(x-posted at Pax Americana)
The epidemic of suicides among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts appears to be reaching a crisis point, as testimony is set to begin in a class-action lawsuit against the Veterans Administration for failing to provide more and better psychiatric care. Internal VA e-mails obtained by the plaintiffs say an average of eighteen veterans kill themselves each day. A RAND Corporation study found that an additional one thousand veterans attempt suicide every month. Clearly, the system currently in place simply can't deal with the sheer numbers of veterans whose psyches have been torched and gutted during their service in our mismanaged war in Afghanistan and our completely elective mismanaged war in Iraq. Returning veterans must navigate an incredibly labyrinthine process in order to claim any benefits; I've been clinically depressed myself (obviously, not to the degree that these returning veterans are) and I can tell you that paperwork is the last thing you're capable of dealing with when you're in that state. That's something I plan on writing about in more detail later on.
Right now, I want to touch on something I've written about before: human beings are simply not designed for war. I'm way too much of a misanthrope to have any illusions about human nature; it's clear that the default setting for much of our race is 'douchebag.' But 'douchebag' is a far cry from ruthless killing machine.' We have to be goaded, perverted into a warlike state, with promises of wealth or increased social status or threats of being cast out from the herd. One of the stated goals of military training is to tear down the recruit, to short circuit his human nature so he becomes able and willing to commit violence against strangers on the order of another stranger. Of course, the enemy too is dehumanized to the soldier (and, via propaganda, to the citizen) in order to make his death more palatable and less troubling. Arguably, this is done to make the soldier better able to survive the nightmare that is the modern battlefield.
The only problem is that it doesn't seem to work. Thich Nhat Hanh, no stranger to the reality of war, writes that military training designed to strip both the soldier and the enemy of their humanity will necessarily result in atrocities like Abu Ghraib, because "Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die." But our human nature can't die as long as we remain alive, and it seems to come squirreling out of us from the weirdest places and in the weirdest ways and the next thing you know you've woken up in a cold sweat holding the gun you keep under the pillow and holy shit when did you start keeping a gun under your pillow?
Eighteen people a day lose the struggle to reconcile what they've become with what they once were. Another twelve thousand people each year succumb as well, but for the grace of whatever they believe or maybe only because of dumb luck they survive to struggle on. There are no half-time show salutes to honor those who survive their PTSD and the ones who die are not counted among the honored dead and their names will never be carved on a monument. Remember this the next time anyone tells you to be "realistic" and accept that war is "inevitable" and it's all just "human nature."