December 22, 2008 – In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a panel of U.S. Army psychiatrists reported that one in every five active-duty soldiers has developed mental health problems after coming home from Iraq.
The problems range from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression to substance abuse to angry outbursts that create family conflict. The toll may be even higher than 20 percent, because 42 percent of returning National Guard and reserve troops reported similar problems. The authors speculate that Guard and reserve troops may be more open about their problems because they want to make sure that they continue to get health care coverage once their deployments have ended.
As it happens, I read about this study at the same time I was finishing Rick Atkinson’s “The Day of Battle,” his new history of the war in Italy in 1943 and 1944. It’s the second volume of his history of World War II in North Africa and Europe. Part 1, “An Army at Dawn,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
I knew the Italian campaign was controversial (was it necessary?) and horrible (month after month of frontal assault in hostile terrain). But until I read Atkinson’s book, I didn’t know what horrible was.
There were the mountains and the mud and the minefields, the assaults at Salerno and Anzio, the desperate battles for small towns fought time and again. There were epic command failures, fratricide and friendly fire, all in pursuit of a goal with very little strategic value.
As I turned the pages, the same thought kept recurring: Why did the American people put up with this kind of waste and horror, this senseless slaughter? And how did the guys who survived ever get over it? If PTSD and depression affect
20 percent to 42 percent of the troops who fought in Iraq, what must the rates have been for the guys who fought in Italy? I could answer my own questions, of course.
The 64 years between 1943 and 2007 have created a different world, a different America. The country didn’t have instantaneous communication in 1943, no as-it-happens television and radio accounts, no uncensored accounts of the flagrant arrogance of political and military commanders.
And even if America had known what was happening in Italy, it might well have accepted it. We didn’t question authority as much in those days, and the threat posed by Nazi Germany was existential. We had venality and profiteers, but we also had the draft. There was no thought that one segment of the population was being hosed for the benefit of another.
As for the troops, for the most part they suffered and died for the same reason troops always suffer and die: not for some grand, glorious cause, but for their buddies.
They may have known vaguely that they had been sent to Italy only because Churchill and Stalin insisted on it so they would engage dozens of German divisions that Hitler otherwise would have been free to employ in Russia and in France. Americans slogged their way to Rome, in other words, because it bought time.
They finally took Rome on the first weekend in June 1944. The following Tuesday, June 6, was D-Day, and the invasion of Normandy made most Americans forget all about Italy.
By today’s standards, the war in Sicily and Italy was as stupid and senseless as the war in Iraq, albeit with a far higher butcher’s bill.
The Iraq war has claimed 3,865 American lives. In 608 days, the Italian campaign cost 23,501 U.S. dead.
And, of course, the people who came home — even if they were in one piece — were traumatized by it all. The diagnosis of PTSD was unknown then, but its symptoms certainly were not.
In Richard Ben Cramer’s 1992 book, “What it Takes” — perhaps the best book yet written about American politics — he recounts the story of a second lieutenant from Kansas in the 10th Mountain Division who was sent to Italy as a replacement platoon leader in the spring of 1945. It was just weeks before the fall of Berlin and the end of the war in Europe, but the 10th Mountain Division still was slugging it out in Italy.
The lieutenant from Kansas had his right shoulder devastated by machine-gun fire and was left for dead on a mountainside. Somehow, he survived, was evacuated back to the States and suffered severe depression, bouts of anger and bitterness, family troubles and the rest of the PTSD package.
But Bob Dole overcame, got into politics, was elected to five terms in the U.S. Senate and was the Republican presidential candidate in 1996. Today he’s working to make sure Iraq war vets can overcome.
Most of them will, as will the veterans of the next war. The obligation of the rest of us is to make sure the next war is worthy of their sacrifice.
Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.