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How War Changes, and How It Doesn’t

Question: In what ways\r\nhas the average soldier’s war experience changed?


Nancy Sherman:\r\nWell, it stays constant in the sense that you leave a civilian life, you\r\n put on\r\na uniform, you kind of get cut to size, in a way, through boot camp and \r\nthen\r\nrebuilt as part of a cadre and in a good army you’re really tight, it’s \r\nabout\r\nsolidarity, it’s about cohesion and you do better if there’s cohesion \r\nand if\r\nyou’re not replaced one by one, you’re replaced by units where you go \r\ntogether\r\nand come back together as best you can and know you’re going to bring \r\neach\r\nother home, or try to at least. \r\nAnd, of course, now we have women in the forces, a small \r\npercentage, but\r\nthey’re trying their best to blend. And in talking to women, it can be a\r\nstruggle.  We don’t think about\r\nships, but in ships, those are tight environments, not a lot of outside \r\ncontact\r\nand it can be very internal-looking. 


So, those are some of the continuing factors that \r\nyou go\r\ninto a place that’s really high stress. But what’s different now, two \r\nthings\r\nthat come to my mind, one is that we’re fighting counter-insurgency \r\nwars.  We had some of that in Vietnam, but we\r\nreally have it now where you can’t tell the difference between the \r\ncivilian and\r\nthe combatant and the combatant, the insurgent, exploits that and \r\nshields, in a\r\nsense, civilians in, or shields themselves in civilian populations.  So, we have right now rules of\r\nengagement that are tight.  General\r\nStanley McChrystal has said, “You don’t fire unless you are really are\r\noverrun.”  And so soldiers are\r\ntrying to hold back their fire if they run a risk of a civilian casualty\r\n and\r\nthe preponderance of risk ought to be on themselves as trained soldiers.  I think that’s right, I really do think that soldiers\r\n need\r\nto put the risk upon themselves, they’re the ones that are trained to \r\nfight,\r\nnot the civilian.  But it’s hard\r\nwhen you know you’re being taken advantage of.  So,\r\n that’s a real stress factor. 


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


So, those three factors—counter-insurgency \r\noperations with\r\nco-mingling of civilian; and combatant, thinned out Army with multiple\r\ndeployments; and no front line, but always exposed—make for a very, very\r\nstressful environment. 


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

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

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