustion casualties would rarely exceed 1 out of 10 wounded in that conflict, perhaps due to the sporadic nature of the fighting, fixed combat tours and well-supplied R&R facilities in country. It could be expected that counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan would follow a similar ratio, but the repeated rotations in- and out-of-country would act to increase the psychological stress on individuals. The recuperative effect of a return home to spend an all too brief time with the family would be tempered by the knowledge that the unit would soon return to face another 12-month or longer rotation.


It is evident that suicides amongst soldiers with multiple deployments burgeoned as these deployments increased, while in-theater suicides and undeployed soldier suicides fluctuated around a mean. The military suicide rate, which was below the U.S. civilian mean rate for much of the decade, finally surpassed it in 2008 – although the comparison is not particularly valid given the very different composition of the military vs. the general civilian population. Notwithstanding, suicides among frontline Army and Marine soldiers with multiple deployments has become tragically frequent.

The war’s reach extends even to the soldier returning home and leaving the military. So traumatized are many of these young individuals that the Veteran’s Administration recorded 18 veterans dying by suicide every day[8], of which 5 were enrolled in VA care. Between October 2008 and December 2010, approximately 950 veterans under VA care attempted suicide each month. These heartrending statistics are not included in the count of active duty suicides and not all of them can be directly attributed to service in Afghanistan or Iraq; but if they were counted, they would far exceed combat casualties.

Failing our troops

The civilian and military leaders in the Department of Defense and the Pentagon are rightly and genuinely concerned with these losses, and with the suffering of the soldiers under their charge. Each service has instituted comprehensive suicide prevention measures; supported by the Veteran’s Administration, the DoD, and other related institutions. These efforts have surely benefited many soldiers and families who might otherwise have succumbed to despair.

Yet the disease continued to fester for years for the simple reason that there weren’t enough troops to meet all of the needs for them. This may sound impossible; the U.S. military is, after all, the second largest in the world. However, only a small fraction of the total 1.5 million active duty personnel are in the combat arms.


The number of Marines and Army personnel on active duty remained relatively constant through 2007, despite two major simultaneous overseas conflicts on top of the normal obligations of the military in the Pacific and Europe. Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan comprised a significant percentage of all Army and Marine personnel, and an even higher proportion of combat and specialist units. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, while recognizing the pernicious effects of repeated and frequent combat tours, didn’t have the resources to “balance the force”; i.e. to give units and individuals adequate time to recover from the stress they were under.

The fault lies where the authority lies, with our civilian leadership. Mr. Bush wanted and expected a quick war of “shock and awe”, a lightening campaign to oust Al Qaeda and later Saddam Hussein with a minimum of casualties and a no long-term commitment. There would be no need to raise taxes, no need to significantly increase the size of the military and defense budgets along with it: Americans could have butter and guns at the same time.

At first, former President Bush seemed to be vindicated by the rapid collapse of organized resistance in both theaters. Yet even when it became evident that both the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents had remarkable resilience and as casualties mounted, there was never recognition of the need to “popularize” the war, to expand the force and raise taxes to pay for a lengthy anti-insurgency campaign. Perhaps Mr. Bush felt that Americans simply couldn’t be bothered with a call-to-arms and higher taxes. Perhaps he was right.

Did we let our troops down? The War on Terror is the first protracted war of the all-volunteer military. Despite having been bloodied in several conflicts – Grenada, Panama, the First Gulf War – as well as serving for extended periods in regions of conflict – Kosovo, Somalia – the volunteer military had not committed a substantial portion of available strength to sustained combat operations of long duration. In every previous large conflict, the military expanded to enable it to meet the demands of combat as well as our ongoing treaty commitments.

One thing is certain: the world remains a dangerous and unstable place and the demands on America’s Armed Forces will only increase. The FY2013 DoD budget[9] calls for a “smaller, leaner military that is agile, flexible, rapidly deployment and technologically advanced.” What this translates into is a reduction in the U.S. Army from 570,000 to 490,000 troops through the elimination of 8 brigade combat teams (BCTs). This is the same troop level as we had in 2001 after the “peace dividend”.

Unfortunately, today there is no peace dividend to be shared out, only the ever increasing needs of our allies in the Pacific, in Europe and in the Middle East. Not only does this force guarantee that the demands on our uniformed personnel will never diminish, it leaves the military wholly unprepared to meet any major ground force opponent. That would be fine if there were a guarantee we would never have to fight anyone other than an insurgent force in the future.

saluteI think we are letting our troops down. We ask so much of them and they never fail in their duty, so we kept asking for more and more, until the physical and psychological toll becomes too much for some to bear. The War on Terror is ending, though our vigilance against terrorism must not. Hopefully, the attitude of “war on the cheap” and business as usual for the rest of us while our soldiers fight and die (“after all, that’s what they volunteered for”) will also disappear. Meanwhile, the Other War continues to be fought in the minds of veterans, many of whom may yet become casualties.

Sources and Notes:

[1] Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Saddam Hussein’s secular, Baathist dictatorship did not tolerate the presence of Al Qaeda havens for fear of provoking sectarian violence. The elimination of Al Qaeda became a U.S. policy goal as a result of the invasion, not a precursor to it. We ostensibly went to war over weapons of mass destruction, which were also proven not to exist.
[2] www.costofwar.com – National Priorities Project, as of 30 January 2013
[3] Congressional Budget Office
[4] www.icasualties.org – As of 29 January 2013
[5] A somewhat disconcerting fact which would have set any of our Founding Fathers on edge, with the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton
[6] Cowdrey, Albert E.  “Fighting for Life: American Military Medicine in World War II,” New York: The Free Press, 1994, ISBN 0-68-486379-0
[7] The First Armored Division suffered 137 combat exhaustion casualties for 250 WIA (1:1.8) while assaulting the Gothic Line in Italy, while the 6th Marine Division suffered 1,289 combat exhaustion casualties and 2,662 wounded (1:2) in the brutal fighting on Okinawa.
[8] Suicide Prevention Fact Sheet, VA Suicide Prevention Program, Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 2010
[9] Feickert, Andrew, “Army Drawdown and Restructuring: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 03 January 2013

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