“You are ambushed, captured, sandbags are put over your head, and you get punches in the stomach, in the back, legs, constantly put down onto your knees, get your face shoved into the ground, then they do the famous water torture on you, where they put water over the sandbag – you feel like you’re drowning, you can’t breathe – they continuously do that to you. But to be honest it’s something that you need to learn to cope with.”
Paul*, an ex-marine, is describing something most people don’t associate with army training: torture exercises in case of capture. Not only a test of extreme physical endurance, the interminable Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are proving to be psychologically abrasive. A seven-year stalemate has developed, in which the soldiers are trapped in the purgatory of static combat.
It all proved too much for Paul. Sent only to Sierra Leone, he is obsessive about two countries he has never been deployed to, and he continues to qualify his already vivid description of his training, “Cos if you get captured in somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan, they’ll chop your bollocks off for you before they even start torturing you, just for the fun of it.”
Now twenty-three, Paul was temporarily discharged from the marines after committing grievous bodily harm on a man who attacked him with a bottle. His seven-month sentence was reduced to four and, surprisingly, he was allowed back into the marines. “I think I did it, in a way subconsciously, to get out. They let me back in after jail because of the money they’d spent training me, because of the particular specialisation that I was doing. But I think it got to the point where the money wasn’t enough.” Paul now manages a construction site, commanding a battalion of builders, a job he sees as giving better pay and better prospects.
‘Be the best’ is the clarion call of the British armed forces. The recruitment video on their website shows soldiers on tour as a cohesive, disciplined unit bound by their allegiance to queen and country. No words, just action. And in the overcast light of the economic slump, the pay doesn’t look too bad either: £13,012 for a new entrant. It may look modest but the ladder to the top has many rungs, reaching the zenith of £44,587.80 for a warrant officer in the Navy. Add free healthcare and the prospect of joining the army looks increasingly attractive. It is a sleek and intelligent marketing scheme, evoking pride and aspiration.
Stephen, who trained in a paratrooper regiment, agrees with this portrait of the army: “It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. The fitness level that the training team manage to meet is amazing. Yes, you’re getting “beasted” as they call it, which is basically pushing you to the physical extreme, but you know that it’s worth it. Pain is just weakness leaving the body,” he laughs, “You know you want a maroon beret at the end of your training so if you kept that thought in your mind you could mentally and physically do anything.” Stephen received a nine-month sentence for beating the same man in the head until he fell unconscious, but unlike Paul was not offered a second chance.
Paul and Stephen’s cases, although by no means representative of Britain’s armed forces, is one of the many cracks appearing in the military’s strained projection of stability. Firstly, it’s not easy to get into the army; it is ten times more psychologically and – undoubtedly – physically gruelling than an Oxbridge application. The notion that it is an easy route for school dropouts with no future is a misconception. Paul and Stephen will have gone through a medical examination and two days of fitness tests. After the brawn has been proven they will have been tested for their brains with an aptitude test measuring commitment and motivation before finally taking the interview. Although Paul has a penchant for using the word bollocks a lot, they are both articulate and intelligent people who would have passed all components of this rigid examination , which searches foremost for obedience and discipline. So why did they turn to delinquency?
To answer this question, we need to look at the current shambolic state the army is in. According to The Economist “Battalions are up to one fifth below their regular size; a further fifth or so are ill, injured or otherwise unfit to deploy. Buying kit is so expensive and takes so long that spending is out of kilter with current needs; most money now goes on fighter jets, aircraft carrions and submarines which are of little use in Afghanistan.” A far cry, certainly, from the action packed glossy recruitment film. The British military is wheezing with fatigue and it’s coming from the top. So, between Prince Harry’s racist ‘Paki’ remarks and an ill-equipped defence policy against an unremitting and ever evolving modern counter-insurgency, the overwhelmed military seems to be sinking under the pressure. And those in the midst are feeling it.
But it is one of the least discussed and least reported issues that, if not addressed, could be the biggest and most fatal crack that will shatter the military’s already fragile structure: psychological stress disorders. Like in Paul’s case, aggression, anxiety, depression are all intricately enmeshed conditions that can develop or, if existent, be aggravated by the harsh conditions on tour. Combat stress or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a new problem, but the way it is dealt with and the amount of investment in research is. First termed ‘shellshock’ by medical officer Charles Myers during the First World War, combat stress was synonymous with cowardice and punishable by firing squad.
The Second World War heralded innovations in military psychology and pre-recruiting screening was established. The inevitable emotional ramifications from war were grudgingly accepted and psychology was recognised as something indelibly linked to the nature of combat. And the psychological impact of the ‘war on terror’ is proving to be the greatest yet for soldiers placed on one of the many weak branches of this waning mission.
Rand, The Centre for Military Health and Research in the United States, is conducting leading research in a study that focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not only because of current high-level policy interest but also because, unlike the physical wounds of war, these conditions are often invisible to the eye. Fundamentally, it outlines what makes the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan so different from its predecessors:
“Troops are seeing more-frequent deployments, of greater lengths, with shorter rest periods in between; factors thought to create a more stressful environment for service members. The day-to-day activities of troops in combat vary widely, but some common stressors in the current conflicts have been identified as roadside bombs, IEDs, suicide bombers, the handling of human remains, killing an enemy, seeing fellow soldiers and friends dead or injured, and the helplessness of not being able to stop violent situations. Because of the nature of these current conflicts, a high proportion of deployed soldiers are likely to experience one or more stressors. Even though many recent military operations have been characterized as peacekeeping missions or stability operations, many of these efforts may share the same risks and stressors inherent in combat, exposure to hostile forces, injured civilians, mass graves, and land mines, for example.”
