Still in the Big Muddy
After All These Years

Becky O'Malley
Friday November 08, 2019 - 12:02:00 PM

Boy, sometimes I hate it when I’m right. Recently with the approach of what’s now called Veterans’ Day (sadly, formerly Armstice Day) there’s been a spate of articles in the major media calling attention to the appalling rate of suicide among current and veteran service members in the armed forces of the United States. Here’s one from the November 1 New York Times.: Suicide Has Been Deadlier Than Combat for the Military.

What’s so sad about the statistics quoted by editorial writer Carol Giacomo, in her piece, subtitled “The Pentagon has made strides in helping those in need, but the rate of deaths is rising” is that nothing’s new . 

Below is my own report on the topic:

Back in the Big Muddy

Casual conversations with strangers can be more revealing than stories on the nightly news. A Berkeley friend, a motherly lady in her fifties, started chatting with her seatmate on a bus a couple of weeks ago. He was an army officer, a personnel specialist in a big infantry unit down South somewhere. He said his job is dealing with “bereavements”—supporting families of service people who have died on duty. My friend, who comes from a military family herself, was shocked at what he told her: that in the last few months, out of every 100 deaths he’s worked on, 14 have been suicides. That’s not an official Army statistic, he emphasized, just his estimate, but in his opinion, based on about 20 years experience in the military, the suicide rate has gone up dramatically since the Iraq invasion.

One detail he revealed to her was that families are not usually informed that their loved one committed suicide unless they ask. Suicide, like much else in the bureaucratic world of the armed forces, has a special code number. The information the family initially receives doesn’t contain the suicide code, so the family must dig, must ask the right questions, to get the cause of death. He told my friend of one particularly harrowing case: A soldier committed suicide in Iraq, and his buddy sent his wife an e-mail apologizing for not seeing the symptoms in time to prevent the death. The wife had not been told that her husband had committed suicide, and so was doubly shocked when she found out.

The officer said that there’s a big internal controversy in the army right now about how such cases should be handled. Even though he has a strong personal belief that the practice of concealing suicides is wrong, he’s afraid to say so publicly. But he’s distressed. 

It’s hard to confirm what this officer believes to be true using official or unofficial sources. For one thing, army personnel are warned not to reveal any information of this kind. The friend who told me this story got her informant’s phone number, so I called him, told him I was writing this, asked him to tell me more. Of course he wouldn’t say anything. It is against the rules, and he clearly feared the consequences of sharing his anxieties about his job with a motherly woman on the bus. As he probably should. 

We’ve read in the New Yorker and other publications about some harrowing cases of how things seem to be badly wrong in Iraq. What we won’t necessarily read about is the terrible toll this is taking on ordinary American service men and women, who know it’s a mess but don’t know what they can do about it. A very few, like the guy who blew the whistle on the prison torturers, might summon the courage to back up their convictions about what’s right and wrong by speaking truth to power and taking the consequences . Others, perhaps, see only suicide as their path out of the morass. 

On the Memorial Day weekend, as this is being written, it’s the duty of those of us at home to think about our fellow Americans in Iraq who are caught up in a situation not of their own making and can’t escape. Most of them joined the armed forces out of a real desire to serve their country, and never anticipated that they would become an army of occupation in an increasingly hostile Middle East. They were told, and believed, that the Iraqi (and Afghani) populations would welcome them as the liberators of Europe were welcomed after World War II. 

Even arch-conservatives like Pat Buchanan now accept the awful reality that our American troops have been led, once again, into the Big Muddy, potentially even deeper, if that’s possible, than in Vietnam. Pat and his gang probably didn’t learn all the words to Pete Seeger’s Vietnam-era song about the captain who tried to lead his troops into a swamp and almost drowned them all, but here’s the key verse, as pungently adapted by Scots folkie Dick Gaughn: 

“Captain, sir, with all this gear 

No man’ll be able to swim.” 

“Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie,” 

The Captain said to him. 

“All we need is a little determination; 

Follow me, I’ll lead on.” 

We were neck deep in the Big Muddy 

And the damn fool kept yelling to push on. 

In the song, all versions, the captain drowns, the sergeant turns the troops back just in time, and they are saved. Somewhere in our armed forces today there’s a non-com like Seeger’s sergeant, or an officer like the youthful John Kerry, who will be courageous enough to tell Americans that it’s time to get our men and women out of the swamp. The officer on the bus, who confessed his doubts to a motherly acquaintance, was taking a first hesitant step on the path back to solid ground.
And here’s the most discouraging part: 

My piece was originally published for Memorial Day of 2004. Since then American men and women have been fighting and dying for Big Oil for 15 more years. Just recently Trump pulled American forces out of the Syrian border, all right, but left them in place to control the oil fields. How must the Americans who trained their Kurdish counterparts only to be ordered to abandon them feel about this? Suicidal, perhaps? 

And Iraq this week is in an even bigger mess than it was 15 years ago. 

And yet our damn fool of a president and his crew of equal idiots continue to say push on, disguising what they're really doing with a fraudulent claim that they're disengaging. Perhaps somewhere in the current administration there can yet be found some sergeant with some sense to actually turn this mad middle east crusade around. We can only hope so.