The number of military suicide is continues to grow.
Trying to address is it is going to be verrrry difficult. The complexities are not only deep but certain to be politically uncomfortable for one or another ‘viewpoint’ or interest group.
Of course, the Standard Operating Procedure that has evolved here in the past few decades is to simply pick the most politically advantageous position, cherry-pick only the factoids that will support it and make it look reasonable, and then enforce Political Correctness to prevent further discussion of the possibly large and essential elements that were left out in order to achieve what passes for ‘consensus’ and policy now.
This has been a plague throughout Our civic life for decades now, and its consequences – those evil turkeys of Truth – are coming home to roost.
But the military setting promises a particularly acute forum: there are things the military has to deal with – warfighting and its consequences – that cannot be spun or repressed or wished or theorized away.
A Thanksgiving Day newspaper article skims the surfaces, but to the practiced eye of a reader who is willing to borrow the skills of the old Soviet readers of news, the awful outlines start to loom up with a little more clarity than most folks – and certainly ‘interests’ – would probably like to see.
The key difficulty is this: how do you as the military show more sympathy for “mentally fragile” and “emotionally frail” soldiers without undermining the entire military valorization of the ‘soldierly qualities’.
In this regard you might consult the most recent Star Trek movie for a rather concise Vulcan assessment of the matter: the young Commander Spock is indicting the cocky cadet James T. Kirk for undermining a key Starfleet Academy command-problem scenario. The objective of the scenario-test, Spock reminds everybody, is to confront a potential commanding officer with a literally hopeless situation, in which there are no good outcomes, in order to test and develop the cadet’s ability to simultaneously confront hoplelessness and probable death squarely, while simultaneously maintaining his self-control and emotional discipline and determination in order to maintain command of himself and his crew so that the mission, however it is to end, will be carried out – for better or for worse – with discipline.
Discipline among a crew and an officer corps, it is clearly implied, depends on self-discipline – and every crewmember has to have some ability in that regard, and the officers and the commanding officer most of all.
This is true of military affairs – at least where the rubber meets the road in combat, if not in the bureaucratic and organizational ‘office’ world of the rear-echelon and higher-echelon (Pentagon and Beltway most of all) sub-worlds of the military world.
You can see right off the bat that the military has a problem, given the way American society and culture has been heading these past decades. A ‘consumerist’ culture has always been a dangerous rival to the military ethos: giving yourself what you want right now is hell-and-gone from self-denial, postponement of gratification, sacrifice of self (not just through death but in a host of smaller self-denials) for a larger purpose and responsibility, and all the other similar requirements for soldiering. (Which, by the by, are many of the classical indicators of what used to be called ‘maturity’ and even ‘character’ before those concepts, starting in the later Sixties, were taken off the road and put up on blocks.)
Mussolini saw the Americans as “a mongrel nation”, and more to the point both Hitler and the Japanese saw Americans as ‘soft’ because of their many comparative ‘luxuries’. In the event, let’s not be fooled, the Japanese and German soldiery (and the Russian, Our allies at the time) proved formidably self-disciplined and capable of sustaining and undergoing monstrous terrors and deprivations. Americans were able to rise to the occasion, but their national industrial and technological capacities were available to close the gap in soldierly qualities.
I mean no disrespect to the Greatest Generation, but pound for pound their Japanese and German opponents were at an advantage: they had been raised from childhood by militarist governments who formed them precisely for their military roles. And I’m not suggesting that this country should embrace a militarist government in order to make sure that its kids are the world’s most formidable individual soldiers.
Still, the blessings of consumerist capitalism do exact a price.
And in the past few decades, the country has trended strongly toward a more self-indulgent or self-sensitive approach to child-raising. And as aforementioned, ‘maturity’ and ‘character’ have been pretty much retired for all practical purposes. Certain strands of feminisim and victimism and even Identity Politics have contributed largely to this, and not by accident but rather by design: their objectives from the get-go have been to ‘deconstruct’ and ‘devalorize’ so-called ‘macho and male characteristics’ in favor of a ‘sensitivity’ and an acute and brassy awareness of one’s preferences, desires, hurts, feelings, preferences and dislikes that cannot but undermine a whole lot of stuff vital not only to a certain maturity but also to the very quality of the youth upon whom the military must rely. (So you can see why bringing in recruits from other cultures and nationalities has been increasing – as in the later Roman Empire.)
