The hidden casualties of war

By Hamish Chitts

Officially the governments that wage war on the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan acknowledge that by August 26 this year, 4460 of their troops had died in Iraq and 934 had died in Afghanistan. Warmongers like US President George Bush and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd claim that they honour every sacrifice made by the working people they have led into fighting these wars, whose only purpose is to maintain and increase the profits of big business. However, their actions prove that they do not believe their own rhetoric. Their deliberate attempts to distort and hide the real human cost of these imperialist wars shows the callous disregard they have for the people they claim to represent.

“Officially about 4100 GIs have died in Iraq till now, but in reality there have been approximately 25,000”, US Army sergeant and Iraq Veterans Against the War member Selena Coppa was quoted as saying by the July 7 German newspaper Tageszeitung. Coppa went on to explain how fatality statistics are falsified when badly injured soldiers are flown to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for treatment. If they die in transit to or while in Landstuhl, they are officially counted as deaths in Germany rather than as fatalities of the war in Iraq.

Coppa said that “about 120” US war veterans commit suicide each week. She referred to an investigation by the CBS television network that found that in 2005 alone at least 6200 veterans killed themselves. In that one year, US military losses to suicide were higher than the official figure of US troop fatalities over five years of war in Iraq.

87,000 US Iraq war casualties

As of July 15, the official figure for US military personnel injured in Iraq reached 67,203. This included 33,766 dead and wounded by what the Pentagon classifies as “hostile” causes and more than 33,437 dead and medically evacuated (as of May 31) because of “non-hostile” causes. In a July 15 article for GI Special (an internal information service produced by war resisters within the US armed forces), Michael Munk reported that the actual total is more than 87,000 because the Pentagon chooses not to count as “Iraq casualties” the approximately 20,000 casualties discovered only after they returned from Iraq — mainly from brain trauma from explosions. Again, these figures do not include mental health casualties with approximately 30% of the hundreds of thousands of US Iraq veterans being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Coppa also told Tageszeiting of the particular price women in the US military are paying. According to a study by Columbia University professor Helen Benedict, of the approximately 200,000 US woman soldiers in combat zones since the beginning of the “Global War on Terror” in 2001, almost three-quarters have been sexually harassed and almost a third have been raped. “I too know many such cases”, Coppa said. “A woman soldier in Iraq died of dehydration, because she did not dare go to drink water in the hospital area, she was too afraid of being raped. Another female soldier was raped by a group of men, but was sentenced for alcohol abuse. All this is kept quiet,” she said.

The ‘little Aussie battler’

Australia is the only country to have participated in all the major wars of the 20th and 21st centuries directly involving the UK and/or the US governments. Australian governments have sent Australians to fight as junior partners of British imperialism in the Boer War, World War I and World War II, and as junior partners of US imperialism in Korea, Vietnam, the two Gulf wars, and Afghanistan. History books tell us that Australian casualties for World War II are 33,826 killed and 180,864 wounded but these figures only count the physical casualties from this particular war. They do not reflect the psychological wounds inflicted on those who directly participated in this war or on those close to them.

Due to a combination of lack of understanding, no official record keeping and official government and military denial, there are no reliable figures describing the psychological casualties suffered by Australian troops in the first half of the 20th century. This does not mean they did not occur. In 2000, Monash University’s Margaret Lindorff interviewed 88 survivors of battles along the Kokoda Track in 1942. She found many said that they had yet to recover from the experience.

Many indicated continuing ill effects including nightmares, sleeplessness, negative imagery, “flashbacks”, problems with concentration, weeping, generalised anxiety, and distress caused by situations recalling the battle. Many also commented that they had never talked to anyone about their war experiences, or the effects of these experiences. Of the 88 veterans only two veterans reported seeking or receiving any treatment for their symptoms. The emerging experience of World War II veterans is a long way from the myth that the rich and powerful who profit from war would like us to believe — that after the end of the war in 1945 veterans just rolled up their sleeves and got back to work.

The Vietnam War homecoming myth

Australian governments and the corporate media, like their counterparts in the US, continue to propagate the myth that the well-publicised psychological casualties of the Vietnam War were due to the lack of a proper welcome home, rather than participation by soldiers in a brutal counterinsurgency war against a national liberation movement. As if some ticker-tape parade would have erased the mental trauma and anguish suffered by soldiers in Vietnam. Imperialist politicians in the US and Australia, from Bush senior to Bush junior, from Howard to Rudd, have all used this myth to try to discourage the growth of a movement against their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They say: Look how the protesters traumatised the Vietnam veterans. If you protest Iraq or Afghanistan you will traumatise the new veterans. In Australia and the US, the warmakers have tried to shift the blame from themselves to those who protest against the wars that are killing Iraqis, Afghans, young Americans and young Australians.

A recent Australian government-funded study showed that after more than 50 years Korean War veterans are significantly more likely to suffer psychological problems than a control group. They are also three times more likely to suffer alcohol-related problems. Only 18% felt “pleased about their life” compared with 40% of other elderly men. Major research on the health of Australian veterans of the first Gulf War shows their mental health years later was strikingly worse than that of Australian Defence Force personnel not deployed to the Middle East. It also found that of the 900 ADF personnel who had served in war-torn Somalia, at least 20% had serious mental health problems. Hundreds from the East Timor deployment have lodged compensation claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

These figures are still only a fraction of the psychological casualties from these conflicts as some veterans would not have sought help and many more may not suffer conditions such as PTSD until years, sometimes decades, after their return. None of the figures reflect the psychological casualties these conflicts inflict upon the children of veterans either.

Information collated from a “grassroots” self-reported study conducted by the Partners of Veterans Association of Australia of 2500 children and grandchildren of Australian Vietnam War veterans has found that 70% of children and 30% of grandchildren suffer mental health problems. The proportion of the total Australian population suffering these problems is 18%. There can be a significant impact generations after a conflict. Many families of World War II veterans bore the brunt of black moods and difficult behaviour. It is only now that the children of World War II veterans are looking at their father’s or mother’s temper, drinking problem, panic attacks and depression, which impacted upon them, and realising this was due to their parent’s wartime experience.

Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the Australian government has sent tens of thousands of military personnel to both Iraq and Afghanistan. This year around 7000 Australian army, navy and air force personnel will be directly involved in these wars. Given the experience of previous conflicts and those of current US military personnel, it is not unreasonable to assume that at least one-third of these people will become psychological casualties. This equates to over 2000 Australian casualties this year without even considering those who will be killed or physically wounded. Add to this the casualties among the children and grandchildren of these 7000 and the casualty figure will exceed 10,000.

This is yet another reason why people in Australia and around the world need to demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The imperialist governments will not willingly withdraw their troops. The business interests that these governments serve believe in sacrificing (other, i.e., working people’s) “blood” for “oil” profits or anticipated profits, just as they believe in sacrificing workers’ health and safety on the job for corporate profits.

The US rulers and their Australian allies have already lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The majority of Iraqis and Afghans are against the occupations of their countries by foreign troops and their resistance to these occupations has proved that it will not be crushed. We need to minimise the casualties of these wars by reinvigorating resistance at home to these wars by taking the anti-war message into our workplaces, schools and universities, and into the ranks of the armed forces.

[Hamish Chitts is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Brisbane and one of the founders of Stand Fast, an organisation of veterans and service people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For information about Stand Fast visit www.stand-fast.webs.com or phone 0401 586 923.]