As US troops continue to patrol Afghanistan, and as they prepare to hit the ground in Colombia in January to intervene in that country's ongoing civil war, and as the US government edges ever closer to invading Iraq, a story out of Israel should (but probably won't) provide some sobering reading for those pounding the war drums along the Potomac. The Vietnam War saw widespread drug use among US troops and a legion of junkies coming back to America. The Gulf War, too, produced abreactions among the troops, manifested most infamously by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, but more quietly and more commonly by the fall into alcohol or drug abuse.
But for many Americans, the Vietnam War is lost in the mists of time, and the Gulf War is but a vague memory. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing Palestinian intifada ("uprising") against it, however, are not ancient history. The images of violence flash across the TV screen daily. The toll of the dead and injured on both sides is well known. Less known is the psychic toll paid by soldiers occupying a hostile land. But a recent report in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv (November 5) shone a bright light on the horrors of war for the fighters. It isn't pretty, but it is instructive.
The Ma'ariv story, "What Have I Done! -- A Hundred Soldiers Treated for 'Intifada Syndrome,'" focused on the Izun "rehabilitation village" near the town of Ceasarea. There, Ma'ariv reported, former soldiers are treated for deep mental crises, including severe drug abuse, caused by their duties as soldiers of the occupation. On the day Ma'ariv visited the village, four ex-members of the Duvdevan (special forces units carrying out arrests and assassinations while disguised as Arabs) checked in.
"They joined the most elite of units, full of motivation," wrote Ma'ariv. "They served terms of three years and more, fought in the hardest battles of the Intifada, but also had to face the civilian Palestinian population. Now that they have been discharged the difficulties are exposed, the personal problems and crises, the self-flagellation. The magnitude of the phenomenon is frightening. Dozens of them went on backpacking trips to the Far East where they became addicted to drugs, including hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Some tried to commit suicide."
"When we started a year and eight months ago, we had the intention of treating those backpacker soldiers returning from India, Thailand and other places in a condition of total collapse, apathetic and with no grasp of reality," said Israeli army reserve lieutenant-colonel Omri Frish, a social worker by training who organized the village. "We were staggered by the number of calls we got. We got more then 900 calls from parents with very painful stories of sons becoming drug addicts, trying to commit suicide and generally emotionally distressed," he told Ma'ariv. "Many of these were veterans of the most prestigious elite units such as Sayeret Matkal, the Naval Commandos, Duvdevan and Duchifat."
Many of the soldiers hold themselves accountable for actions taken to defend the occupation. "The soldiers burst out crying and blame themselves for maltreatment, abuse, humiliation and derision of the Palestinians," said one of the village doctors. "Now, after being discharged, the vision of what they had done is playing itself in their minds like a non-stop film. Suddenly the soldier, the tough fighter who had been nicknamed 'Rambo,' goes to India. There he experiences another reality, a quiet and tranquil situation. When he comes back he realizes what he had done. He tries to escape from reality, to escape into drugs, and his life becomes a ruin."
One former paratrooper being treated at Izun explained: "We went into houses. We saw children and old people crying. We shot at their TV sets. At first you feel no pity, you just have a job to do and you do it. But later when you sit at home, you start realizing what you have done, and it hurts you deeply."
"Their problems are severe," said Frish. "Soldiers who killed Palestinians, soldiers who by mistake killed a fellow soldier, soldiers who failed under pressure. They try to face life and travel to India, to the East. On their return we interview them. When we ask 'why did you do it', they say 'I don't know why, it was as if there was another person inside me.'"
Frish told of one Sayeret Matkal [Israeli equivalent of the Green Berets] officer who spent two years fighting the Palestinians. "After his discharge he traveled to Thailand. He tried to escape his experiences in the [occupied] Territories. He failed and became a drug addict. In Israel he went on to become a very heavy cocaine user. His parents called and asked us to help him. We agreed, and he was treated with his parents accompanying him. A few days later he was found dead in his room," Frish related.
Another patient at the village was an elite fighter who traveled to India after finishing his service. "He took some LSD and entered a cave in order to meditate," said Frish. "Suddenly he saw scenes from the Intifada in front of his eyes: terrorists belonging to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He suffered shock and anxiety attack and subsequently collapsed. With his parents' help, he was evacuated to be treated in the village."
Another group of patients at the village are soldiers tasked with assassinating Palestinian militant Iyad Batat early in 2001. "At first we were happy and elated with our success. We posed for photographs over the remnants of his mangled body, some of us smiling and laughing while holding his torn-off organs," a member of that group told Ma'ariv. "Suddenly, a few weeks later, the Operations Officer came over, reprimanded us and demanded that we hand over those photographs. He burnt them in front of us and warned us never to take such photos again. When we finally realized what we had done, we felt very upset. A short time later, two of us went to a party, where they took a lot of Ecstasy pills. They came back to camp totally doped. We had to take away their guns and lock them up in a room until the psychiatrists came to take them. One of them didn't recognize anybody, and was all the time shouting 'Muhammad, Muhammad, Muhammad.' He became totally crazy. The Intifada has finished him."
The Israeli Defense Forces -- like the Pentagon -- seems uninterested in the plight of its former soldiers. "We don't follow it up," an unnamed military official told Ma'ariv. "We cannot deal with every fighter that fell into drug abuse or is suffering emotional distress in some monastery in India. We are aware of the difficult situation of fighters and soldiers who are distressed. There are support groups and we look favorably upon the formation of the village and its worthy work."
Those former soldiers who are dragged in or otherwise present themselves for treatment are the tip of the iceberg, one officer at Izun told Ma'ariv. "There are hundreds of others who hang around with a feeling that their life has no purpose. It's only a few easy steps to drugs and suicide," he said. "We dread the possibility of former soldiers will get involved in criminal activity as a result of their distress."
If the Ma'ariv report is any indication, it looks as if American drug treatment centers can expect a new stream of clients as US troops begin what appears to be an extensive, open-ended battle against hostile populations from Kabul to Kuwait and from Bogota to Baghdad.