And the valorizing of ‘youth’ since the Sixties has contributed as well: the young are not automatically born with access to their highest and most mature potentials and must be shepherded carefully in those formative but vitally deficient years before the most complex and uniquely human parts of the brain reach their full biological development.
And the addled effort to ‘feminize’ the military – demanded as a political expedient by the Beltway – have proven a multiple-warhead danger to the entire military ethos and the capacity to make the rubber meet the road and keep it there when combat is required.
In the first place, the military ethos has been assaulted with gleeful and arrogant zeal by feministicals who are happy to claim that “it’s not your father’s or your grandfather’s (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force – fill in the blank) anymore”.
Worse, that the types of officers required for those ‘old’ wars aren’t required any longer. Although, of course, the ship, plane or combat gadgetry has not yet been invented that will not require officers of competence and deep maturity – and troops will always need leadership (including non-commissioned officers). So the idea of a non-combat military is a political pipedream; and imposing it upon the military has been something not so very far in effect from outright insanity if not treachery.
Worse, the concomitant stratagem of greasing the skids for all this by claiming that the military is primarily an ‘employment opportunity’ (or ‘right’) has had monstrously corrosive effects on the military’s and the public’s sense of just what the frak it is all about and what it’s there for.
The military is not just another corporate employment opportunity like IBM or General Motors (used to be). It is – even more than the local domestic emergency services like fire and police – an organization that must be ready on short-notice to draw upon deep skills of self-discipline (individually and organizationally) in order to sustain the most demanding combat missions. And in Fourth-Generation Warfare (a Fifth seems to be in the offing) the combat challenges are even more stressing and frakulous than in the bad old days of WW2 and Korea, or even Vietnam (and upon all those dead be peace).
Nor has it helped that the national leadership – from both Right and Left – has gotten Us involved in the most incorrigible and refractory ‘wars’, and ones that promise – for lack of any clear enemy and the lack of any overall strategic objectives – to last for years, decades, and possibly generations. Generations of Fourth and Fifth Generation Warfare are going to demand a whole lotta maturity and self-discipline from the troops and their officers ‘in theater’ (and from the products of the Service Academies, and from the ROTC programs and from American society itself).
And these national developments (emphasis on the ‘de-‘) have affected psychology and clinical practice as well. I have written about ‘stress’ and ‘stress in the military setting’, here most recently. Mainstream psychology has had a difficult enough time with ‘stress’ in the civilian setting, but in the military setting the problem assumes exponentially more difficult proportions.
You might for a moment wonder if all this interconnection of seemingly unrelated trends can really have burned together in the national woodland to create such a specific and frakulous wildfire. I recall Rory Stewart, for a while a UK Foreign Service honcho in the Southwest Asia theater, mentioning in a 2006 book* that he could only marvel at “the pomposity of his American bosses, who in the safety of their secure headquarters plan to create ‘a multi-ethnic, decentralized state, based on human rights, a just constitution, a vibrant civil society, and the rule of law’ as if they were constructing a new shopping mall rather than dealing with a 5,000 year-old civilization”.** Funny, funny, funny that the Pentagon has started to try the same type of ‘culture wars’ that have so profoundly corroded the American domestic scene for decades. But hardly a coincidence.
In order to maintain a certain group-sense and group-support of the soldierly qualities, especially among hordes of youth, there is an unavoidable ‘valorization’ of emotional as well as physical strength (also something devalorized by the feministicals) and of the ability to ‘suck it up’ and keep focused not on your fears, pains, and problems, but rather on the mission. (Though I am not here implicitly approving the frakkery of the missions that have been assigned to the troops by the Beltway of late.)
