Thursday, February 5, 2009

We Kill Ourselves

A question was posed to me today that, while I may have discussed issued peripheral to it, I do not recall addressing it directly. The question was this: why are members of the armed forces attempting and succeeding in suicide in such alarming numbers? To be honest, I would presume the reasons are extremely complex, gross generalizations, and certainly unfathomable to the vast majority of the population. As much as people may be depressed, challenged, or enduring difficult life circumstances, few genuinely contemplate ending their own lives. Fewer still make an attempt.

Any explanation that I may conjure will be, at best, speculative, and fail to take into account the personal issues that somehow propel so many of our servicemembers into a self-threatening state of morbidity. Nor am I by any means a psychologist, counselor, or otherwise trained to examine peoples’ heads. Nevertheless, I will make an attempt. While I may no long be a servicemember, and definitely made no attempts on my own life, I did experience some difficult days, weeks and months where contemplation went beyond “I hate this” and devolved quickly into “what, practically, am I going to do about it to escape it?”

There is an aura of mystery that surrounds the military. Several documentaries, while informative, only partially show the stress and exhaustion of our training. Nor have movies done a terribly good job of fairly depicting combat (save for a few notable exceptions , like “Generation Kill”). Typically, the combat itself is either unrealistically aggrandized, or shown in such a way as to demonize servicemembers and paint a scene of wonton destruction at the hands of heartless murders. Both exhibitions are far from the truth. Furthermore, combat itself probably has little bearing on why these men and women are so quick to take their own lives. It is a more complex matter.

Given the contractual nature of military service, it is, at least to many, seen as a prison sentence. While they may have fallen for the initial lure of the military, the attraction of the uniform, the presumed nobility of the fighter, serving their country, etc, the fact is that, like any other organization, the military is replete with problems, frustrations, and a surprising degree of injustice. Whereas a civilian would give the entire show a magnificent middle finger and walk away, few such opportunities present themselves in the military. In fact, it is almost impossible to get discharged prematurely. The only exceptions are heinous crimes – and few have and particular desire to commit them. Besides, committing them while in the military will often get them sent to the worst prisons in the United States – military prisons.

When I first arrived at Camp Geiger, NC to begin School of Infantry training, I expected to immediately “drop” to a training company and get on with things. Due to poor scheduling, lack of instructors, and a general backup, I spent almost a month in a forming platoon – a fancy word for a LOT of young men and women the entire base will use for any stupid project they can find that needs more bodies. We were worker bees, whored out to whomever needed help. I spent many a day painting, pulling weeds, and dragging brush – the only distinction between being a dumb manual laborer and Marine being the fact that I was doing dumb manual labor while wearing a uniform. It was extremely disheartening. Whatever momentum I had gained boot camp to continue a fast-paced training program, learn quickly, and be soon in the fleet Marine force. Instead, I was doing piddly tasks around the base, and hating it. These were the very things that, at least to some degree, I had gone into the military to escape. Camp Geiger is already described as soul death by most Marines, so to be there without any underlying purpose whatsoever was even worse. It was my first experience with awful morale. In some ways, I may have never recovered.

When I finished up there and was assigned to an infantry company on Camp Lejeune, I figured things would improve quickly – yet they did not. As a new guys (boots), we still found ourselves doing the stupidest tasks that anybody could find for us. Every morning, we would slowly pace in a line and pick up all the cigarette butts that senior Marines had tossed over the railings the night before. Knowing that we’d be cleaning it up, they were even less concerned with any sort of cleanliness. They even told us things like, “you’ll clean that up in the morning, dipshit.” More than once I stooped down to pick up cigarette butt or what appeared to be a wad of chewing gum, but found my hand in a lumpy ball of phlegm. More morale killing…

But worse than this was the fact that as “boots,” we were simultaneously hated and exploited. Whenever senior Marines would get drunk, the first place they went was to our rooms – regardless of the hour – and begin banging our door down to come out. Usually they just wanted to make us push or drink with them – sure sign of their own insecurity. During my first six months in the fleet, I hated this so much that I sincerely prayed for a heart attack. A condition that probably wouldn’t kill me, but would at least get me a medical discharge. No heart attack came. And my experiences were better than many others. I’ve known at least two Marines that were beat within an inch of their lives in their own barracks rooms – and then left to die in pools of their own blood. I know many more who weren’t beaten quite as badly. Every few years (especially in the past), one or two would be beaten to death.
Yet barring going AWOL (or UA in the Marine Corps), there seems to be no escape from such treatment besides suicide. An alarming number try it.

So, combine the stress of being a new guy with the total dissatisfaction of being stuck in the military, and the only option that seems to release them is suicide, as foolish, short-sighted, or even selfish as it may be.

In the case of combat deployments, a number of factors contribute to the rise in suicide. When a friend’s unit first entered Kuwait, a few of the Marines were so scared of combat and of “going to war” that they began harming themselves. One shot himself in the port-a-jon just hours after they landed.

