17 October 2003

It's Not Painless
Over at TalkLeft, Jeralyn Merritt remarks on soldier suicides in Iraq. During my military career, I spent close to a decade as a commanding officer; I had to deal with seven suicide attempts as the CO (fortunately, none were successful, so I must not have been that mean). One resulted from a drug-induced psychosis. There was a common thread to the other six: a perception of mistreatment by the faceless military personnel bureaucracy system.

   Under the so-called "modern" system, assignments to units don't last forever, and it doesn't take a disgruntled platoon sergeant to force a soldier's transfer elsewhere. Assignments are instead for between one year (certain "remote" assignments that do not allow family members, such as radar stations in northern Alaska; use your imagination) and five years (certain DC-based staff assignments), with an average of two to three years. Allegedly, everyone gets a lot of input into the system. Of course, certain bases and assignments are more popular than others. Just about everybody interested in England, for example, wanted RAF Upper Heyford (near Oxford) or RAF Lakenheath/Mildenhall (pretty close to Cambridge, and with the best facilities); RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge (pretty close to Ipswich) was not nearly as popular, and RAF Alconbury (near Peterborough) was right out. Similarly, within the US, nobody really wanted Minot AFB, North Dakota ("Why not Minot? Freezin's the reason!"), but Tyndall AFB, Florida was a popular choice.

   Each service, of course, has its own method for actually allocating troops around, officer and enlisted. And they're all fucked up. They're all based on a planning staff's idea of what appropriate strength at each grade and each military specialty needs to be at a given location that is at least six years out of date by the time it even gets used, and never takes into account truly unique local conditions. For example, RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge was seriously short on both Security Police and aircraft maintenance billets, because the idiots at AFMPC didn't consider the effect of having a major "black operations" unit on support requirements. This led to SP burnout and misbehavior and some potentially serious security breaches. Meanwhile, Alconbury always had a surplus of SP billets to actually do the mission, because the local terrain and compact layout enabled patrols to cover much more territory.

   Then there is the "matching" system for assignments. The different services, for different purposes, gave vastly different amounts of lip service to the idea of keeping military families together. Combine this with the fact that one had to choose an assignment without any knowledge of the personalities in the command structure, which rotated every two or three years anyway, and you have a recipe for disaster—even before considering deployment to combat zones.

   Knowing what I know about the personnel system, I am shocked that as few as 13 suicides have been identified among the "noncombat deaths" in Iraq. One would expect slightly over half that number in a civilian population that size in a comparable period, according to the statistical data I've seen. Just adding the stress of combat-zone conditions and the military lifestyle more than accounts for the rest. Add in the constant misleading of troops by the national command authority regarding their mission and tour of duty… and consider the effect on family members back at base… and one gets a very ugly picture. One that reflects very poorly on a whole bunch of senior people.