America is forever researching and developing new weapons for defending itself against enemies, both real and imagined. Yet it seems to have been taken unawares by a deadly new adversary in the form of suicide in the ranks.
Many people have asked themselves at one time or another how soldiers are able to come to grips with the unspeakable horrors they must face as enemy combatants on some foreign battlefield, far from home. The tragic reality, however, is that many American men and women never actually come to grips with their war-time experiences, opting to cut their lives short instead.
From 2004 to 2008, the US Army witnessed something completely unprecedented in modern times: suicide rates among active and non-active troops surged 80 percent compared to the previous ‘stable’ period (1977 to 2003), according to a research report in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal. By 2012, the tragic irony was that US soldiers were actually more likely to die as a result of suicide than at the hands of a foreign enemy. And it is certainly no coincidence that the spectacular spike in suicides began not long after the US began two costly and protracted wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq.
The War in Afghanistan (2001-present), which is set to surpass the Vietnam War as the longest US military operation in the nation’s relatively short history, and the Iraq War (2003-2011), which ranks as the fifth-longest US military operation of all time, inflicted a tremendous toll of death and destruction on the Afghan and Iraqi people, while leaving behind a deep psychological scar on the American psyche. Indeed, as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once observed, “As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.”
For all too many Americans, the “terrors of life” are great indeed, as some 20 veterans commit suicide every single day. This astonishing number accounts for 18 percent of the total suicide deaths in the country, yet veterans only represent 8.5 percent of the adult population. In other words, US veterans have paid a very heavy price for those highly controversial military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. But should any of this come as a surprise? After all, following many years of non-stop warfare, not even the mightiest nation on the planet can expect to remain physically and mentally sound for very long. Eventually something must give. And it appears it already has.
Just this week, the non-profit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America placed 5,520 American flags – one for each of the active-duty military personnel and veterans who have committed suicide so far this year – on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Who’s to Blame?
There are myriad possible ways to explain this explosion of suicide in the ranks – from PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), to the complications of assimilating back into civilian life, to dealing with severe pain and depression, which has, in turn, fueled the use of highly addictive opioid painkillers among veterans. Or perhaps it is simply the case that these thousands of military veterans, many of whom have served multiple tours of duty, are simply incapable of living normal, peaceful lives any longer.
Incidentally, it may come as little surprise as to who the US military is increasingly recruiting for these jolly little wars abroad, in places we do not belong and are rarely welcomed. Yes, you guessed it – that part of the population colloquially known as ‘the poor’, for which the ‘American dream’ seems as elusive as ever.
Amy Lutz, professor of sociology at Syracuse University, discovered that the all-volunteer military “continues to see overrepresentation of the working and middle classes, with fewer incentives for upper class participation.”
This begs the question: Are the underprivileged and marginalized being used as cheap cannon fodder to fight foreign wars, with the political elite denying them the necessary medical care back home?
Is the US government doing enough to help these veterans, many of them from dire straits to begin with, cope with their myriad issues, many of which deal with psychological disorders of the very worst kind?
It would seem to be a pertinent question considering America’s insatiable appetite for war and destruction. In fact, our martial nation has been at peace for only 21 years since its founding in 1776. Thus it would stand to reason that some kind of permanent health plan for veterans is desperately needed. Tragically, however, that is a lesson the United States may have learned too late.
Back in 2007, when American troops were dug deep in hardscrabble places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US had some 900 military bases worldwide, then-President George W. Bush did an incredible thing. He announced that in two years’ time, the government would introduce a major spending cut for veterans’ healthcare for 2009-2010, with a total freeze by 2011.
In other words, at precisely that crucial time when returning veterans, many of them with crippling injuries, would need expensive treatment more than ever.
Certainly, the Bush administration must have known, as the Military Times reported, “Veterans who have regular contact with VA health services are less likely to commit suicide than those with little or no interactions.”
It deserves mentioning that the current Trump administration seems to understand the severity of the problem with failing veteran healthcare that started under Bush and was allowed to get increasingly worse under Obama, to the point now where the US soldier is quite literally his or her own worst enemy.
Last month, Trump signed the Department of Veterans Affair into law, throwing the overburdened department with a much-needed budget increase of more than six percent. But for the thousands of US servicemen and women, the extra funds are too little, too late.
Yet money, of course, will only go so far at solving the problem of suicide in the ranks. The answer is to never allow your citizens to be life-long warriors in plundered lands in the first place. Then there will be no reason to create over-stressed, overworked veterans who will never be able to live peacefully in the country they risked their lives to defend again.