Combat itself, though it brings its own share of problems, dysfunction and regrets, I don’t believe to be the root cause of the increased suicide rates. Instead, it is the feeling of being trapped. The food is awful, exhaustion is common (with combat troops), and there seems to be no reasonable alleviation to any of it. And unfortunately, our training conditions us to a familiarity with death. “Born to fight, trained to kill; ready to die, but never will.” It’s in our cadences, in our speeches, our literature, and so forth. We are trained to do it without hesitation or remorse. We are trained to fight, and win wars. Having been thus acquainted with death comes often a reduction in the value of human life. This includes, at least to some, our OWN lives.

A familiarity with death, dying and killing is no doubt essential to fashioning a productive warrior, but such things do not come without their consequences. While we do not necessarily know death, we are familiar with it. It is routine. It happens regularly in a combat zone, and it may just happen to us. Such is war.

When the reality sinks in that the military is, like any other organization, not perfectly run, discontent soon follows. Yet because it is contractual, few see any sort of escape. They cannot share their frustrations and feelings of injustice up the chain of command (within reason) for fear of the consequences – perhaps criminal charges under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for disrespect, disobedience to orders, etc. Yet nor can they vent down on their subordinates, who will immediately accuse them of hazing. They don’t deal with things. They sit on them and brew.

And so, a familiarity with killing and death, coupled with a devaluation of human life (perhaps to include their own), and every last one of them equipped with the weapons necessary to inflict great personal injury or death, thoughts of escape quickly determine that there isn’t an honorable way out. So they entertain suicide. For many, the contractual obligations of the military are a true prison sentence. They cannot be honorably escaped at all. And prisons, definitely, deal with suicidal tendencies of their own. If they did not, why would all means to harm oneself be removed – belts, shoelaces, etc? Prisoners see death as their only escape. For those who feel the armed forces is their prison, they will think as prisoners do – try to escape at whatever cost.

Politicians and civilians alike often proudly boast that the United States has voluntary military service, and while this may be certainly true, it fails to consider that they volunteered at the front of things –often not at all understanding the level of service, the meaning of a 4-year (or longer) commitment, and totally unaware that they would be doing things they absolutely despised. Yet by the time such things dawn on them, the oath has been taken and they are stuck – or at least feel that way.

While I have never been able to prove it, I have a solid belief that if any given unit were assembled in front of their barracks and asked who wished to stay and who wished to go (and receive an honorable discharge), most would leave immediately. For most of the time I spent in the military, I would have probable left, too. The daily life is absolutely awful. It’s only in retrospect that we find pride, personal honor, and nobility in what we endured and accomplished. When admit it, everything is awful, every order is bullshit, and we all just want to leave. Given the opportunity, most of us would. Some of us have joked that if military units held a formation like the one just illustrated above, there would only be about 17 people in the Marine Corps. The rest of us would immediately pack and run.

But few, for reasons of personal pride, will just abandon their responsibilities. They’re fully aware they took an oath, and they intend to keep it. They’re smart enough to know that they will spend their entire lives regretting it if they simply ran away. Suicide, for some reason, seems a better alternative. Perhaps they consider it less dishonorable than going AWOL. I would argue that it’s all the MORE dishonoring to their families – who will forever struggle to understand why their loved one chose to end his or her life rather than seek help.

The reality is that help doesn’t really exist in the military. Any doubts about our service or revelation that we are truly miserable will quickly be met with, “suck it up.” Or “go see the chaplain and bitch to him.” But neither are terribly productive. In years past, the chaplain was the “safe” officer to whom a young enlisted man or woman could go with spiritual, ethical, or personal problems, but that has since changed. Now, duties from the command element of a unit will keep the chaplain so tied up that he has little time available to foster relationships with the troops. I believe they have lost their primary function. Not because of their own doing, but because of command restructuring, political correctness, and a total misunderstanding of their original purpose – to advocate the troops. Now, it would seem, they simply align with the command element (voluntarily or not), and do not make themselves available to their charges.

A matter which must definitely be addressed is that of family life. It is a known fact that military service is difficult on relationships. Though I cannot confirm it, I have heard that marriage failure rates for first term Marines stands somewhere near 83%. And the numbers for young lieutenants isn’t much better at about 75%. The military schedule can be grueling, and with deployments interrupting the fostering of a good marriage, as astounding as the numbers are, they aren’t terribly surprising. They are, however, tragic. Most Marines have horrible home lives. I observed the marriages of MOST of my associates fail. Not some, but most. A number came home and found out their wives were cheating on them. A few cheated on their wives themselves, and a few just split under mutually agreed bad circumstances.

But this does not even take into consideration the stresses of being overseas whilst a relationship at home dissolves. Troops get “dear John” letters. Troops find out their spouses are pregnant by some other man. Wives learn their husbands went home with another woman on a base in Iraq, or perhaps in a liberty port. The combination of youth, distrust, and frequent absence create a recipe for disaster.

For the servicemember trapped overseas, learning that your spouse has been cheating on you is a total distraction to the already-immense challenge of service in a combat zone. A number believe that while a combat zone isn’t terribly pleasant, they are totally unprepared to return home and face a failed marriage or other relationship. Feeling trapped, they consider death. A friend of mine did just this – and killed himself not four days before he was slotted to fly home. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, it was because he found out his wife was pregnant by another man.

