[Marxism] US troops in Afghanistan "depressed and deeply disillusioned"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 8 07:18:15 MDT 2009

October 8, 2009
American troops in Afghanistan losing heart, say army chaplains

American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply 
disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have 
spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taleban.

Many feel that they are risking their lives — and that colleagues have 
died — for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing 
to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on 
this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.

“The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger 
about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair 
and just want to get back to their families,” said Captain Jeff 
Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2-87 Infantry Battalion.

“They feel they are risking their lives for progress that’s hard to 
discern,” said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division’s 4-25 Field Artillery 
Battalion. “They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get 
through.” The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men 
could not.

The base is not, it has to be said, obviously downcast, and many troops 
do not share the chaplains’ assessment. The soldiers are, by nature and 
training, upbeat, driven by a strong sense of duty, and they do their 
jobs as best they can. Re-enlistment rates are surprisingly good for the 
2-87, though poor for the 4-25. Several men approached by The Times, 
however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.

“We’re lost — that’s how I feel. I’m not exactly sure why we’re here,” 
said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead 
by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday. “I need a clear-cut purpose 
if I’m going to get hurt out here or if I’m going to die.”

Sergeant Christopher Hughes, 37, from Detroit, has lost six colleagues 
and survived two roadside bombs. Asked if the mission was worthwhile, he 
replied: “If I knew exactly what the mission was, probably so, but I don’t.”

The only soldiers who thought it was going well “work in an office, not 
on the ground”. In his opinion “the whole country is going to s***”.

The battalion’s 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long 
deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to 
secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people’s 
allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, 
found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taleban.

They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of 
which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with 
another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with 
amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent 
disability, and many of those have not been replaced. More than two 
dozen mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) have been 
knocked out of action.

Living conditions are good — abundant food, air-conditioned tents, hot 
water, free internet — but most of the men are on their second, third or 
fourth tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, with barely a year between each. 
Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne’s mental health specialist, 
expressed concern about their mental state — especially those in 
scattered outposts — and believes that many have mild post traumatic 
stress disorder (PTSD). “They’re tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of 
them are afraid to go out but will still go,” she said.

Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87’s Medical Platoon Leader, said 
sleeplessness and anger attacks were common.

A dozen men have been confined to desk jobs because they can no longer 
handle missions outside the base. One long-serving officer who has lost 
three friends this tour said he sometimes returned to his room at night 
and cried, or played war games on his laptop. “It’s a release. It’s a 
method of coping.” He has nightmares and sleeps little, and it does not 
help that the base is frequently shaken by outgoing artillery fire. He 
was briefly overcome as he recalled how, when a lorry backfired during 
his most recent home leave, he grabbed his young son and dived between 
two parked cars.

The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented 
numbers. “Everyone you meet is just down, and you meet them everywhere — 
in the weight room, dining facility, getting mail,” said Captain Rico. 
Even “hard men” were coming to their tent chapel and breaking down.

The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. “The 
soldiers’ biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. 
Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, 
other than to stop the Taleban, because that almost seems impossible. 
It’s hard to catch someone you can’t see,” said Specialist Mercer.

“It’s a very frustrating mission,” said Lieutenant Hjelmstad. “The 
average soldier sees a friend blown up and his instinct is to retaliate 
or believe it’s for something [worthwhile], but it’s not like other wars 
where your buddy died but they took the hill. There’s no tangible reward 
for the sacrifice. It’s hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here.”

Captain Masengale, a soldier for 12 years before he became a chaplain, 
said: “We want to believe in a cause but we don’t know what that cause is.”

The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while 
trying to help a population that will not help them. “You give them all 
the humanitarian assistance that they want and they’re still going to 
lie to you. They’ll tell you there’s no Taleban anywhere in the area and 
as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at 
again,” said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia.

Captain Rico told of the disgust of a medic who was asked to treat an 
insurgent shortly after pulling a colleague’s charred corpse from a 
bombed vehicle.

The soldiers complain that rules of engagement designed to minimise 
civilian casualties mean that they fight with one arm tied behind their 
backs. “They’re a joke,” said one. “You get shot at but can do nothing 
about it. You have to see the person with the weapon. It’s not enough to 
know which house the shooting’s coming from.”

The soldiers joke that their Isaf arm badges stand not for International 
Security Assistance Force but “I Suck At Fighting” or “I Support Afghan 

To compound matters, soldiers are mainly being killed not in combat but 
on routine journeys, by roadside bombs planted by an invisible enemy. 
“That’s very demoralising,” said Captain Masengale.

The constant deployments are, meanwhile, playing havoc with the 
soldiers’ private lives. “They’re killing families,” he said. “Divorces 
are skyrocketing. PTSD is off the scale. There have been hundreds of 
injuries that send soldiers home and affect families for the rest of 
their lives.”

The chaplains said that many soldiers had lost their desire to help 
Afghanistan. “All they want to do is make it home alive and go back to 
their wives and children and visit the families who have lost husbands 
and fathers over here. It comes down to just surviving,” said Captain 

“If we make it back with ten toes and ten fingers the mission is 
successful,” Sergeant Hughes said.

“You carry on for the guys to your left or right,” added Specialist Mercer.

The chaplains have themselves struggled to cope with so much distress. 
“We have to encourage them, strengthen them and send them out again. No 
one comes in and says, ‘I’ve had a great day on a mission’. It’s all 
pain,” said Captain Masengale. “The only way we’ve been able to make it 
is having each other.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87’s commanding officer, denied that 
his men were demoralised, and insisted they had achieved a great deal 
over the past nine months. A triathlete and former rugby player, he 
admitted pushing his men hard, but argued that taking the fight to the 
enemy was the best form of defence.

He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had 
chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it. He said, however, 
that the situation would have been catastrophic without his men. They 
had managed to keep open the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway which 
dissects Wardak, and prevent the province becoming a launch pad for 
attacks on the capital, which is barely 20 miles from its border. Above 
all, Colonel Gallahue argued that counter-insurgency — winning the 
allegiance of the indigenous population through security, development 
and good governance — was a long and laborious process that could not be 
completed in a year. “These 12 months have been, for me, laying the 
groundwork for future success,” he said.

At morning service on Sunday, the two chaplains sought to boost the 
spirits of their flock with uplifting hymns, accompanied by video 
footage of beautiful lakes, oceans and rivers.

Captain Rico offered a particularly apposite reading from Corinthians: 
“We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven 
to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

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