Thursday, 15 May 2008

Psychological Dimension of the War in Iraq

(Paper presented at the Intellectual Forum on the War on Iraq: "Where is it going?" Organised by the International Institute of Muslim Unity, International Islamic University Malaysia. 11 May 2007)

The war on Iraq has entered its fourth year with very little optimism for peaceful resolution. Daily news reports on the war contain what is now a typical set of information – more Iraqi deaths, bomb explodes in Baghdad, American soldiers injured, more suicide attacks – in short, continued escalation of violence that does not seem to have an end. All this would inevitably and effectively tell us that Iraq has entered a stage where even if and when the war ends, the war will leave deep tangible scars on all parties involved that will not disappear for at least a few generations to come.

I have been asked by the organiser of this forum to talk on the psychological dimension of the war, with special emphasis on where the war is going i.e. what will happen in the future, an impossible task really because no one except Allah SWT knows what will happen in Iraq. To analyse what has happened (in the past) would have been easier with the benefit of hindsight. However, despite the enormity of the task, I will try to present today some points for us to ponder, which may in the end present more questions rather than answers to our present predicament.

There are three major points in my presentation today. The first is the psychological effects of the war on the Iraqi people and military personnel involved. The second is on the political leadership in Iraq, and the third and final point is on conflict resolution in Iraq.

On the first point, the psychological effects of the war first-of-all will be seen for many years to come on the people of Iraq. Looking at examples of people in war torn areas in the past, we will see clear evidence of the rise of mental health cases. The most common type of disorder is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterised by symptoms such as sleep disturbance, continuous nightmares, avoidance of trauma recollections, regressive behaviour and anger outbursts. More serious symptoms of PTSD are commonly seen among those who had direct experience with or witnessed trauma situations such as death, near death or serious injuries. My former head of department, Dr. Amber Haque once conducted a study on the prevalence of PTSD amongst IIUM students from the former Republic of Yugoslavia. In his study, symptoms of PTSD, as mentioned earlier, were clearly reported amongst students observed in the study. And this had some adverse effect on the students’ ability to cope with the demands of life at the university both in their studies and social interaction. Other effects with strong correlations with PTSD (among women) include high rate of babies born with physical and mental disability, and babies with difficult temperaments.

PTSD is also a commonly observed condition amongst war veterans. Mental health experts in the U.S. have begun to document the huge rise of mental health cases amongst US soldiers. About 394,000 U.S. troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have completed active-duty enlistments. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 2004 reported that about 16 percent of the troops who served in Iraq and 11 percent of those who served in Afghanistan met screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) three or four months after their return. Troops serving in ground units of the Army or Marine Corps were 3.7 times more likely to have PTSD than members of the Navy or Air Force. In the long run, PTSD may develop into other psychiatric conditions such as catatonic disorder, suicidal tendencies and anti-social disorder. They may have seen dead children or mutilated bodies, or were unable to help their comrades while under attack. Too often, such mental trauma is accompanied by physical injury in patterns that differ from those of previous wars.

Moving on to my second point on the political leadership in Iraq, considering the continued volatile situation on the ground, what kind of leaders does Iraq need to restore order and peace? At the same time, one may also ask, do the current political leaders in Iraq have the right personality characteristics to lead Iraq in these testing times? Findings in organisational psychology would suggest that it is not so much a question whether the leader has strong personality or credentials, it is more of a question of whether the person’s qualities match or fit in with the demands of the whole environment – the people he/she aspires to lead, and the political and economic climate of that present time. As a result, one may well deduce that even a hugely respected American President like Abraham Lincoln, his leadership style and personality may not necessarily earn him the same respect if he is the president today. Similarly here in Malaysia, some political analysts have observed that Dr. Mahathir’s leadership style was suitable for the country in the 1980’s and early 90’s, but became obsolete in the new millennium.

So, what kind of leaders does Iraq need now to bring peace? The most pressing issue here is to establish unity amongst people of various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq. Measures to achieve this have been undertaken. Iraq now has Nuri Al-Maliki (a Shiite) as Prime Minister, Jalal Talaabani (a Kurd) as President, and Tariq Al-Hashemi (a Sunni) as Vice-President. But group representation alone is not enough to restore unity on the ground, or to persuade militias and other resistant groups to lay down their weapons. What more do we need? I don’t have the answers to this but would like to present a provocative proposition: bring back Saddam! I am not presenting my personal view but the views of numerous political commentators and analysts. For example, James S. Robbins, who is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, wrote in an article for the National Review Online on November last year that other than serving a fatal blow to the Bush administration, restoring Saddam and the Baathist regime would be a great idea! ( Others who have presented similar views include Jonathan Chait of the Los Angeles Times, the “Stop the War Coalition” of the U.K., and a few other anti-war activists. Of course, all these comments were written before Saddam was hanged in January this year.

We cannot ignore the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein and members of his regime. One has to show respect to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives, and their surviving family members who had to endure so much throughout Saddam’s reign. However, would not a strong and charismatic even if somewhat autocratic and dictatorial leader like Saddam be a suitable person to lead and take charge of Iraq at this present time?

The final point of my presentation today is on conflict resolution in Iraq. From the viewpoint of the academic field of conflict studies, Iraq is now at the stage of conflict management where violence has continued for a certain period of time that the priority now should be on finding ways to end the violence. This is the pre-requisite to the next stage, which is the stage of conflict resolution. I can’t dwell much on how to end the violence in Iraq. Iraq is currently a military battlefield that requires a military solution, which may run concurrently with a civil-political solution.

A number of methods have been used in the aftermath of conflicts to promote resolution and reconciliation. No approach is perfect. At best they can only seek a path between too much memory and too much forgetting. Peace psychologists and peace activists have designed various programmes to encourage resolution and reconciliation. For example, a group of psychologists called Psychologists for Social Responsibility, based in Washington DC, has developed a psycho-educational brochure on “Trauma and Recovery” for the Balkans, and administered a working conference that developed a curriculum on “Ethnopolitical Warfare: Trauma Intervention and Conflict Resolution” for the whole Balkan region. Similarly, the Institute of Peace Studies in both Norway and Finland have been very active in organising peace building workshops and designing academic curricula for peace education in Nigeria, South Africa, and Rwanda among others. One has to understand however, that an approach or method that worked in one conflict area may not work as effectively in another. Hence any approach to be introduced in rebuilding peace in Iraq must be formulated not only from analyses of its present day social dynamics, but also from the historical and religious perspectives.

To conclude, I wish to acknowledge that whatever points that I’ve raised today comes from observations and references from secondary sources. Never for a moment would I claim that I know what will happen to Iraq in the future. As Professor Philip Tetlock of Stanford University recently concluded after 20 years of study on expert political judgment, "chimpanzees do nearly as well in forecasting the future". A sarcastic remark definitely but a sharp one indeed to encourage more humility.

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