As any high-school athletic coach could (or until recently could) tell you, it’s pretty much a given that the kids – trying to keep themselves on their best ‘edge’ – aren’t going to have much patience with those who are having trouble keeping it together on the field. This may sound ‘insensitive’ but I don’t intend it that way; if your first reaction on reading it is one of distaste or disapproval, I suggest that such a first-impression is an indicator of just how things have changed in the country in the past few decades.
So now We are seeing a military – for decades trying to de-macho itself in response to intense political pressure and the general trend of American society – desperately trying to keep its troops on their best edge in order to sustain at least some respectable level of combat competence and capability while trying to ‘valorize’ or at least not be insensitive to those who cannot – for whatever reason – handle the intense pressures.
This is a problem of the most awful complexity, and there can be no easy solutions. If you make it ‘easy’ on those who can’t handle the pressure, you run the risk of undermining those who are making every effort to try to hold themselves together and keep things going. On the other hand, you can’t simply submit the ‘emotionally fragile’ to ongoing opprobrium and fail to provide some level of services. On another hand, you can tie up an awful lot of resources trying to adequately provide such services. (Military medicine’s costly re-jiggering to provide the politically requisite amount of medical, let alone psychological, services to female troops is a story that has not yet received adequate notice.)
And on another hand, given the type of frakkery inherent in Fourth Generation War you are going to have emotional and psychological problems with even your most dedicated troops. And all of this is exponentially intensified if the troops generally start to get the idea that they have been committed to another Vietnam, or something close enough to it.
The neat but criminally witless Fundamentalist solution – if you just believe God works through the US government and ‘the powers that be’ then your ‘faith’ is all the ‘help’ you need – is probably starting to lose steam with the departure of Bush the Egregious, but after 25 years of Fundamentalist Ascendancy in the military (since 1987 and Reagan’s second administration at least) there’s still a lot of that going around.
So you see the problems.
And this is even before the parents, relatives, and advocates of military suicides and the “emotionally fragile” military members speak their piece.
To try to make a gesture such as giving “equal honors for survivors of military suicides” in military funerals is going to create as many morale problems among the troops as it ‘solves’ among the parents, families, and friends of the deceased. There is difficulty enough with the development (in the Canadian fashion) of special medals for those who ‘thought’ or ‘felt’ they were under attack by the enemy and suffered physical or emotional or mental ‘wounds’ as a result.
Should the President send a letter of condolence to the immediate survivors of military suicides as is done for those killed in action? Again, what effect will it have on the military members still trying to keep themselves going? And what effect will it have on the expectations of potential recruits whom the military will need to sign up? It is already heavily influenced by recruits who signed up in the sure and certain knowledge that military service was merely an ‘employment opportunity’ and a ‘right’ not much more complicated than deserving a drivers license – and then they got deployed … into a Fourth Generation War.
How do you maintain the vital and indispensable appreciation for self-discipline and a certain emotional toughness and resilience, while also demonstrating from the highest levels on down that ‘frailty’ is ‘OK’?
This is a turkey from Hell, come home to roost from the early days of the military’s truckling to the feministical demands that it re-make itself into a feministical-friendly employment-opportunity organization while officially and formally maintaining its insistence that such ‘changes’ would not, and do not, and could not adversely affect morale and operational competence.
As with credit-cards, it was all a great time … until the bill came due.
And so it has.
*Stewart, Rory. “Occupational Hazards”: Picador, 2006.
**For that matter, I recall a Buddhist leader, Shunryu Suzuki, commenting decades ago on the 1960s-1970s fad of setting up an American Buddhism; he opined that trying to transplant Buddhism “is like holding a plant to a rock and waiting for it to take root”.
Having said all that, let me broach a topic that’s even less PC. Again, I’m not insensitive here, but when you’re looking at stuff that has to be looked at clearly even though it’s not PC, you’re going to have to ruffle the feathers too quickly smoothed by PC proprieties.
In all of this military stress stuff, there’s the ‘moral hazard’ element as well.
