Peacekeeping found to be stressful

April 02, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Waging war has always been a harrowing business. But some social scientists studying the Army say that keeping the peace can be nearly as stressful as combat for American soldiers -- and also for their spouses and children.

U.S. peacekeepers are dispatched on short notice with little instruction about local languages and culture.

Trained for combat, the soldiers serve as heavily armed police. Motivated by patriotism, they can risk their lives in regional squabbles where U.S. interests aren't clearly at stake.

"These are different things than America trains them to do, which is to fight and win America's wars," said David R. Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who has studied and advised the U.S. Army.

"The situation is not as dangerous. But it is dangerous. And there's far more ambiguity."

In a war, armies clash, and "it's legitimate for you to get them before they get you," Dr. Segal said.

When the object is feeding starving Somalis or patrolling the cities of Haiti, the enemy is less well-defined. But people may still shoot.

"You may not have the freedom to fire back," he said. "You certainly aren't going to have the freedom to fire first."

A painful lesson

That was the painful lesson for soldiers sent last year to Haiti.

"I think some people weren't prepared for what they were getting involved in," said Sgt. Will Williams, a former Green Beret, a paramedic in the Baltimore City Fire Department and a member of the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army reserve unit based in Riverdale.

Infantry soldiers, psychologically prepared for combat, were particularly frustrated, he said. "A lot of those young kids, they just got in the Army. It was a rude awakening."

Dr. Segal and other social scientists studying the military say that U.S. soldiers have done a superb job of responding to global 911 calls -- acting with empathy and restraint.

But it's work they are not prepared for in terms of their training, equipment or expectations.

Dr. Segal has warned that these challenges could erode morale among units frequently called on for peacekeeping duties.

That could affect future missions: Disaffected soldiers generally have more disciplinary problems, are more prone to abuse drugs and alcohol and suffer more injuries.

To figure out how to adapt, Army officials are increasingly turning to social scientists. "We've used them for good insights, and . . . instant feedback," said Lt. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup Jr., the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel.

In late 1993, Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan called Dr. Segal and his wife, Dr. Mady W. Segal, also a College Park sociology professor and a specialist on military families.

The general said that he had read a book by the couple, "Peacekeepers and their Wives," about U.S. troops keeping the peace in the Sinai, and he wanted their advice.

Since then, General Sullivan has sent David Segal to talk to peacekeeping troops so often that a recent Army news release referred to him as the general's "deployable scholar."

On a trip to Korea last June, Dr. David Segal discovered that soldiers at a Patriot missile battery had lost a monthly food allowance they had received before they were sent abroad. That cost them up to $250 a month. He told General Sullivan, who changed the Army's pay policy.

Peacekeeping missions can also have a psychological impact on families. In fact, the Segals say, spouses and children may have an easier time coping when a soldier is sent into combat -- because the families are more prepared for the possibility of casualties.

"A perfect example was our mission in Somalia," said Mady Segal. "As far as the soldiers and their families were concerned, they were going there for a humanitarian relief mission. Then people started dying. At that point, some of the wives of soldiers who were in Somalia were picketing at the post."

Family pressures on soldiers have been increased by improvements in communications. In the past, soldiers could communicate home only by mail. Now they can telephone home by satellite from near the front lines, as they did during the Persian Gulf war.

That's good and bad, David Segal says. They keep in touch; but by staying in touch, families can burden soldiers with minor day-to-day worries: Does the car need fixing? Is a child's flu something more serious?

Dissenting view

David Segal's work is widely respected, but not everyone in his field shares his view of peacekeeping.

"When all is said and done, [peacekeeping] is certainly less stressful than combat," says Charles Moskos, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, who has spent time with U.S. troops in Somalia, Haiti and Macedonia.

As for uncertainty, he said, "our soldiers can deal with some amount of ambiguity."

David Segal doesn't underestimate the savagery of war: "I don't think I've ever talked to a soldier who'd experienced combat who really wanted to go into that experience again."

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