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A social science look at the military

Military Suicide: More Than a Military Issue?

Is the recent rise in military suicides a problem we can all help solve?

While we don’t have very good data on suicides in our armed forces for much of our history, we do know that suicides in our ground forces have roughly doubled in the last several years. Most discussions of military suicide seem founded on the premise that repetitive deployments and combat stress play the dominant causal role in this increase. Yet the data tell a more complex story. Relatively few military members who commit suicide have been deployed to a combat zone more than once, and a substantial fraction of them have never been deployed at all.  What other factors might explain this tragic increase? Is there anything Americans can do to help reverse this trend?

The first systematic look at suicide came more than a century ago. Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, wrote On Suicide in 1897. For Durkheim, individuals have relationships with one another, but also, and perhaps as importantly, with society itself. Individuals are integrated into a rich web of personal, social, and professional relationships. Social life by its nature requires individuals to sometimes regulate their behavior to conform to societal rules governing individual conduct. These adjustments entail a reciprocal obligation on the part of society to respond in predictable ways. Durkheim’s empirical studies of suicide statistics revealed differing levels of suicide in various societies and groups, perhaps related to differing levels of regulation and integration, he thought.

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What do the theories of a 19th century sociologist have to do with military suicides at the dawn of the 21st century? A great deal has happened to our military institutions and their members since 2003, and to American society. Two wars have been begun: the war in Iraq has ended, and the end is in sight in Afghanistan. A majority of Americans question the wisdom of having started the Iraq war and the value of having fought it. The war in Afghanistan, presented during the 2008 elections as the “right” or “good” war, now seems to many to be headed toward (at best) an equivocal outcome. There does not seem to be any simple answer to the problem of military suicides: were there such an answer, we would have to think that it would have been found by now, given the time, effort and money that have been committed to the problem.

Perhaps part of the answer is that some military members who have worked hard and played by the rules may now have reason to wonder if the goalposts have been moved on them as they face a troubled economy and a war-weary society. Some military members may find themselves unmoored from both military and civilian relationships that once tethered them more tightly to one another and to the rest of us. Following Durkheim, we can interpret these as disruptions in regulation and integration.

How have these developments affected military members and institutions? Those who serve in the military are different from society as a whole demographically, and are separate from society in other ways. Civilians support and approve of the military unconditionally and even extravagantly. But that approval may seem reflexive and hollow to some soldiers, for whom military service is not (or not only) the neat, clean, simple, noble, honorable endeavor seen by those on the outside.

The reality for soldiers is far more complicated than the one many civilians see. Yet the task of making meaning of a complex and sometimes troubling reality is left largely to soldiers themselves. We civilians do not seem especially interested in looking behind the curtain.

We must view these matters against the larger backdrop of choices Americans have made since the Vietnam War. America has rejected compulsory military service and embraced a volunteer military arguably unsuited to fighting two large, long wars simultaneously. Yet there seems little appetite for revision of this approach, or for reconsideration of when and how military force should be employed abroad. Can we, as a society, indefinitely sustain both a volunteer military and a ready commitment to large-scale, long-term counterinsurgency and nation-building while continuing to expect that the individuals and institutions involved will be unaffected by the demands thus placed upon them?

If military suicides are related to societal factors, then it is the responsibility of all of us, as a society, to address the underlying choices that have led us to this point. If we fail to confront the difficult questions the military suicide rate raises about the last decade, what it has meant for our military members and for the rest of society, what hope can we have that we’ll do better next time?

The ideas discussed in this post were discussed more fully in an article entitled “Reframing Suicide in the Military” by George R. Mastroianni and Wilbur J. Scott, which appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of PARAMETERS. Interested readers can find the article at http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/parameters/Articles/2011summer/Mastroianni%20and%20Scott.pdf.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Air Force, US Air Force Academy, or US Government.

George R. Mastroianni is a Professor of Psychology at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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