JUNE 11, 2012
Not Surprising, But Shocking
Revisiting Military Suicides
It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again. The best reason we have for leaving Afghanistan is that the war can’t be won. Indeed, this war (the longest in our history) is so clearly unwinnable, military strategists can’t even come up with a fantasy scenario for its resolution. And when you can’t fake a happy ending—when you can’t even come up with a sugar-coated denouement—you know it’s time to piss on the campfire and call in the dogs.
One obstacle to ending the war is that our congressional “doves” are indistinguishable from our congressional “hawks.” In fact, we have no doves, only varying gradations of hawks. Another obstacle is President Obama himself. The case can be made that Obama’s war record is no different than what we would’ve seen had Dick Cheney been president. Granted, Cheney might have launched a few more drones, tortured a few more pilgrims, and revoked a few more state-side civil liberties, but Obama’s policies (Libya included) have been positively Cheneyesque.
But you hear another reason for us leaving Afghanistan. You hear people say we should end the war because of the alarming number of suicides (averaging almost one a day) among American troops. Not to trivialize or in any way diminish the tragedy of American soldiers taking their own lives, but suicides should have no bearing on this. You either have a justifiable, sustainable reason for fighting a war, or you don’t.
Actually, our national suicide statistics are surprising. In fact, they’re shocking. The U.S. appears to be in the midst of what might be called a “suicide epidemic.” And we’re speaking of civilians, not military personnel. Just look at the numbers. There arealmost twice as many suicides each year in the U.S. as there are murders. It’s true.Interestingly, the demographic with the most suicides are white males, and the demographic with the fewest are African American females.
The first reference to military suicides I can recall was back in 2007, when an LA radio station reported, sensationally, that the number of suicides among American soldiers (most of whom, presumably, were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan) was “the highest it’s been in 25 years.” I remember casually doing the arithmetic and being surprised that the comparison took us back to 1982, which was more or less “peace time.” Why would U.S. soldiers be killing themselves in record numbers in 1982?
Back to Afghanistan. One explanation for these one-a-day suicides is cell phones and e-mail. Unlike previous wars, where soldiers fought in relative isolation from family and friends, today’s troops are in regular contact with the folks back home, which means they get hit with all the family bullshit—pleas, emotional promises, petty gripes, resentments, etc. So, in addition to being asked to handle the horrific stresses of war, these guys are being asked to handle the nagging stresses of home as well. Reasonable as that sounds, it doesn’t explain the spike in suicides that supposedly occurred in the “pre-technology” days of 1982.
There’s also the paradox of Vietnam. With the draft still in effect, that singularly unpopular war was fought by men who were forced to serve in the military, not by the 100-percent volunteer army we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as unpopular as Vietnam was, there didn’t seem to be many suicides. There were “fraggings”—incidents where soldiers killed their own officers with fragmentary grenades—but relatively few suicides. Of course, it’s possible they occurred and simply went unreported or unnoticed.
As for our national suicide rate, some observers blame the pharmaceutical industry. They argue that the single most significant change in mental health treatment over the last 35 years has been the proliferation of anti-depressants, with their dangerous, unpredictable side effects. And without a shred of evidence to back me up, I’d suggest that it’s white males, rather than African American females, who are gobbling down these pills.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at email@example.com