I’ve been in an interesting conversation at Facebook about steadily rising suicide rates in the US military. Thirty-eight Army soldiers killed themselves in July 2012, the highest monthly rate that the Army has ever recorded. 2012’s grim statistics are just the most recent part of a long-term trend.
What I’ve been asking on Facebook is why Americans are not talking more about whether it is the wars we’re involved in and the sociopolitical context of post-9/11 service that are significantly to blame for this trend. I recognize that serving military, leaders and rank-and-file alike, cannot raise this point without violating the principle of civilian control. “Ours is not to question why”. So when the military sets out to ask, “What can we do about suicide rates”, they can’t raise or even consider the rejoinder, “Don’t send soldiers to be occupiers, don’t fight counter-insurgency wars unless you absolutely must, don’t ask soldiers to be nation-builders, don’t purposefully imagine your wars as endless and without hope of final victory.” If the military turns to experts and pays them for advice, they can’t purchase a product which includes even a discussion of those points.
Which is why it falls to Americans, both citizens and leaders, to step up to the plate and have the conversation that our serving military can’t have. Occupation under the best of circumstances is a peculiarly stressful mission for militaries. It’s much worse when some proportion, maybe most, of the populations in occupied territories hate or resent their occupiers, and worse again when the occupiers don’t know the local languages, don’t understand the local cultures, and have few if any points of historical connection to the places or people where they are deployed.
Two administrations, Republican and Democrat, have proposed, accepted and refined a conceptual apparatus around our current wars that deliberately imagines those wars as global, endless and without hope of resolution. Even the Cold War’s globalism had stated as well as understood limits, all the more so after Vietnam. A soldier enlisting today in the US Army or Marines can reasonably anticipate not just the possibility of multiple deployments to Afghanistan (for all the talk of withdrawal) but to other imaginable theaters of counter-insurgent conflict and occupation. A soldier enlisting today knows that whomever wins in November, we will still be fighting the Global War on Terror in terms which have deviated very little from their initial post-9/11 envisioning. A soldier enlisting today knows that there are many people inside the Beltway who are actively spoiling for a war with Iran, and anyone who has seen military service since 9/11 has to guess at some of the probable contours and consequences of such a conflict. Even before actually seeing service in a GWOT theater, serving military might begin to feel the emotional consequences of this knowledge, particularly if they’re training with or coming to know soldiers and their families who have already endured deployment. We are in a forever war now and there is virtually no one in political leadership who holds out even a faint hope that we might think otherwise about the uses of our military and our role in the world.
A conscript can look at a war and resent the way it’s being fought, question its necessity, complain loudly and long about what has been done to him by someone else. Even if he in the end accepts the necessity of his service. This kind of sentiment shows up in a lot of work about World War II, both by veterans and scholars. It’s a sustaining way to think: we can endure in many ways the emotional pain that others inflict upon us better than we can the consequences of our own decisions.
A volunteer who is surrounded by volunteers has the comfort of knowing they’re involved in a fully shared, universal experience. Whatever comes of it, at least they know that everybody else has to endure it, too.
Our current soldiers have neither comfort to keep them going through the long and endless dark of our current wars. Our forces are volunteer, so in the pain of deployment and loneliness, waiting for the IED with your name on it, trying to guess which hostile stranger’s face means death and which simply wishes you would go home, you have got no one to blame but yourself if you come to wish you weren’t here, weren’t doing this. And you’ve got a code of honor that says you even have to stifle any thought that your leaders–or fellow citizens–are fucking it all up, you have to keep that kind of talk inside your own world. Americans as a whole live in a time of libertarian machismo, we’ve elevated the contract to the status of graven idol. Increasingly our public response to anyone who has agreed to something that they later regret is that it’s their own damn fault, they should have known better, and stop crying to us about it.
Our current soldiers can’t look around and feel they are part of a universal fellowship, a shared sacrifice. They don’t see their whole hometowns there with them. Their units aren’t made up of the scrappy street kid from Brooklyn, the WASP from Boston, the surfer dude from California, the professor’s son from Ann Arbor, the guy whose dad made a fortune in railroad shipping. The US military is really our last, best meritocracy, one of the few American institutions that’s become more egalitarian and fair over time. It’s a model in many ways for the social aspirations that we’ve trashed and lost and forgotten. Inside its boundaries, that is. But outside? Our military is also professionalized and apart. It’s not a mirror of America any longer. It’s not even that most of us don’t serve or imagine serving. It’s that people don’t care much at all about what the military does or endures, beyond increasingly hollow and ritualistic appreciations for our “soldiers abroad”. We send care packages and offer warm appreciations on Facebook, but try asking people where Helmand Province is, or what happened in the last month in southern Afghanistan. Try asking them to remember what happened in Fallujah. Nothing of what has happened or will happen in these wars stays in national consciousness save as a passing, nagging memory. Try asking people what they’re prepared to give up for the sake of these wars. We’re fighting expensive wars and yet most Americans are still a bunch of fucking crybabies about taxes. And try to imagine how it feels to be stuck fighting a painful war of occupation, to feel it likely that there are more of those to come, and to know that no one at home will really care enough to pay attention until there’s some momentary episodic eruption of spectacular visuals or unusual violence.
Historians with a long view might recognize the evolving contours of this situation. It rarely turns out well when a society with imperial commitments makes heavy use of an increasingly professionalized, socially detached military with a warrior ethos and a high degree of skill who feel that their suffering is unappreciated and unrewarded. It is for that reason alone that I sometimes wonder if the most progressive answer to our current wars would be to revive the draft, with absolutely zero exemptions from service.
Whatever the long-term implications, we could at least ask right here, right now, whether the wars we’re fighting, in the way we’ve imagined fighting them, with the people who’ve given their lives over to us to fight with, aren’t a major part of the reason why our soldiers are now as deadly to themselves as any hostile forces they face on a battlefield.