The storybook images of a soldier returning home a hero to a welcoming and overjoyed family are, for the most part, false. Marriages are, at best, extremely difficult. Were this not the case, why are more than 50% ending in divorce? And for second marriages the rates are between 60 and 70%. The challenges of a deployment, the stresses, losses, and guilt troops feel about their service are heaped upon a faltering relationship. To many, it is wholly overwhelming.

The entire situation reasonably distills down to a feeling of being overwhelmed, completely trapped, and impotent to change anything at all. Such hopeless negativity and never finding an outlet or a shoulder to lean on, only worsens. We do not talk to each other about these things. We keep them to ourselves – to the point of total isolation. Any sharing of problems is considered a display of weakness, cowardice, or reduced character. Our attempts to open up to peers are met with harsh criticism, mockery, or the suggestion to just suck it up. And in consequence, many just turn inside themselves and ponder their escape. Given their oath, location, rank, training and conditioning, suicide is an avenue alarmingly easy to entertain. More now than ever before, servicemembers are following through with their contemplation of ending their own lives. As a nation we should be grieving, for it is our collective responsibility to ensure that such things do not happen.

The next question would appropriately be what should be done about it. And, unlike the previous, this is one for which I have no particularly solid solution. I, too, have lost friends to this battle, and wish I had not.

Yet I can think of no practical resolution to this tragic, mounting problem. If the military were permitted to disband when it grew discontent, there would be no military left at all – and the nation would be left entire undefended. The fact is that service to one’s country often entails doing things one sincerely does not want to do – on a day-to-day basis, and also more holistically. While it may be a volunteer military, few, if any, can truly fathom what they will encounter and endure when they first sign up. If they were able to do so, I imagine few would even join at all.

Some units (at the platoon and company level) have made an effort to accommodate married servicemembers, mostly be sending them home as promptly as possible, but this only provides them a few more minutes of time with their spouses than they were otherwise receiving. I highly doubt it is sufficient to save a single marriage.

One thing that could be reasonably changed is to permit chaplains to act more in advocacy of their troops than at the pleasure of the command element. If troops never feel comfortable around the chaplain, they will never see him about any of their concerns or struggles. In order for the chaplain to ear that trust, he must spend his time with the troops. He has to be available. As is, he is not. A fairly simple restructuring of the modern chaplaincy could rectify this.

Training could, I suppose, be changed to reinstate the value of individual and collect human life, but even that would probably come at the sacrifice of a unit’s killing ability – and thus their value as a combat unit is severely diminished. Training has changed over the years – primarily since WWII, and the end result is a deadly, highly-efficient military able to accomplish amazing things wish small numbers. Yet this may have come with a horrible sacrifice – the emotional stability of the warrior. Any one of a number of studies can show the elevated suicide rates since the mid 1940s. Is the sacrifice of combat productivity one that the military is willing to make? And is it even appropriate that they do so?

Ultimately, not all responsibility can rest with the military in this matter. As a society, suicides are on the rise – both in the civilian world and the armed forces. That, probably, is due to the seeming “convenience” of the measure. It is an easy out – made all the more possible by the fact that we all, as a culture, have become very acquainted with killing (in movies, video games, and even the news), but a complete disassociation of the terminal consequences of the act. Life, not as we know it, but completely, is now over. We now no longer slaughter our own meat; we buy it already prepared in the store. People don’t often die at home, either. They die in hospitals and hospices. And if they do die at home, they are quickly whisked away to funeral homes or morgues. They no longer sit in the parlor while loved ones prepare the body for burial. We, as a culture, don’t see death. We just see killing. And we have grown accustomed to it. The consequence is that it has much more allure than it reasonably should.

What the military SHOULD take ownership of is that fact that it is an enormous, inefficient beast that screws up almost everything it undertakes. It is, just like the rest of government, a terrible bureaucracy, inclined towards confusion, disorganization and waste. And they are highly skilled at wasting the troops’ time and eroding their morale. That fact is why I consider the morale of today’s volunteer military to be hovering somewhere close to zero. We may have joined with a genuine nobility and desire to serve our country, but the vast majority of our time is consumed doing truly ridiculous things. Few, if any, have any lasting effect on the unit, us as individuals, and certainly not the nation. If life in the military was wonderful, people would stay in. Most do not. That should indicate something to even the most casual observer. There are reasons for it. No bureaucracy like the military asks so much of its members and gives them so little. I oppose reinstating the draft because of its effect on morale. It would slump further, and I sincerely believe suicides would rise quickly.

The military needs to streamline, frankly, and quit tasking troops with poorly-considered missions and needless busy work. They need to stop wasting everybody’s time. As a culture, we need to be reminded of the consequences of killing. Death. We also need to be reacquainted with the fact that life, individually and as a whole, is extremely precious. Until that happens, suicides, in the military and elsewhere, will definitely continue. And as a nation, we will grieve for their unnecessary, inexplicable loss.

Thank you, Uncle Caesar, for asking good questions and making me think.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. This was difficult to read but I believe every word.
    Without hope where would we all be?

  2. Perhaps the answer is that you write a novel containing the truth and then one day it gets made into a movie!!!