While Iraqi insurgents expand their ranks and operations in the occupied Iraq, the US Army is fighting desertion, open criticism, recruitment shortfalls and lawsuits from its own troops. According to the CBS programme 60 Minutes, more than 5,000 US troops have deserted since the war started in March 2003. More than 1,300 US military have been killed in Iraq, 503 of them in the second half of 2004. The number of wounded is over 10,000.
The Pentagon´s original plans fixed the withdrawal of US troops by September 2003. After that, a small force would remain behind to guarantee security in Iraq. Until now, however, only US allies have withdrawn their troops, including Hungary and Ukraine, which announced at the end of 2004 that they would bring their military home immediately. Currently, there are about 150,000 US military in Iraq and no plans for withdrawal up to now.
The United States has 1.4 million troops in active service and another 870,000 in part time service. That means that the US army is overstretched to a breaking point due to its involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars. It is increasingly evident that the US policy for the so-called greater Middle East is going to fail.
To maintain a security force of 150,000 troops in Iraq in long term, the United States would in fact need three times as many soldiers as it has now. According to military planners, a third of the current troops would be preparing for deployment, a third would be deployed, and a third would be involved in post-deployment work or on vacation. Some top military officers have warned the Congress that “it may be necessary to increase the number of the regular armed forces,” something that the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, wants to avoid at all costs due mainly to budgetary reasons.
Moreover, many Marines suffer from deep psychiatric illnesses after serving in Iraq, according to a report by the US Navy obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. The document points out that some Marines have described how they had shot Iraqi soldiers in combat or stabbed Iraqis on the ground to make sure they were dead. Some of them were stabbed up to 28 times. According to the New York Times, the study shows that “one in six soldiers in Iraq have symptoms of serious anxiety, major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually increase to one in three, the rate which was found in Vietnam veterans.”
Many soldiers suffer from nervousness due to the continued resistance attacks, especially bombings or rocket or mortar fire. “When you have people using car bombs to target convoys and locations, they have the ability to choose their time and place,” said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan to the Agence France Presse.
These psychological problems have increased the suicide rate among US Marines, which have reached their highest level in five years. There were 32 confirmed or probable suicides of US Marines in 2004, surpassing the 28 who killed themselves in 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan. Although the Marines are the smallest of the US military corps by number of troops, they have had the highest suicide rate, about 25 per year, of the armed corps since 1999, the year when the US government started to keep detailed records. Furthermore, the Times points out that “until the end of September, the Army had evacuated 885 troops from Iraq for psychiatric reasons, including some who had threatened or tried to commit suicide.”
Problems for the National Guard
Many of the part-timers are members of the National Guard, which is made up by civilians that want to earn some extra money to pay for university fees or other needs. Most people who joined the National Guard thought that their mission would be to fight against natural disasters in their states. However, many of them are being currently sent to Iraq where some of them will probably be killed. Around 40% of the 150,000 US troops in Iraq are currently part-timers who had never expected to be sent to the front line. In peacetime the commitment of the NG members means a weekend of service a month and two weeks in the summer. There are currently 42,000 NG soldiers serving in Iraq and Kuwait, and 8,200 more serving in Afghanistan. The number of National Guards on active duty is now 183,000 compared with 79,000 before the invasion. This has caused that, for the first time since 1994, the National Guard has missed its recruitment target in 2004. Instead of signing up 56,000 people, only 51,000 did so. This has forced recruiters to drop educational levels and other requirements.
Some of the most dangerous missions, including driving military vehicles and guarding bases and other facilities, are often assigned to Guard troops. Many of these soldiers have been killed when Iraqi insurgents have attacked convoys with rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.
The Reserve has a similar problem. Historically, many former military of the regular Army have enlisted the Reserves, but now many of the soldiers that have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan have no desire to return there again as Reserve members. On 6th January the AFP agency indicated that the commander of the US Army Reserve, Lieutenant General James Helmly, had stated that it was turning into “a broken force” and might not be able to meet its operational requirements in the future.
Reserve resignation requests have increased from just 15 in 2001 to more than 370 during a 12-month period which ended last September. To preserve its leadership ranks –many of the requests were presented by officers- the Reserve has had to take some measures. It has rejected most resignation requests and forced some officers to stay on even after they fulfilled their initial eight-year operational service period.
According to Hal Bernton, a Seattle Time journalist, the “Army Reserve is crafting a new policy to curb these resignations. Under this policy, company-grade officers who have not yet been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan will not be allowed to resign unless they can demonstrate “extreme personal reasons.”
At least eight soldiers in Iraq have preferred to sue the Army to prevent this from extending his one-year contract for other two years or even more. These soldiers accuse the Army of deceiving them, since they enlisted for a fixed term and were not told that they could be obliged to stay longer. Once their contracts expire, soldiers are increasingly refusing to re-enlist despite the hefty bonus and other benefits that they are offered. A recent survey carried out by the Army discovered that half the soldiers were not willing to re-enlist, let alone be killed to satisfy the geopolitical ambitions of the Bush Administration.
Recently, 17 soldiers of the 343rd Company, based in Tallil, refused to embark on what they considered a “suicide mission”. They claimed their vehicles were inadequately armoured and poorly repaired and ran on contaminated gas that could cause them to become easy victims of roadside bombings and sniper fire.
Moreover, many wounded and maimed soldiers are coming home with horror stories about a war that is claiming more and more US and Iraqi lives. Between June, when the Iraqi interim Government took over, and September, the average casualty rate among US troops was 747 per month, in comparison with 482 during the time of invasion. Some experts point out that human resources are being exploited and wasted in a way that could leave the service damaged for a whole generation.
Many soldiers who are not willing to take part in the war and its horror have decided to abandon the Army. According to several sources, the army of 150,000 in Iraq has experienced 5,000 desertions -an astonishing rate of 3.3%- up to now. Some of these deserters have fled to Canada. The German weekly magazine Spiegel has recently written a report in which it tells the story of Darrell Anderson, a 22-year-old soldier from Lexington, Kentucky who deserted after knowing that his unit, the Germany-based First US Tank Division was going to be sent to Iraq. He is now in Canada with some other former US soldiers.
According to Spiegel, “Anderson spent seven months in Iraq last year as a part of a unit assigned the dangerous mission of guarding police stations in Baghdad. He was wounded by grenade shrapnel during an insurgent attack, was awarded the Purple Heart and allowed to spend Christmas at home in the United States. But instead of returning to duty, Anderson fled to Toronto.” In justifying his desertion, Anderson says: “I can't go back to this war. I don't want to kill innocent people.” He talks about the constant pressure soldiers face to make decisions in the daily grind of war. Once, when a car came too close to their Baghdad checkpoint, his commanding officer ordered him to shoot, even though Anderson could only make out a man and children in the vehicle. The soldier refused. “Next time you shoot,” his commanding officer barked.
Spiegel adds: “Anderson has applied for political asylum in Toronto. His attorney, Jeffrey House, was once one of the 50,000 draft dodgers who fled to Canada to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. Deserters who are now fleeing to Canada to avoid the Iraq war have reawakened memories of an exodus that took place more than thirty years ago. House says: “Every day I get calls from at least two soldiers looking for a way out”.”