President Trump’s recent decisions to withdraw from Syria and negotiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan have reignited a long running debate over our military’s presence across the globe.
With thousands of American lives lost, many more wounded or maimed, and public coffers drained of $5.6 trillion, the weary public and their president have openly asked: is it worth the cost? Recently, too, CNN reported on a lesser known cost of war borne directly by the troops: suicide. 2018 marked a 10-year high for the Navy and Marine Corps, with 68 Navy and 57 Marine deaths confirmed as suicides.
The latest annual survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) members found that, when asked in 2018, 43 percent reported having had suicidal thoughts since joining the military, compared to 31 percent in 2014. Overall, 77 percent said they do not think the military is doing enough to address the problem. Suicide rates for veterans increased 25.9 percent from 2005 to 2015, dipped slightly between 2015 and 2016, and now are rising again. Tragically, more than 6,000 veterans have killed themselves every year since 2008.
This trend has proven baffling to Marine officials despite the availability of “extensive mental health programs.” And there’s something even more confusing: “many of the cases are young Marines who have not deployed overseas and have not been in combat—a situation that has been seen in other branches of the military as well.”
In September 2018, the VA released a report also acknowledging these patterns and declaring that the agency “must help reduce veterans’ risk for suicide before they reach a crisis.” This policy, it said, would be accomplished through an “expansion of treatment and prevention services and a continued focus on innovative crisis intervention services.”
But what is causing these trends and will these policies actually work?
Historically suicide has been regarded as taboo in America, a deeply shameful and disgraceful act. The same could be said of suicide in the military. More recently, as our wars have dragged on, both America’s view of its warriors and the military’s view of itself have changed, with an emphasis on eliminating the stigma attached to suicide in the hope that troubled individuals will come forward before it is too late. Yet most public discussions of this issue take for granted that in some way, combat stress is to blame for suicidal ideation.
Now that the data is telling us otherwise, how do we drill down on the root causes?
In his masterpiece of literary investigation The Gulag Archipelago, Russian dissident Aleksander Solzhenitsyn left no facet of zek (prisoner) psychology untouched. With respect to suicide in the camps, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the prisoners had the will to “not perish from the disaster! It had to be survived.” This will was the “root cause of the astounding rarity of camp suicides.” The inmates were “condemned to a misshapen existence, to waste away from starvation, to exhaustion from labor—they did not put an end to themselves!” Solzhenitsyn concluded, “This meant some kind of invincible feeling was alive inside them. Some powerful idea. This was their feeling of universal innocence.”
These observations lend themselves to viewing suicide as a disease of the spirit, not of the mind or body. And diseases of the spirit are impossible to quantify; they can only be qualified. The feelings of pain, despair, isolation, heartbreak, and depression can’t be reduced to Excel charts or attendance rosters for prevention classes. But in today’s military, the love of easy and empirical solutions presents the same trap that doomed the American effort in Vietnam: not everything that counts can be counted. As Marine Captain Grazier said in a 2103 essay on suicide for The Marine Corps Gazette, “Any action must be judged by its results. If the results are bad, the action is wrong.” Likewise can we judge a policy by its effectiveness. If a policy aimed at reducing suicide has no impact or the trends worsen, objectively one can say the policy is ineffective or not designed correctly.
What matters to the military? The decision to join acknowledges and accepts that suffering will be involved: privation, danger, fatigue, and physical and mental exertion. Voluntary military service is about putting something on the altar of national sacrifice: time, relationships, physical and mental health, and, if required, limbs and lives, all offered for sanctification. Semper Fi! So why then are military members’ spirits broken? Not because of what they have experienced, but because of what they haven’t experienced. Something deeper is missing: the feeling of being connected to a larger organism. To American society, the bee is more important than the hive, but to the voluntary service member, the hive is more important than the bee.
The timespan and elusive strategic objectives of America’s wars—and to a lesser degree, its social engineering—have fractured the tribal cohesion of the military, commonly called espirit de corps. The civil-military divide has reduced the relationship between the public and their protectors to blind patronage. The American people, who have not been taxed, drafted, or even consulted through Congress concerning the conduct of war, want their heroes to be comfortable—comfortable in a physical, material way. Former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel perfectly summarized this policy during the government shutdown of October 2013 when he ordered back to work furloughed Department of Defense civilians whose “responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.” This was at a time when less than half of Marine aircraft could fly. Military leadership basically told the troops that while they can’t provide working equipment, be happy because counselors are always on hand to take your calls.
By keeping the military comfortable, in an ironic way, our society removes their sacrifice from the altar. While there is no doubt that multiple combat deployments can and have had negative effects on veterans’ health, the flip side is solidarity with fellow soldiers. The depth of this forged relationship is difficult to fathom. In The German Soldier in World War II, studies of German units found that even though soldiers were granted standard leave periods to return to the Fatherland for R&R, they overwhelmingly preferred to stay with their units and endure death and destruction. If any one of those soldiers could have been asked why, his answer would not have been quantifiable. While no one wants war to better bond with their comrades, there must be efforts to clear the decks so that the balkanization of American society does not infiltrate the Armed Forces. Identity politics seeping into the military culture will only hurt the ethos of unity and sacrifice.
Of course, military suicide can be put into better perspective when placed in a broader context. Rates of suicide in the military are still lower than in American society. According to the CDC, between 1996 and 2016, every state except Nevada saw an increase in suicide rates. In 2017, the toll stood at 47,000.
An interesting explanation for these trends was examined in The Righteous Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt examines the evolutionary origins of our moral inclinations. Allegiance to a tribe and following rules is in our DNA and cannot be turned off; its software comes loaded from birth. Haidt draws attention to the fact that after remaining stable for decades, suicide rates began to climb following the liberating cultural revolution of the 1960s. He concludes that “when societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing them to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide.”
Military service members, while perhaps not fully understanding their own evolutionary idealism, enlist to escape a society where it’s every man for himself. Human beings instinctively need to be part of a tribe. There is something mysteriously satisfying about offering yourself for the greater good of others. An experience in the military followed by a life deficient in community, solidarity, and shared suffering is, well, depressing.
Suicide is a complex issue and no analysis can completely cover the wide range of reasons for despair. The epidemic is a wider cultural problem; the military trends in the same direction as the society from which it is drawn. The suicide rate in America, for example, is escalating among poor, white men, particularly those between the ages of 45 and 64. These are counted among the growing “deaths of despair,” which also includes drug overdoses and liver disease.
And while “extensive mental health programs” can effectively talk someone off the ledge, they can only treat symptoms, not the underlying disease. The correct approach is to address the readiness crisis and spending priorities in the military. Without deployments, being ready for combat is the next best thing. Congress and military leadership have gone all in on the bankrupt idea that comfort and happiness equals morale and morale correlates to readiness. In fact, they got it backward. Providing the resources and time to effectively accomplish the mission is what lifts the spirits of the troops.
While we know that preventing suicide in our military community is not an exact science, focusing on the real needs of the soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine is the best place to start.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.