Talking to a member of the OTC, he doesn’t seem so concerned. I ask him about the possibility of killing an enemy, or watching a soldier that has become like a member of your family die in a suicide bomb attack. He is admirably pragmatic: “Most of us don’t get worried, after you train for three years going to war feels like the natural progression for what you have to do. Before you go on tour you need to do 4 months solid pre-deployment training anyway, so you feel prepared.” He appears focused, intelligent and disciplined, the ideal characteristics that members of the British army seek. “I enjoy leading men,” he says assuredly, “Some people can sit behind a desk and do a job like that, but that doesn’t interest me at all and, conveniently, I happen to agree with Britain’s foreign policy.” It seems improbable that such as stable person could take Paul’s route. But could he?
Philip Zimbardo thinks he can. The Stanford University psychologist conducted the renowned Stanford Prison Experiment, and he was shocked by the results. The experiment began in the summer of 1971 as an undergraduate class project on the psychology of incarceration. Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of the psychology department building, and volunteers were randomly assigned to roles as either prisoners or prison guards. In no time, the undergraduates turned into sadists, they began torturing the prisoners and even simulated sodomy on one another. After six days, Zimbardo was forced to close the experiment. To him it explained why good people turned evil, why there are “no bad apples, just bad barrels,” – a term he has called ‘The Lucifer Effect.’
In 2004, horrific images were broadcast from Abu Ghraib prison of naked prisoners forced to make a human pyramid, forced to masturbate in front of each other, led around on a lead, each one as sickening as the next. Zimbardo only made one connection. He still maintained there were no bad apples, but the military had created the conditions that fostered the transformation of ordinary Joe soldier into depraved torturer.
I asked Dr Jane Clarbour, who specialises in emotional behaviour at the psychology department of York University, whether such a shift in behaviour is possible. “Ordinary people can be persuaded by a situation to do such extraordinary things”, she explains. “There is also research looking at the violence in Africa, whereby the enemy were dehumanised , which makes it is easier for people to accept atrocities being done to them.”
The psychological effects of combat or ‘Killology’ as Lt.Col. Dave Grossman puts it, falls into this camp. Grossman, an army sergeant turned psychologist bases his neologism on one simple premise; People don’t like to kill. Turning people into soldiers therefore requires extensive desensitisation and conditioning similar to Pavlov’s dogs. In this framework ‘kill’ is replaced with ‘engage’ and ‘positive reinforcement is given in the form of immediate feedback when the target drops if it is hit.
I ask Paul what types of techniques were used during his training. “We got shown footage in training of torture. In another exercise a whole troop got captured, about 60 of us. We got put in a stretch position in a classroom, and we had to watch videos of soldiers getting shot in the backs of the legs.” He hesitates for a moment, “They do deprive you of sleep – but for us that’s just normal, because you have to learn. If you’re sent to a warzone you can’t expect to get proper sleep. So it might seem bad from the outside, that it’s really nasty, but that’s it.”
And for Grossman that’s exactly it. Soldiers are a groomed product, and when this product malfunctions someone has to be there to pick up the pieces. Coping mechanisms are individual to each soldier’s personal experience before and during their service, inspite of the training they get. “I was also in the cadets for about three to four years which was a good experience, of a rough idea of what to expect,” reminisces Stephen. “But to be honest, nothing can prepare you.”
Stephen’s honesty exposes the weakness of the military’s apparent impenetrable training, although the army must function as one body it isn’t made up of one mind. “People’s initial personality characteristics will play a role in how they react to wartime experiences, both during the conflict and after”, explains Clarbour.
“If society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill”, says Grossman, “then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the psychological event and its repercussions upon the soldier and society.”
And how is Britain dealing with that responsibility? Gordon Brown has committed to a withdrawal of 4000 troops from Iraq by July. But we are already being judged; around 6% of veterans are still left homeless, many with cases of alcoholism, depression or disabilities. The MOD stress that they have fifteen military departments of mental health across the UK, so they believe they’re on top of it. The Secretary of Defence, Kevin Jones also thinks he’s on top of it. Apparently the NHS can handle the issue off its own back: “The health care for all veterans has been the responsibility of the NHS since 1953.” He continued: “Former service personnel with mental health problems, including post traumatic stress disorder will benefit from the Government’s decision to extend priority treatment to all veterans whose condition is considered by their GP to be due to service.”
With a war that doesn’t seem to have an end game, it isn’t enough to wait for the next generation of veterans to book an appointment with their GP. It’s about updating the militaries knowledge and capacity in the field of combat stress, ensuring soldiers are adequately equipped and possessing a transparent defence policy from torture to racism. “There should be no place in a civilised world where one country invades another using arms and destruction,” says Stephen finally and rather unexpectedly. Maybe it is the case of bad barrels, not apples.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.