You have seen the phrase ‘moral hazard’ before: it means a policy’s effect (intended or unintended) of creating what used to be called a ‘temptation’ to game the system.
You’ve seen it applied in reference to the subprime mortgage crisis. The high-living financial ‘wizards’ (more like cheap conjurers) were unregulated and that non-regulation created a moral hazard for them. And it appears they fell right into that temptation.
The poor or impecunious, offered unbelievable deals with seemingly limitless credit for mortgages, also rode right into the valley of the Little Bighorn.
In all matters of the ‘stress’ diagnosis, there is also a moral hazard. Since the diagnosis is kind of fuzzy, it’s not hard to claim stress and there’s no real way that your claim can be verified by an observer or evaluator. It’s built into the whole ‘stress’ diagnosis: you claim a) to be under pressure and b) as a result of such-and-such an experience.
Now it’s possible that your reported ‘stress’ is purely ‘emotional’ and its ‘pain’ ditto – in which case there’s no way for an independent observer – one trained but still ‘outside of’ you – can examine that for validity. Yes, perhaps your ‘stress’ is causing some clearly verifiable medical or psychological problems; high-blood pressure or some such. But ‘nightmares’ can’t be independently confirmed, nor can ‘behaviors’ that – alas, given human nature – can be mimicked or staged.
But on top of that, (b) is verrrry hard to establish: so that even if an evaluator can decide that Yes, you ‘have stress’, s/he can almost never conclusively connect (a) to (b), can almost never conclusively say that your ‘stress’ is a result of such-and-such an ‘experience’.
That’s been the trouble with all ‘stress’ and PTSD diagnosis, even in the civilian sector: establishing the link between (a) and (b).
And then on top of that, ‘stress’ has been expanded from its original context of PTSD resulting from (mostly) Vietnam-War-experience to ‘stress’ and ‘trauma’ caused by various gender and sex issues and – at this point – by just about anything at all.
Now, even worse, how can you 'cure' such 'stress'? Because 'victimism' (a noxious brew comprised of the quiet political alliance of radical feminism and law-and-order Rightism), forbids suggesting that an individual is somehow responsible for his/her well-being or self-managment or self-improvement - to say such a thing would be 'blaming the victim'. So what options are left to you as a care-provider? Drugs, cash payments, government health care that promises to burn eternally because the 'therapy' can never reach the 'source' of the problem? Such a deal.
And it’s been like this now for at least two decades.
Now imagine this problem as it manifests in the current military situation. Generations of youngsters (and not so young), raised to be acutely alert to any unpleasant stimulus that may ‘stress’ them, are now put not only into military life (which in its day-to-day Stateside form has become sort of average-corporate employment with a dress code) but put into combat, and Fourth Generation War combat at that, and on top of it all, a losing war (or two).
Now military life and one’s military ‘commitment’ and ‘responsibility’ become not only an unpleasant stimulus, but potentially very dangerous as well.
There is – is there not? – a rather significant possibility that less-than-robust troops will be tempted to declare themselves ‘stressed’.
Thus commanders are once again over a terrible barrel: to respond to all ‘stress’ reports as if they were unquestionably valid is going to quickly have two dangerous results: i) significant fractions of troops (perhaps increasing fractions) are now unavailable for operations and ii) troops trying to keep up their responsibilities see how easy it is to get out of them.
This is NOT to imply that all ‘stress’ issues are ‘fake’. But there is precious little way to officially and conclusively distinguish the ‘genuine’ cases from the – ummmm – ‘moral hazard’ cases.
Add that the predominant default position in the country for the past few decades has been to ‘believe the pain’, and the military commander is put into an almost impossible position.
And like so many of combat’s consequences, these are problems that cannot simply be ‘spun’ or ‘re-visualized’ away. It’s no longer a matter of ‘reframing’ a ‘text’ or merely ‘changing an attitude’; these are real, intractable, demanding problems that require real solutions (not the Beltway’s preferred mode of action these past few decades, alas).