In the sessions I attended, virtually every speaker mentioned one relevant fact about our present wars and the soldiers who fight them. But a different relevant fact on the same subject was almost completely missing.
Again and again, participants spoke about the great change in how soldiers experience war. In past generations, for the great majority of service members, war was a one-time event. In the 18 years since 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, war has become a permanent part of soldiers' lives in a continuing cycle of repeated deployments to battle zones. (And that's not to mention the even more startling change for those who see combat remotely, sitting in front of screens and firing missiles or dropping bombs from unmanned aircraft flying over targets thousands of miles away.) As nearly all the symposium speakers pointed out, that change in the war-fighting experience has also changed the nature of combat trauma and the military culture's understanding of and attitudes toward it.
Here's the reality that almost nobody mentioned, though it's closely related: the reason these wars have lasted this long and have become a permanent part of soldiers' lives is that they have not been successful. My notes record only one presentation where that connection was even touched upon, and then only implicitly, not directly.
That single indirect mention came in a discussion group conducted by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel David Blair, the commanding officer of a Florida-based remotely piloted aircraft squadron. He mentioned that his MQ-9 Reaper drone crews increasingly have come to prefer missions in theaters other than Afghanistan. Specifically, he said, they were most positive about strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria where they "could see the front lines moving." (That suggests he was referring mainly to the 2016-2017 period when those Reapers were supporting American and Iraqi ground forces recapturing territory that had been under ISIS occupation.) Those missions led to "less trauma" for his operators, he said. At another point, he added that "if it [an engagement] ends well, they look back on their lives differently."
Other than that single remark about his crews preferring missions in other theaters, Blair never made any explicit comparison between Afghanistan and any other conflict zone. However, what he did say sounds like plain common sense. It's logical that when a military operation is relatively successful, it's easier for soldiers to explain to themselves and live with their own actions. It must help mitigate moral injury symptoms, at the very least, if they can tell themselves that a greater good was accomplished.
Conversely, if you did something that leaves you with doubt or regret but achieved no positive results, that would lead to more painful feelings and less defense against them. So, in one way, it seems odd that, except in those few moments, I didn't hear anyone make the connection between the lack of victory in America's wars and the incidence of trauma.
On the other hand, it's not so surprising that such connections were not made more often or more clearly. They would only have reminded the participants of an uncomfortable reality: that America's wars in the present era have, on the whole, fallen far short of producing any greater good that would help justify the moral injury so many soldiers are struggling with, not to mention all the other human damage those wars have caused.
I can't know their inner feelings, but I can guess that it would have been painful for many symposium participants to admit that fact out loud or to let themselves think it at all. Probably it wasn't something the organizers would have liked to hear either or remember when they face troubled soldiers in the months and years to come.
Moral Clarity Versus Moral Injury
Another moment in that same session suggested a different but related link between the nature and circumstances of a military operation and the likelihood of trauma. This one had to do with the moral perception of the operation itself.
Since his crews are not physically at risk when carrying out their missions, Lieutenant Colonel Blair pointed out, the traditional "kill or be killed" formula of the battlefield can't help them explain their war to themselves. Instead, the drone fighter's explanation has to be "kill or someone else will be killed." In turn, that determines not just what they do, but who they feel they are. "Being a protector of others," Blair said, becomes their "core identity."
A couple of quotes in a December 2017 article on an Air Force website show how the missions against ISIS strongly validated that identity -- and, indirectly, suggest why operations in other theaters have not.
The article, which I found after the symposium ended, was a feature about a remotely piloted aircraft unit (not Blair's) that supported the ground operation to recapture Raqqa, the Syrian provincial city that ISIS designated as the capital of its so-called caliphate. One quote is from a squadron commander: "It wasn't our aircrew just striking ISIS targets. We also were safeguarding and watching over [friendly Syrian troops] as they cleared civilians moving out of the city to safe locations." The article also quoted a sensor operator: "My favorite part of this job is that I'm able to help civilians be safe and I'm able to help liberate whatever city we need to. There's no better feeling than knowing you can directly impact the battlefield and other people's lives."
Obviously, when their screens showed them the civilians they were helping, and not just the enemies they were killing, those crewmen found moral clarity, rather than moral conflict, in their experience. From Blair's comments, one can surmise that was true for his crews as well, presumably for similar reasons.
Sadly, it is also pretty obvious that such a sense of clarity has been the exception, not the rule, in the wars Americans have been fighting for nearly two decades. That doesn't automatically mean those wars were not moral, but whatever their moral nature, it would only rarely have shown up on the drone operators' screens -- or in the sightlines of soldiers looking at actual battlegrounds in real space -- as clearly as it did for those airmen remembering their Raqqa missions. (Not that Raqqa raised no moral questions at all. Yes, the fighting there liberated its inhabitants from an exceptionally brutal occupation. But it also destroyed most of their homes, largely in air strikes by U.S. and allied planes that, by one estimate, dropped 20,000 bombs on the city. By the time the campaign was over, Raqqa, like a number of other Syrian and Iraqi cities, was in almost complete ruins.)
A Question, Maybe Farfetched...
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