Why Resilience Is Not the Key to Preventing Military Suicides
I recently read an article on the Huffington Post regarding how military suicides have doubled from June to July 2012. I was interested in the responses of the military to this epidemic that makes “them” responsible for creating these losses, which now total more than those lost in the current wars. One quote caught my attention. It was a response from General Lloyd J. Austin III on how suicide is preventable. “To combat [suicide] effectively,” he says, “will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills.”
I agree—suicide is preventable. However, this statement saddens me, and I feel like a broken record; his response still reveals that the focus is on the soldier as having the problem, which is partly true. The issue is that the military is the military. It is combat-oriented system. A person’s natural coping abilities that were never meant to endure so much stress in the first place does not mean we need to re-examine the soldier, but the system, i.e., what we are doing that is creating this problem, and how do we revamp our work, which can minimize its prevalence.
The problem is, then, that the military would need to rethink its purpose from a combat system to a humanitarian system—not likely. Sure, it would be great if we could strengthen our folks to be less scathed by war and combat, but then what does that means upon return? Will such trainings protect their ability for empathy, to have (or continue having) quality relationships with self and others, to feel, to have a moral compass, to let them know that they may have killed a lot of people, but that is not good to do when you come home, so then, associate once more that killing is bad, but we don’t expect you to then feel guilty (or shameful) for what you’ve done (as this is a natural response)? Also, we must consider what might have already been difficult (or previously traumatic) in life for them.
I also find it interesting how the discussion on possible causes to have "stress from combat duty" is sharing the same sentence in naming "other pressures" as difficulties too. This is offensive, as we have learned (I hope) so much from what has been documented in those who have endured just combat, and the destructive element upon the human mind and soul (see Paulson & Krippner, 2009; Pitchford, 2008, 2009). To name “other pressures” with the flavor of being at cause for the overwhelming stress that may lead to suicide steals from what combat can do. For one, its stress is unique and requires the human capacity to be frequently hyperaroused (e.g., fear, heightened awareness, challenged sense of safety, unclear “enemy”).
These “other pressures,” such as financial and marital difficulties, are very stressful, and can be traumatic for some. However, if someone endures trauma from combat, which is likely with multiple tours, and then comes back to these other potential stressors, well, then there is more complex trauma to consider. The combat experiences, however, are complex enough to be the source—let’s be clear. Now, if someone were completely untouched by combat, and returned to some of these stressors, and killed him or herself, then there is more to consider there for that individual’s case. This is not the typical person, however, especially with these current combats. Multiple tours will wear down the system. Previous wars had single tours, and we know their effects well. Consideration should also be made regarding the effects of guilt that can come from combat as well as shame, genetic factors, other military traumas, (sexual), etc.
So much is lost on an emotional and psychological (and spiritual) level from combat experiences (this does not even touch what might have been already challenging for individuals). Other pressures are more "natural" stressors (although, can be very shattering and tragic as well). Yet, when someone is worn down completely due to the nature of endless "kill or be killed" mentality, then there is little left to endure (or engage) other stressors. The problem is not the soldier, it's the system that is placing soldiers in situations that push the natural, human capacity beyond its limits.
Individuals can choose to enter into the military and be aware that they may have to kill. However, this does not protect them from what actually occurs. We need to look at changing the systemic framework that has human casualty and extreme violence as part of the "norm," and evolve how we are approaching problems, conflicts, etc.—a human-istic, wisdom-based approach. Otherwise, we will continue to see more of this and other tragic outcomes. Resiliency training is not going to "fix" this grotesque issue, and we cannot expect a system that is expert at creating combat to provide an adequate, human-focused solution, but rather one that will help them continue doing what they do best.
I close with this poem by Tom Greening:
The source of my resiliency
is my profound insanity.
I love to fight, I love to kill—
I’m confident I always will.
While others waver I’ll plunge on
until all enemies are gone.
No killer can surpass my zeal,
my blood-stained hands and nerves of steel.
You ask me if my cause is just?
Of course it is, and now I must
persist and serve my thirsty God
so I, a humble, worthless clod,
can find some dignity at last
before this reign of hate has passed.
Paulson, D.S., & Krippner, S. (2009). Haunted by combat: Understanding PTSD in war veterans (updated edition). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Pitchford, D. B. (2009). Neuropsychology of nightmares reported by Iraq War veterans. In S. Krippner & D. J. Ellis (Eds.), Perchance to Dream (pp. 113-132). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.
Pitchford, D. B. (2008). An existential study of Iraq veterans’ traumatizing war experiences (doctoral dissertation). San Francisco, CA: Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. (AAT 3339401)
-- Daniel B. Pitchford