Syria: Once More Into The Breach?

Forces are being readied for possible US intervention in Syria.  These same forces have been engaged in constant combat for over a decade.  They are tactically and technically prepared for whatever mission the Commander In Chief assigns them.  They will carry out this mission with the honor, sacrifice, and dedication America expects from it’s warriors.

But their success will come at tremendous personal cost.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Beware The Coming Storm, veterans preparing for their next deployment rarely try to unpack the emotional pain and suffering from their last one.  Experiences and emotions from multiple deployments get jumbled together in the hidden recesses of veterans’ minds, becoming less comprehensible to the veteran and intensifying the confusion he or she will face when these emotions escape.

Compartmentalization, stuffing emotions and reactions away and focusing on the task at hand, is an absolute requirement for success in combat.  De-compartmentalization, pulling those same emotions from the dark recesses of your brain and consciously experiencing them, is an absolute requirement for successfully moving on with life after combat.  Without taking that step, a veteran lives in one world while reacting to emotions from another.

A veteran has to decide to de-compartmentalize–and it is not an easy decision to make.    An upcoming deployment is a reasonable excuse to keep things bottled up.  Why let your guard down when you’ll soon be back in the fight?

Until chemical weapons were used against civilians in Syria, it looked like that excuse was going away.  This would have provided an opportunity for veterans to unpack their burdens from the last decade.  They could have started to move on with their lives after combat.

Not anymore.

The possibility of another military intervention returns that excuse to the forefront of the minds of the men and women who will be called to fight.

There is no doubt they will prevail, but what is this nation going to do to help them when they return?  The burdens they’ve assumed by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will be exacerbated by whatever missions they carry out in Syria.  These additional burdens will compound the challenges our veterans will face when they do finally return from combat and try to move on with their lives.

Do we think the current system of Veterans Administration and unorganized non-profits (Unorganized as a unified tool for returning veterans to locate and use.  Many non-profits themselves are extremely well organized) is up to this task?  Have we effectively ushered the current cohort of veterans home from combat and helped them move forward in life?  I don’t think so.

Addressing how to take care of the men and women of the military when they come home from yet another battlefield is something our nation needs to consider.  Personally, I think we have to act in Syria.  But we, as a nation, also have to consider the impact another fight will have on our military personnel. This is not just starting another war.  The war in Syria, if it involves US troops, is effectively a continuation of the last decade of warfare for our military.  Wars of this duration, fought by the smallest percentage of the US population ever, are unprecedented in our history. And so will be their impact on the warriors we send to fight.

They are not disposable heroes.  We know they will face threats on the battlefield and we prepare them to survive those threats.  But what of the challenges of re-adjusting when they come home?  I think we have an obligation to prepare them for to face those threats, too.

6 thoughts on “Syria: Once More Into The Breach?

  1. Ali Mignone

    There’s already a big job to do to help returning veterans, and Syria will only add to the strain of available resources. It makes me sad to compare the money and effort put into training our military members against the money and effort put into supporting them when they come home after serving. But it’s getting better, and Dan, you’re a part of that. Bravo! Keep the issue alive and in the forefront of our minds – it’s too easy to succumb to war-weariness when you don’t have a personal stake.

    Reply
  2. Bill McIntyre

    I appreciate your perspective Dan. I’ve been very conflicted on whether we should act in Syria, and then if so, how?

    But as a cynic, I don’t think its realistic to even think that we’ll ever devote sufficient resources to help veterans adjust after they come home. Its not going to happen. And since it won’t, we need to consider that as part of the calculus.

    Don’t even kid ourselves. Accept the fact that people are going to die, and others are going to be screwed up for the rest of their lives and never receive much help, and include that in the cost/benefit analysis.

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Given your service, and that of your family, Bill, your comment carries significant weight. I agree that the decision to act, or not, in Syria is rife with negative consequences on both sides of the equation. This situation, possibly more clearly than others in our past, demonstrates that conflicting national interests often come to a head in a moment of crisis. Without a doubt, this is a tough one.

      As you point out, the realities of combat require people to die and those that survive be forever changed. Our current system to support those survivors generally requires a preliminary step before assistance can be rendered. The veteran has to ask for it. The requirement for a veteran to ask for help is a huge impediment and, in my opinion, where we need to change how the system works.

      I’d like to adjust the whole system and get rid of all that supports the stigma associated with post-combat care. But that’s not going to happen. Instead, I think a more effective approach would be to better educate the veterans themselves on the challenges of returning from combat.

      This education needs to come early in a person’s military career, possibly even during initial training. If a person knows that additional challenges are coming, they are better able to prepare for them. Will this require additional resources? Absolutely. Will there be a visible payoff? Probably not–at least not until the next cohort of veterans make their way home from war. But I think educating our military personnel early in their career on the potential for all sorts of injuries in combat–physical, mental, and spiritual–is a preventative measure long overlooked. An ounce of prevention…

      My train of thought is a bit disjointed this morning–multiple kids clamoring for third helpings of breakfast and a dog that needs to pee are conspiring against me. But I wanted to respond quickly–before you go fishing–and hopefully elicit your opinion of where additional resources, if they were to be dedicated, would be best employed to help veterans?

      Thanks for entering the conversation. I look forward to your response.

      Reply
  3. Kyle Phillips

    Dan,

    Good discussion, Prof Michael Schmitt has recently authored a great article titled “Syrian Intervention: Assessing the Possible International Law Justification.” The relevance to this discussion is that Syria, unlike other recent conflicts, does not have a firm basis under international law, according to Schmitt. There is no colorable argument that we can invoke “self-defense” under Art 51 of the UN Charter, and we obviously do not have a UN Security Counsel Resolution due to the permanent members Russia and China opposing any use of force against the Syrian regime. The only possible basis is humanitarian intervention, but that is hardly accepted in the international community. The potential dangers for not having a widely accepted legal basis to use force is that it serves as precedent for some of our adversaries to justify their ultra vires use of force, thereby further threatening U.S. National Security.

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Kyle,

      Thanks for joining the discussion. I appreciate you taking the time to include Professor Schmitt’s article and explaining the relevance to my post. I recognize that the decision to intervene in Syria is a difficult one. Legal arguments, moral arguments, arguments about the US role in a changing world… all of these valid considerations must be debated by our elected representatives and a decision reached. I think that the decision to put this question before Congress was the right choice, regardless of the ultimate outcome. This is a debate that can possibly re-instate a sense of responsibility for the entire country, not just political party or special interest, among our elected representatives. A guy can hope.

      Anyhow, I’m learning a valuable lesson from the comments to this post: Keep my opinions to myself unless they are relevant to the point I want to make. The main point of my post was that the US has a dysfunctional system in place to usher veterans back into society. This patchwork of governmental entities and non-profits provides a safety net for veterans when they fall out of society, but there is no comprehensive plan to keep them from falling out in the first place. This problem needs to be fixed, and preferably before the next big war creates more veterans.

      While I said that in my initial post, I also said “Personally, I think we have to act in Syria.” This sentence is what derailed the focus of the post. While that is my emotional reaction to the debate I shouldn’t have included it. All it has done is distract readers from the primary point of my post. I’m not going to go back and edit it out, but in the future my personal opinions will be constrained to the argument at hand. Whether we intervene in Syria or not, the system in place to welcome veterans back into society needs to be upgraded.

      I hope this can bring the focus of the comment stream back to the main point.

      Best,
      Dan

      Reply

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