A Startling Rise in Suicides

The most compelling reason for ending the war in Afghanistan is that it simply can’t be won.  Indeed, it is so clearly and obviously unwinnable, we can’t even come up with a rosy, hypothetical, make-believe “win-win” scenario without blushing in embarrassment.  The reason we blush is because we know there are no conditions to support such so flimsy a hypothesis.  And when we can’t even fanaticize about a happy ending, we know we’re finished.

One problem with ending the war is that congressional “doves” are now indistinguishable from congressional “hawks.”  In truth, there are no doves.  It can be argued that military strategy during President Obama’s first term has not been significantly different than what we would’ve seen with Dick Cheney as president.  Granted, with Cheney in the White House there might have a few more drones launched, a few more pilgrims tortured, and a few more state-side civil liberties revoked, but by and large Obama’s war policies (Libya included) have been positively Cheneyesque.

But you occasionally hear another reason for leaving Afghanistan.  You hear people declare that we should leave Afghanistan because of the alarming number of suicides among American troops.  Not to trivialize or in any way diminish the tragedy of American soldiers taking their own lives, but suicides should have nothing to do with foreign policy.  We need to leave Afghanistan for the simple reason that it’s a bad war, an unethical war, an unwinnable war, and not because our troops are committing suicide.

In regard to suicide, our national statistics are quite revealing.  In fact, they’re downright mind-boggling.  The U.S. seems to be right smack in the midst of a “suicide epidemic.”  Just look at the numbers.  There are almost twice as many suicides each year than there are murders.  It’s a fact.  Suicides vastly outnumber homicides.  Interestingly, the demographic group with the most suicides are white males; the group with the fewest are African American females.

The first reference to military suicides that I can recall was back in 2007, when an LA radio station reported, sensationally, that the number of suicides among American soldiers (most of whom, presumably, were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan) was “the highest it’s been in 25 years.”  I casually did the math and was surprised to see that the comparison took us back to 1982.  But 1982 was more or less “peace time.”

Even the heroic invasion of Grenada (a Caribbean island about one-fourth the size of Phoenix, Arizona) was still a year away, and, by all accounts, the Grenada campaign, was a cake walk, a public relations set-piece.  So why would U.S. soldiers be killing themselves in record numbers in 1982?  Answer:  No one can adequately explain why.

One theory for the increase in suicides in Afghanistan is access to cell phones and e-mail.  Unlike other wars, U.S. soldiers are now in constant contact with folks back home.  Consequently, they get barraged with all that family drama—pleas, resentments, testimony, gripes, petty gossip.  So besides the ungodly stresses of war, these poor guys are also being exposed to the stresses of home.  Reasonable as that sounds, it doesn’t explain the spike in suicides that occurred in the “pre-technology” days of 1982.

There’s also the Vietnam war, which was fought largely by men who were drafted, forced to serve in the military. By contrast, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are all willing volunteers.  Yet as unpopular as Vietnam was, there didn’t seem to be that many suicides.  There were fraggings—incidents where enlisted men killed their own officers with fragmentary grenades—but relatively few reported suicides.  It’s a mystery.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.