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Troops need a course in Sherman

At long last the Army is going to do something to prepare soldiers for war -- mentally.

Up to now the best the Army could do for soldiers who broke down under the stress of combat was to advise them to "get a grip" or "act like a man," even if they were women. Soldiers who broke down, the thinking went, were sissies. Real men (and women) just sucked it up and got on with the business at hand.

In response to an alarming rise in suicides and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in the military, however, the Army has decided that all 1.1 million of its troops should take training in "emotional resiliency."

The training, according to The New York Times, is to be based on techniques tested "in middle schools." This is where the Army and I part company (and not for the first time). I know that middle school is no picnic, but can we really equate its stresses to the stresses of war?

The method seeks to disabuse students of "common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs" that can lead to anger and frustration. The Times lists "the tendency to assume the worst will happen" as a flawed belief that needs fixing.

It would seem to me that has things exactly backwards. The problem with war isn't that we expect it to be worse than it turns out to be, it's that it's so much worse than we imagine.

Countries, and the United States in particular, typically enter a war in high spirits. We're convinced that God is on our side and that He will deliver us a quick victory. All our troops are heroes; all the enemies villains. Our losses will be modest and worth the cost, for our cause is just. All countries believe that going into war.

It's after the war drags on a while and the casualties mount and its origins become obscure that disillusionment sets in. Despair soon follows and with it, suicides and breakdowns among veterans.

Soldiers need training to prepare them for what war really is, which is what Union General William Tecumseh Sherman said it was -- hell. Speaking to a crowd of some 10,000 in Ohio in 1880, long after the Civil War, he said: "There's many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory but boys, it is all hell."

War films seldom provide a reliable picture of war -- they lean too heavily on the glory myth -- but a recent one is among the exceptions. It's "The Hurt Locker," directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow.

It tells the story of an American bomb removal squad in Iraq. Each day they stand at the ready until they get the call that an unexploded mine or bomb or a suspicious-looking pile of rubble has been discovered. Then they go out and defuse it or are killed trying. In the meantime they watch the rooftops for snipers.

It's a remarkable film. It literally puts you in the helmets of these men as they pass through the streets of Baghdad, not knowing friend from enemy, always an instant from disaster. The film goes on high tension at the very first frame and continues that way for an hour-and-a-half.

If "Apocalypse Now" captured the madness of the Vietnam War (and I think it did) then "The Hurt Locker" captures the chaos--moral, physical, psychological -- that is Iraq.

It's a war that makes mockery of our claims of noble intensions. As Sherman said in letters written shortly after his war was over: "War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it ... its glory is all moonshine ... 'tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation."

Maybe the Army should give its troops a course in Sherman and let it go at that. At least they wouldn't be disillusioned when they met the real thing.

Donald Kaul, retired as Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register, has covered the nation's capital for more than three decades.