Military Suicides: The Hype and The Reality

You know the war in Iraq is going better when the mainstream media stops reporting on casualties there. In fact, the casualty count has decreased so much that the media has given up claiming that our soldiers will all be killed if we don’t surrender soon, and is now forced to claim instead that our soldiers will just all kill themselves if we don’t surrender soon. 

That was the tacit message in widely carried reports last week that the military suicide rate had reached crisis proportions. As I’ve pointed out before, the media has no use for the soldier when he is healthy, gung ho, and mission focused. But let him get killed, maimed, abused, drunk, arrested, evicted, or otherwise in deep trouble and suddenly they care a lot. The media loves a soldier, when he’s a victim.

Suicide is a serious problem, as are the mental illnesses that lead to this result. I am not making light of any it. But let’s examine exactly how bad the suicide rate in the military really is. Is our military falling apart? Have things gotten so bad that our soldiers all just want to die? Hardly.

The suicide rate among the troops, adjusted for sex and age is now almost as high as it is in the general civilian population. From a prewar level of 12 per 100,000, the rate has risen to 17.5 per 100,000. By comparison, the adjusted rate in the civilian population is 20 per 100,000. Our military personnel are so well put together mentally, that when they begin acting like the rest of us it appears as a crisis. Even in this “crisis” they are more stable than your average New York Times reader, let alone the columnists.

If the military is at the “breaking point,” as has been claimed in many stories, then all the rest of America has been at that breaking point for decades. If things in the military keep getting worse, soon it’ll be almost as bad as Nevada, as far as the suicide rate is concerned.

Clearly, the average soldier doesn’t need to be put on 24-hour suicide watch. The country would be a lot better off if everyone were no more suicidal than our soldiers. That’s the perspective we need to debunk those who claim that our soldiers are all mentally broken.

But the suicide rate within the ranks is rising, an indicator that the level of stress is rising for some soldiers. One army psychiatrist, commenting on the increase, pointed out that soldier suicide attempts are usually motivated by failed personal relationships (the same cause that motivates many civilian suicides). But this is an area where it is easy to help our soldiers cope. The greatest strain the average soldier has placed on his personal relationships is the length of his or her overseas deployments, and these lengthy deployments are made necessary by the simple fact that we do not have enough soldiers and marines to rotate them out of combat for extended periods and still maintain the troop levels we need in the war zones.

If you want to help our military members maintain their important personal relationships, then get them some help — by increasing the size of the military to proper wartime levels. “An army of one” was supposed to be nothing more than a motivational slogan, not a battle plan devised by a President that doesn’t want the war to distract consumers from “normal” life and a Democratic Congress that doesn’t want the war to be “expanded” — or even won at all. We are stretching active duty deployments and treating reservists like lifers, rather than admitting that we are at war and likely will be for some time.

Our soldiers are not weak. They are just too few. As the success of the surge has shown, deploying more soldiers means fewer deaths. More than counseling or sympathy, our military personnel just need a hand — and an occasional break.