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Mind Games: On Life Underground


For days, Iraqi troops have been entrenched in their desert bunkers, dug in deep as U.S.-led forces pummeled them with bombs from the air. At some point, sooner or later, such treatment could have a profound effect on the minds of many of those soldiers, psychiatrists say.

In World War I, when armies were frequently pinned down inside trenches for long periods under steady bombardment, many troops suffered from a condition known then as shellshock. Similarly, some Iraqi soldiers today--especially those with less experience--can be expected to have reactions ranging from mild cases of combat fatigue to serious psychosis.

"There is almost no kind of human reaction that you can't see--including someone leaping up and running toward the enemy because they can't stand to be passive anymore," said Dr. L. J. West, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who has treated veterans for 35 years.

What is more common, West said, is battle-related stress that will manifest itself in numerous, less dramatic ways.

Soldiers subjected to the nearly constant thuds and echoes of exploding bombs may begin to experience fatigue, tension, fits of rage and bouts of trembling. They could have trouble sleeping and eating and will be startled by noise. They may have nightmares.

If what doctors now call acute traumatic stress begins to set in, the soldiers may start to withdraw from companions, turning inward, curling up or facing a wall. They are less able to function in daily activities. They may have crying spells or stare frozen into space.

"Some are kind of dazed . . . still others are trembling so bad they can't aim their weapons," West said of soldiers who develop severe symptoms of battle-related traumatic stress.

"Others become extremely depressed, fatigued, hopeless. Still others become emotionally numb. They go through the motions but are like zombies."

The air strategy of U.S.-led forces so far has been to "soften" ground troops and their heavily fortified entrenchments in the desert plains of Kuwait and Iraq. This has included steady runs on Iraqi defense lines by American B-52 bombers.

Clearly, the aim of the allied command is to batter the Iraqis psychologically as well as physically. In fact, physical damage from the bombing may be limited if the bunkers used by the Iraqi troops are as secure as some reports suggest.

This would make the psychological impact of the bombing all the more crucial strategically for the Americans. In addition to the bombs, soldiers from a Psychological Operations unit last week dragged loudspeakers from dune to dune in armored vehicles and blasted warnings to the Iraqi front-line forces to surrender or die. They also littered the sands with thousands of handbills, dropped during bombing raids, urging the Iraqis to "Get out of Kuwait."

By most accounts, less experienced soldiers make up the front-lines of the Iraqi deployment, with the tougher, more veteran troops belonging to the select Republican Guard dug in quite a distance behind them. These more professional soldiers, many of them hardened in eight years of battle with Iran, are considered less likely to suffer stress-related symptoms.

For the greener troops, if the bombardment lasts long enough, it could eventually weaken their fighting ability, psychiatrists said.

Dr. Stanley L. Wiener of the University of Illinois and Dr. John Barrett, director of the Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, said severe combat exhaustion whittles away at a soldier's skill by undermining his or her confidence.

"Soldiers who had been dependable and responsible and who had carried out many prior orders became fearful of failure in carrying out routine assignments," Wiener and Barrett wrote in a 1986 physician's textbook, "Trauma Management."

"Memory defects interfered with following even simple orders," they added.

However, doctors also say that as long as the fighters trust their leaders and believe in the mission they are executing, they can endure stress for an extended period.

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