Michael Smith / The Sunday Times – 2005-11-10 10:40:46
The Sunday Times – Britain
(November 06, 2005) — Senior army doctors have warned that troops in Iraq are suffering levels of battle stress not experienced since the second world war because of fears that if they shoot an insurgent, they will end up in court.
The two senior Royal Army Medical Corps officers, one of whom is a psychologist, have recently returned from Basra, where they said they counselled young soldiers who feared a military police investigation as much as they did the insurgents.
The revelations follow the collapse last week of the court martial of seven paratroopers accused of murdering an Iraqi who died near al- Amarah just after the war and amid signs of a dramatic drop in morale among frontline infantry soldiers.
The doctors’ warnings came in post-operational reports submitted by senior officers to their formation commanders after serving in a battle zone. They are exceptional because of their content.
One source said: “There doesn’t appear to be any overt consideration or understanding of the pressures that our soldiers are under.
“The unpopularity of the war at home and a belief that firing their rifles in virtually any circumstances is likely to see them end up in court are sapping morale.”
One corporal said that troops arriving in Basra were confronted by warnings from the Royal Military Police. “They make it clear that any and every incident will be investigated. It is also made clear that if you shoot someone, you will face an inquiry that could take up to a year.
“The faces of the young lads straight out of training drop as the fear of being investigated strikes home and many ask whose side the RMP are on.”
Although the levels of fighting in Iraq are nowhere near those of some of the bloodiest battles of the second world war, such as the battle of the bulge or Kohima, the much more complex situation that the British troops face is pushing up stress levels just as far.
The combination of knowing that death might come at any time from a roadside bomb and that shooting back at Iraqis who attack them might result in their being court-martialled is putting immense pressure on young soldiers.
The doctors described morale in some units as very low with soldiers cynically suggesting they needed a solicitor with them before they shot back at any Iraqi who attacked them.
Many frontline infantry soldiers were in survival mode and had the impression that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is not supporting them and nobody in the UK cares about what is happening in Iraq, the officers said.
This weekend senior MoD officials sought to counter the damage done to morale after the collapse of the court martial by revealing that John Reid, the defence secretary, had ordered an urgent review of whether the MoD is fulfilling its duty of care to soldiers facing legal action.
There are signs that it is already too late, with more than 5,370 infantry soldiers buying themselves out of the army in the past three years rather than be posted back to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Divorce rates have soared. The wives of soldiers who return from Iraq complain that their husbands are suffering from exhaustion and stress but refuse to seek medical help for fear that it will blight their promotion prospects.
The wife of one officer based in Germany told friends he was “an aggressive wreck” after returning from Iraq, shouting at the children and suffering from what she thought was a nervous disorder. He declined medical help and a month after returning from Basra was sent to Kabul.
Not least among the concerns within the army is the fact that cases are taking so long to come to court martial. Three members of the Irish Guards and a Coldstream Guard who stand accused of the manslaughter of an Iraqi who allegedly drowned in a canal in May 2003 will not stand trial until May next year.
Corporal Scott Evans, 32, the most senior of the paratroopers acquitted last week, said that they felt betrayed by the army: “We’ve been badly hung out to dry.
“The army is your family, isn’t it? You expect your
family to look after you through thick and thin, but they betrayed us. It seems that in the army’s eyes you are guilty until proven innocent.”
One army officer said Evans was “just summing up what everybody feels. No one seems to care. We feel like we’ve lost public sympathy because of all these allegations”