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    Combat leaves soldiers 'drunk' with fatigue

    SJ2

    Pressa

    Combat leaves soldiers 'drunk' with fatigue.

    New Scientist(USA), 17:55, 13 April 2003.

    The stress of combat and lack of sleep affect soldiers so badly that after a week they perform worse than if they were drunk or sedated, according to a US Army study carried out last year.

    The research raises serious questions about the ability of tired soldiers in Iraq, some of whom have been on the move for nearly three weeks, to make split-second decisions about whether a potential target is an enemy soldier, a civilian or one of their own. There is a steadily growing list of incidents in which civilians or friendly forces have been mistakenly killed.

    Harris Lieberman's team at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine followed Navy Seals and Army Rangers taking part in exercises designed to mimic combat conditions. "Our purpose was to document how severely cognitive performance was impaired so that the military could take measures to prevent this deterioration," he says.

    The results are striking. Compared with performance tests given before the operation, soldiers who trained for several days straight suffered a precipitous drop in their ability to perform the types of task required for warfare.


    Slower reactions

    The Navy Seals, who slept for just one of their 73 hours of duty, fared the worse, with young recruits displaying slower reaction times, reduced vigilance and problems remembering key details. In one quick-decision test, the average number of errors jumped from one or two to over 15.

    But even the better rested and more experienced Army Rangers showed significant decline in executing relatively simple tasks. "Their performance was actually worse than if they were legally drunk," says Lieberman, who presented his findings at the Army Science Conference in Florida last December. (The legal limit in the US varies from 0.8 to 1 milligram of alcohol per millilitre of blood.)

    While military planners expect some decline in cognitive abilities during combat, he says, it is not clear if they take into account the loss in basic functions he observed. For example, firing a weapon requires alertness and pattern recognition to spot a potential target, logical reasoning to decide if firing is appropriate and within the rules of engagement, and short-term memory of the location of friendly forces. All these abilities were substantially impaired, Lieberman says.

    With the growing complexity of modern warfare, Lieberman says that it is imperative to find ways to maintain soldiers' mental capabilities on the battlefield. But Gregory Belenky, director of neuropsychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, dismisses such "fog of war" talk, arguing that performance in any demanding situation will decline over time. "I don't think combat is any worse than flying an airplane, driving a truck or working in an emergency room," he says. "You could equally say that there's a fog of medicine."

    In combat situations, tired troops snap to attention through a quick burst of adrenalin, Belenky says. It is the mundane time in between where fatigue is most likely to contribute to mistakes.

    Software and amphetamines

    Nevertheless, the military is looking at ways to ensure that troops remain alert, including the development of computer programs that will monitor troops' sleep patterns. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is even trying to find out if it is possible to stop soldiers needing any sleep at all.

    For the moment, stimulants are the only way to counter sleep deprivation. Most controversial is the use of amphetamines by pilots.

    Lawyers for one of two US pilots who killed four Canadians in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan blame the drugs, claiming the pilot was forced to take them and that they are known to impair judgement. It is not yet clear if any of the pilots involved in the friendly fire incidents in Iraq, or the various helicopter accidents, were sleep-deprived or on amphetamines.

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