POST #14. MILITARY SUICIDES (allegory dark)

In 2012, the number of suicides in the U.S. military exceeded the number of combat deaths in Afghanistan. The bulk of these military suicides were young men in the 18-24 age bracket. Not all suicides were in combat zones; about a third involved soldiers who were not deployed to war zones. The military maintains that its suicide rate is lower than that of the civilian population of males in the 17-60 year age bracket. Though that may be true, the military rate, concentrated in the 18-24 bracket, is probably higher than the corresponding bracket among civilians. Military statisticians would easily understand that the vastly different ranges of the two brackets is an apples/oranges comparison. Making such a comparison sounds knowingly deceptive to me.

On the National Public Radio blog “The Two Way,” journalist Bill Chappell discussed some of the common stressors that can lead to suicide among young soldiers. (“US Military’s Suicide Rate Surpassed Combat Deaths In 2012” January 14, 2013)

  1. The general stress of combat; a)facing death or serious injury; b)seeing comrades getting injured or killed; c)having to make instantaneous decisions that cause death or injury to comrades or innocent civilians.
  2. The difficulty of fitting in with military culture (military life not being what the subject thought it would be.)
  3. The unavailability of treatment for psychological disorders leading to suicide. Though the military makes psychological treatment available, fear that asking for help will truncate military careers is the functional equivalent of unavailability, as is the stigma of a PTSD diagnosis in civilian life, which makes sufferers reluctant to seek help even if they don’t want military careers. There is also the military’s inclination to diagnose and discharge stressed soldiers as slackers, or as patients whose disorders are not related to combat or military service.
  4. The smaller size of the non-draft professional army led to back-to back deployments, with little rest. This intensifies the stresses of combat, 1. supra.
  5. Realizing that the ostensible rational of a “Just War” is inapplicable to what you’re forced to do every day in actual combat. This realization can come while the subject is deployed, or after transitioning into civilian life, when the subject is no longer shielded from criticisms of the war’s policies, as may have been the case during deployment.
  6. There is also a post-deployment “danger zone,” when troops are transitioning back into civilian life. They have difficulties returning back to their old roles, difficulties finding a purpose or themselves, and difficulties dealing with criticism of the war from which they were shielded while in the military.

Emotional crises involving suicide are rooted in these stressors and develop over time, though they may appear to have a sudden onset to those in the subject’s milieu. Chappell’s blog post mentions a number of warning signs that a suicidal crisis is developing: (a) heightened anxiety,  mood swings, insomnia; (b) feelings of hopelessness, that there’s no way out of the subject’s oppressive situation; (c) inappropriate rage and anger; (d) withdrawing from family and friends; (e) abuse of intoxicants.

Spouses and close family members are the ones most likely to observe these warning signs, but if the subject is serving in a war zone, those closest to him/her,military peers, may be reluctant to offer or recommend help, because of the stigma associated with needing help and seeking it. The subject becomes mired in a situation where he/she refuses to seek help for a problem that can only be corrected if treatment commences before the disorder gets out of hand.

In “the shadow of Xeno’s eye” I allude to military suicides to convey the idea that the coalition armies were deteriorating under prolonged combat conditions. Bronze Age Greek coalition soldiers would have been exposed to many of the same stressors that contemporary coalition soldiers were exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan. The stresses of combat (stressor #1, supra) would have weighed on ancient Greek coalition soldiers as much as it does modern coalition soldiers, possibly more, because ancient warfare was hand-to-hand. Those stresses would have had a particularly pernicious effect because they continued for a prolonged period of time. (The mythical war lasted ten years, while contemporary coalition soldiers were repeatedly deployed, stressor #4, supra). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was unknown, and treatment obviously unavailable, in the Bronze Age (stressor 3, supra), as it was functionally unavailable for contemporary coalition soldiers because of the stigma surrounding it. Finally, as the mythical war dragged on, Greek coalition soldiers would have sensed that the “Just War” they’d been called upon to fight, for the rescue of Helen and Greek honor, was not the war they were actually fighting in their everyday experience. The unending slaughter before the walls of Troy, whose forces they vastly outnumbered, the exploitation of local populations, (whose friendship may have provided them valuable intelligence) and the clash of egos among their leaders, were hardly characteristic of a Just War for a Just Cause. Though they may not have come to see the war for what it really was, as Xeno did as he eavesdropped outside Agamemnon’s tent, their disillusionment (stressors #5, and #2, supra) would have magnified the harm caused by the other stressors they faced.

When suicides in any group occur frequently enough to be seen as expected, even if only occasionally, it goes beyond individual maladjustment and becomes a sign of pathology in the social structure. Emile Durkheim, one of the pioneers of sociology, wrote a monograph, “La Suicide” examining suicide as a social, rather than a psychological phenomenon, focusing on the suicidal subject’s connection to values, expectations, and roles in his/her social environment. This blog isn’t the place to discuss Durkheim’s theories in detail, but two of his concepts can help to put this discussion into a broader perspective.

Durkheim postulated four categories of suicide. Two of those categories, egoistic suicide and anomic suicide, are the ones most relevant to this post. Simplified for purposes of our discussion, a subject commits egoistic suicide when there’s a stable social structure with clear values and role expectations, but the subject can’t fit in. A subject commits anomic suicide when the social structure is in a state of social disorganization, and lacks clear values, roles that the subject can fill, and expectations that the subject can identify and meet. There’s sort of a continuum between the two. If egoistic suicides are rare, we can say such suicides are individual pathologies or maladjustments. If they occur more than rarely, we suspect that something may be amiss in the social structure that makes it difficult for too many people to find a place in. Anomic suicide, almost by definition, occurs when the social structure itself is pathological, so disorganized that there’s nothing to connect with or fit into.

Xeno describes bizarre suicides like they’re merely part of life in the coalition’s tenth year. I had him do that (one of the times he did what I wanted him to do) to help set the mood, to describe what coalition life must have been like after a decade long deployment. I wanted it to conjure up the feeling of a grotesque social structure that was hard to fit into, even as it mutated into a Hieronymus Bosch tableau, too deranged for anyone to find a place in. With the war in Iraq rooted in deception, and the war in Afghanistan misdirected by mission creep and the Iraq War itself, today’s military personnel are mired in a similar social and psychological morass. Egoistic and anomic suicides proliferate in both settings.