How War Changes, and How It Doesn’t

In some ways, the psychology of combat hasn’t changed since Troy. But modern wars have also brought their own unique traumas.
  • Transcript


Question: In what ways has the average soldier’s war experience changed?

Nancy Sherman: Well, it stays constant in the sense that you leave a civilian life, you put on a uniform, you kind of get cut to size, in a way, through boot camp and then rebuilt as part of a cadre and in a good army you’re really tight, it’s about solidarity, it’s about cohesion and you do better if there’s cohesion and if you’re not replaced one by one, you’re replaced by units where you go together and come back together as best you can and know you’re going to bring each other home, or try to at least.  And, of course, now we have women in the forces, a small percentage, but they’re trying their best to blend. And in talking to women, it can be a struggle.  We don’t think about ships, but in ships, those are tight environments, not a lot of outside contact and it can be very internal-looking. 

So, those are some of the continuing factors that you go into a place that’s really high stress. But what’s different now, two things that come to my mind, one is that we’re fighting counter-insurgency wars.  We had some of that in Vietnam, but we really have it now where you can’t tell the difference between the civilian and the combatant and the combatant, the insurgent, exploits that and shields, in a sense, civilians in, or shields themselves in civilian populations.  So, we have right now rules of engagement that are tight.  General Stanley McChrystal has said, “You don’t fire unless you are really are overrun.”  And so soldiers are trying to hold back their fire if they run a risk of a civilian casualty and the preponderance of risk ought to be on themselves as trained soldiers.  I think that’s right, I really do think that soldiers need to put the risk upon themselves, they’re the ones that are trained to fight, not the civilian.  But it’s hard when you know you’re being taken advantage of.  So, that’s a real stress factor. 

The other stress factor, of course, that makes it different in addition to the counter-insurgency operations, is that we are a thinned out military fighting for 10 years—longer than the World War II period—with multiple deployments.  And I don’t mean just one and two; three and four and five, and I’ve talked to some that are in six, with short dwell time at home. And I guess you could say a third factor, no front line and rear guard.  You’re always exposed because there’s always an explosion that can go off.

So, those three factors—counter-insurgency operations with co-mingling of civilian; and combatant, thinned out Army with multiple deployments; and no front line, but always exposed—make for a very, very stressful environment. 

You could add a fourth factor to that, certainly, and that is right now the war theater and the home theater are themselves co-mingled in a certain way.  Soldiers can email, instant message, cell phone home and vice versa, and the upshot is that the insulation that sometimes was so protective isn’t always there.  As a soldier you worry about what’s happening with your kids or your spouse, at the same time you worry what’s happening with your battle buddy.