Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Military Suicides in the Fog of Denial

Corporate military culture is a symptom

Posted Oct 21, 2012

Military suicides are averaging about one a day and exceed combat deaths. The rate is only modestly higher than the comparable civilian rate, but it's rising and the military has established a "Defense Suicide Prevention Office," and "stepped up efforts to provide mental health, drug and alcohol, and financial counseling services." [1] Every suicide is individual, and not all soldiers have suffered combat trauma. Still, the rate is rising and the headlines show the wide ripples of concern. What's going on?

 For one thing, suicide is a criticism. It challenges the everyday belief that the world is as it should be. It can signal despair, but it can also be a protest against intolerable conditions.  In its wake it leaves grief, confusion, fear, and guilt.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army," says Lloyd J. Austin III, the general "spearheading" the Army's "efforts to find ways to halt the surge in suicides." He declares that "To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills."[2]

 The language here is a string of bureaucratic slogans. The general and the journalist take for granted military ideas that problems are "enemies" and effective killers can annihilate them. Apart from the tinny psychological jargon "life coping skills," the general shows no awareness of anybody's inner life. "Sophisticated solutions" to help build "life coping skills" is sales lingo, corporate ad copy.  Personal problems rarely present one convenient target, and force alone rarely solves them. In order to have insight into yourself and others, you need imaginative sympathy.

 But military life isn't about understanding inner life. A soldier is officially enslaved to command. Basic training clips personality as it does the recruit's hair. It instills obedience and works to overcome inhibitions against killing. Under attack, when lives are at stake, this sort of training could make sense. In peacetime or in undeclared warfare involving a volunteer military force, the psychological conflicts are less easily subdued. The pumped up aggression against "enemies" and the civilian self can become a tragic solution to personal distress out of uniform. About half of rampage killers have had military training--far more than ordinary murderers. The recent veteran who opens fire in a supermarket or on the street is directing outward against strangers despair that could be turned against himself or his family.

 In wartime soldiers risk their lives for "what is right" [3}, in defense of home and family. In post-Vietnam America, the soldier is ostensibly a volunteer, although for the poor the military can be the employer of last resort. The general quoted above unwittingly echoes the ever more prominent post-WW2 fantasy that armies, weapons—and soldiers—are instruments, the more "sophisticated" the better. His "sophisticated solutions" for a "surge" of "enemy" problems sounds a lot like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's glib media recipe for triumph over the Iraqi "surge" in the early days of that debacle. A core reason for that failure was Rumsfeld's belief that a small, mobile, technologically sophisticated strike force could subdue a hostile country. The emphasis on cyber-enhancement actually blurred men and machines together.

 "What is right" in such a guerilla war is fatally muddled. In embarrassing numbers US soldiers believed the discredited Bush propaganda about Iraqi complicity in the 9/11 attacks and Saddam's fictitious weapons of mass destruction. Yet under stress, risking their lives, the troops presumably needed a belief to fortify them, just as "when in doubt," feeling threatened or vindictive, they killed innocent Iraqi civilians. Their self-delusion is understandable but damaging to character. 

 At the same time the "privatization" doctrine meant that soldiers served alongside grossly overpaid mercenary contract labor that sometimes acted out rage with impunity. When the American occupation foundered, Washington lobbed money into Iraq as it did high-tech, obscene munitions such as depleted uranium and white phosphorus.

 These are examples of a torturous reliance on instrumentality to take the place of committed manpower. From the start in the Nixon era the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force argued about whether volunteers would be mercenaries, though they stopped short of questioning the reality that mercenaries are employees who kill for the boss. When the mercenaries are underpaid and micro-managed, in a civilian culture given to alcohol, drugs, and gun mania, the dangers of conflict and confusion escalate. 

 <<Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called suicides among active-duty military personnel “the tip of the iceberg.” He cited a survey the group conducted this year among its 160,000 members that found that 37 percent knew someone who had committed suicide. . . . The unemployment rate among military families is a particular problem, he said. “They are thinking about combat, yeah, but they are also thinking about their wives and kids back home,” he said. [4]>>

  For soldiers, "what is right" is under stress, and so is morale. In an era of outsourcing and stagnant salaries, the heroic purpose that came easier to an earlier postwar generation is now in trouble. At home, "conservative" politics is fanatical in defense of the affluent corporate military, far more generous toward executive command than toward those at the bottom. This is a prejudice bitterly evident in American corporate culture and the corporatized military that began to fail in Vietnam, as Gabriel and Savage showed in Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army ((New York, 1978).

 Meanwhile the nation has been almost continuously at war since WW2, relying on transparent fibs and fantasies to justify an imperial overreach it can ill afford.[5] The 9/11 terrorism has been a blessing for corporate military budgets. Like the finance sector, the corporate military is "too big to fail" or restrain. As with Wall Street, disenchantment is in the air, but massively disconfirmed. No American leader dares to advocate a "retreat" from militarism and the strained belief that sustains deep contradictions. The "system" has developed an incoherent mix of business and national interest. While the US spends lives and fortunes controlling the oil resources of the middle east, for example, Chinese emissaries travel the world locking up natural resources with a checkbook.

  The "coping skills" the general prescribes are up against organizational culture—and geopolitical realities—that are unrealistic. The repetition and expansion of things that don't work is crazy. This craziness crystallized in Vietnam, where troops "fragged" or murdered their officers on a scale that helped shut down the war.  It persisted in the new diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, and in the startling mistrust of government which hasn't recovered to this day.

One way of thinking about the craziness is to zero in on that pervasive language of victory and defeat, success and failure. It means political leaders must pump up fantasies of American exceptionalism and shun actual problems. The language blots out nuance, complexity, and real persons. It polarizes obscene wealth and poverty, heroic purpose and suicidal despair. The data show very few bankers or generals at risk of suicide. The suffering is toward the bottom, where personal and national distortions make a toxic mix.

 When the deep unreality does surface, massive denial buries it. Last May, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, wrote on his official blog that  “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”[6]

  Suffering, despair, unmanageable adversity—for the general, these are a "mess" to be "cleaned up" the way his callous comment was scrubbed from the Fort Bliss website. For the general, cleanup means no messy bodies, no black marks, no stomach-turning anxiety. His fantasy of invincible self-control allows him to belittle suicides because in his mind there is really nobody there.

 The official to-do list of "sophisticated solutions" is a dodge. Counseling for troubled soldiers is certainly more useful than tormented isolation. Yes, it's good to keep firearms out of depressed and angry hands. But the need is for truth that squares with "what is right."  The "enemy" here isn't going to be zapped by a remote-controlled drone. It's camouflaged, deeply engrained, widely shared, insidiously determined denial.

1.  Timothy Williams, "Suicides Outpacing War Deaths for Troops," New York Times (June 8, 2012)

 2. Robert Burns, "Army suicides doubled last month from June's total," AP (August 16, 2012).

 3.  A cogent account of this phenomenon is Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam (1994).

 4. Willliams, New York Times (June 8, 2012).

 5. In Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire (2004) Chalmers Johnson has systematically critiqued US militarism. Even the former career Army officer and self-described "Catholic conservative" Andrew Bacevich is relentlessly critical in books such as The Long War (2007) and The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (2005).

 6. Yochi J. Dreazen, "General's Blog Entry Reignites Army Suicide Debate," National Journal (May 22, 2005)


About the Author

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D., is the author of The Psychology of Abandon. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. 

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