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Stress in Sub-Conventional Operations

Col. K C Dixit was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 23, 2009

    Recently, Defence Minister A. K. Antony informed Parliament that there have been 520 cases of suicides and fratricides in the Army since 2006, of which 495 alone were suicides. The 31st Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had noted that there were 635 cases of suicides and 67 fratricides in the armed forces between 2003 and 2007. The minister also noted that 70 per cent of the suicides took place in peace stations and the rest in field areas, a fact that surprised the Parliamentary Committee. This is a cause of serious concern and the Army is taking necessary measures to prevent such incidents in all its sincerity.

    A plethora of literature on combat stress substantiates the fact that troops trained in conventional warfare experience significant stress while operating in low intensity or counter insurgency environments. Conventional training makes a soldier think in clear cut extremes and this tendency often leads to problems in such environments where the concept of enemy cannot be applied to one’s own people. In such operational environments, a soldier ends up fighting an elusive enemy, in the absence of reliable intelligence and co-operation of the local population. Many researchers tend to believe that ambiguity of aim, lack of visible success, high casualty rates and prolonged exposure to dangerous situations are the main causes of stress among troops operating in counter-insurgency environments, with operational factors such as fatigue, unpredictability of threat, extended separation from families, absence of recreational avenues and problems related to leave adding fuel to the fire. It is essential to understand the underlying cause of rising cases of suicides/fratricides among trained and disciplined troops that tend to drive a soldier to a point of no return. Is it due to stressful working environment and extended tenures in insurgency areas as brought out in numerous media reports, or is there something else to it?

    With a sharp decline in incidents of terrorist related violence and attacks on soldiers in Jammu & Kashmir, prolonged exposure to dangerous situations cannot be termed to be the cause of suicides/fratricides in the Army. If such tendencies were related to exposure to dangerous situations, it should have shown a downward trend, which has actually not been experienced on the ground. On the contrary, a large number of troops prefer field postings on voluntary basis in order to retain family accommodation in peace stations and thus ensure requisite schooling for their children, since they feel that timely leave and better allowances are available in operational areas. This clearly establishes that correlation between cases of suicides/fratricides and prolonged exposure to dangerous situations in counter-insurgency areas lacks substance.

    As per the Yerkes-Dodson Stress Model, a certain degree of stress level (optimum stress level) is necessary to make us live active and productive lives. However, a stress level lower than this optimum leads to the decay of psychological system, referred to as hypo-stress implying lack of interest in activities. If stress level is greater than the optimum, it may lead to accumulation of fatigue leading to psychobiological diseases as a result of hyper-stress. The Army has accordingly been taking short and long term measures to maintain optimum stress levels among its troops.

    During a recent trip to operational areas in Jammu & Kashmir, I interacted with 60 officers, 145 Junior Commissioned Officers and 880 Other Ranks of all arms and services. It came out very clearly that suicides/fratricides in operational areas mainly take place due to domestic problems of the affected individuals for which they find no solution. These personal/domestic problems include marital discord, hiding facts about trade/position in the organisation while getting married, property disputes, heavy debt, inability to bear the education expenses of children, previous psychiatric disorder, and inability to meet aspirations of an educated spouse at home, etc. 98 per cent of the troops felt that suicides/fratricides are triggered by stress purely linked to domestic/personal problems and have no linkage, whatsoever, with the operational environment. As per statistics of suicides/attempted suicides in operational areas in a corps zone in 2008, out of 18 cases 13 were due to domestic problems, two because of failed affairs, two due to previous psychiatric disorder history, with only one case relating to operational stress. With the breakdown of the joint family system, soldiers are anxious about their families left behind at home. The growing cost of sustenance and education are difficult to meet. Due to easy communication with family members as a result of affordable mobile telephones, even most mundane domestic issues get passed on to a soldier. A soldier, far away from home, is unable to solve these entirely personal matters, causing hyper-stress. The Army can only grant 90 days leave to an individual in a year. Any requirement beyond this yearly entitlement is taken care of by granting advance of annual leave in exceptional cases, which gets accounted for against the subsequent year’s entitlement. Most cases of suicides have occurred soon after troops returned to duty from leave. This clearly indicates that soldiers resorting to extreme steps are severely troubled by domestic issues which they are unable to resolve.

    When a soldier is perturbed over his family problem beyond his optimum stress level or returns from leave without being able to sort these issues out during his leave and reaches a point of no return, he gets psychologically affected. Such an estranged individual either attempts to end his life or turns the weapon on his colleagues or superiors on minor provocation at the spur of the moment over any issue. As noted earlier, the maximum number of suicide/fratricide cases occurs within a few days of soldier returning from leave. In most such cases, the individuals had availed their quota of leave as per their requirements.

    The Army has initiated a number of measures to prevent the occurrence of such incidents at all levels and the needs of soldiers are being taken care of realistically. Through Project MILAP, interaction with troops has increased substantially and counseling facilities are being ensured up to post level. Officers, Religious Teachers and Junior Commissioned Officers are being trained in counseling techniques on a regular basis, the buddy system has been made realistic, leave is being granted liberally, help-lines have been created and manned round the clock to help distressed soldiers promptly, and infrastructure pertaining to living conditions has been improved considerably.

    There is definitely a need to sensitize the civil administration to address the problems of soldiers and their family members with compassion. A large number of soldiers get bogged down by property disputes with close relatives. There is only a limited time for meeting legal obligations during leave. Increasing lawlessness in rural areas affects their families and further compounds their worries. And unlike in the past, the recommendations of commanding officers to the district administration about the problems being faced by the soldiers under their command fail to evoke the necessary response. In order to limit stress among troops in operational and other areas to optimum levels, this anomaly needs immediate addressing through an institutional directive by the government to district administrations to resolve the problems of soldiers on priority.