40% Of Equipment Destroyed
Exodus Out Of US Military Increases, Desertions On The Rise, Threat Of Mutinies Become Real
Will President Bush and the NeoCons be remembered for all but destroying the US military? They'll have to be. Otherwise the terrible credit will go to the Iraqi insurgency, and few American historians are likely to hand such an historical accomplishment to 'terrorists'.
Journalist Peter Beaumont was confronted by a string of angry, heavily fatigued members of the US Army during a recent trip to the 'front lines' of Iraq, some of who demanded of him, "'Why don't you tell the truth? Why don't you journalists write that this army is exhausted?'
So Beaumont did, in this devastating mini-portrait of the world's (up until recently) most powerful military machine grinding to a halt in Iraq, staggered by plunging morale, loss of men and equipment and crippled by the will to fight on, when America already sees it as a war now over. But back home, even the Democrats are claiming US troops will remain in Iraq for years to come, as more than 70% of Americans declare they want their troops home.
The only thing left now is for a repeat of the mutiny amongst American forces that began the end of the Vietnam War in 1970-71 :
A whole army is exhausted and worn out. You see the young soldiers washed up like driftwood at Baghdad's international airport, waiting to go on leave or returning to their units, sleeping on their body armour on floors and in the dust.
Where once the war in Iraq was defined in conversations with these men by untenable ideas - bringing democracy or defeating al-Qaeda - these days the war in Iraq is defined by different ways of expressing the idea of being weary. It is a theme that is endlessly reiterated as you travel around Iraq. 'The army is worn out. We are just keeping people in theatre who are exhausted,' says a soldier working for the US army public affairs office who is supposed to be telling me how well things have been going since the 'surge' in Baghdad began.
They are not supposed to talk like this. We are driving and another of the public affairs team adds bitterly: 'We should just be allowed to tell the media what is happening here. Let them know that people are worn out. So that their families know back home. But it's like we've become no more than numbers now.'
The first soldier starts in again. 'My husband was injured here. He hit an improvised explosive device. He already had a spinal injury. The blast shook out the plates. He's home now and has serious issues adapting. But I'm not allowed to go back home to see him. If I wanted to see him I'd have to take leave time (two weeks). And the army counts it.'
A week later, in the northern city of Mosul, an officer talks privately. 'We're plodding through this,' he says after another patrol and another ambush in the city centre. 'I don't know how much more plodding we've got left in us.'
When the soldiers talk like this there is resignation. There is a corrosive anger, too, that bubbles out, like the words pouring unbidden from a chaplain's assistant who has come to bless a patrol. 'Why don't you tell the truth? Why don't you journalists write that this army is exhausted?'
It is a weariness that has created its own culture of superstition. There are vehicle commanders who will not let the infantrymen in the back fall asleep on long operations - not because they want the men alert, but because, they say, bad things happen when people fall asleep. So the soldiers drink multiple cans of Rip It and Red Bull to stay alert and wired.
But the exhaustion of the US army emerges most powerfully in the details of these soldiers' frayed and worn-out lives. Everywhere you go you hear the same complaints: soldiers talk about divorces, or problems with the girlfriends that they don't see, or about the children who have been born and who are growing up largely without them.
'I counted it the other day,' says a major whose partner is also a soldier. 'We have been married for five years. We added up the days. Because of Iraq and Afghanistan we have been together for just seven months. Seven months ... We are in a bad place. I don't know whether this marriage can survive it.'
The anecdotal evidence on the ground confirms what others - prominent among them General Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State - have been insisting for months now: that the US army is 'about broken'. Only a third of the regular army's brigades now qualify as combat-ready. Officers educated at the elite West Point academy are leaving at a rate not seen in 30 years, with the consequence that the US army has a shortfall of 3,000 commissioned officers - and the problem is expected to worsen.
And it is not only the soldiers that are worn out. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the destruction, or wearing out, of 40 per cent of the US army's equipment, totalling at a recent count $212bn (£105bn).
The army's exhaustion is reflected in problems such as the rate of desertion and unauthorised absences - a problem, it was revealed earlier this year, that had increased threefold on the period before the war in Afghanistan and had resulted in thousands of negative discharges.
'Modern war is exhausting,' says Major Stacie Caswell, an occupational therapist with a combat stress unit attached to the military hospital in Mosul. Her unit runs long group sessions to help soldiers with emerging mental health and discipline problems: often they have seen friends killed and injured, or are having problems stemming from issues at home - responsible for 50 to 60 per cent of their cases. One of the most common problems in Iraq is sleep disorders.
'This is a different kind of war,' says Caswell. 'In World War II it was clear who the good guys and the bad guys were. You knew what you would go through on the battlefield.' Now she says the threat is all around. And soldiering has changed. 'Now we have so many things to do...'
'And the soldier in Vietnam,' interjects Sergeant John Valentine from the same unit, 'did not get to see the coverage from home that these soldiers do. We see what is going on at home on the political scene. They think the war is going to end. Then we have the frustration and confusion. That is fatiguing. Mentally tiring.'
The most insightful, and devastating, of the comments in Beaumont's story come from the media wranglers assigned to show him all the good that the Iraq War has achieved, and how the war is being won. When the US Army cannot even find positive-heavy soldiers to double as media mythmakers, then how truly terrible is the problem of morale in Iraq?
It doesn't take much imagination to sense the scale of dissent in the ranks. It is the key reason why the Pentagon began cracking down on the use of blogs, and uncensored letters and e-mails, back in 2005. Two years ago. And conditions on the ground in Iraq have grown only more horrific since then.
Back home, American veterans and their families are now joining protests outside the home of Vice President Cheney, along with his neighbours, toppling an effigy of him, in homage to the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue that Americans were once led to believe signified the end of the Iraq War. More than four years ago.
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