My Theory on Military Suicide*

[* Moderator's Note: The text of this post has been amended from the original version at the request of a family member of WO McNeil.] A lot of questions have been coming to me about the many suicides in the military. The recent spate of deaths has a lot of people deeply concerned about the ongoing cost of Afghanistan. The Minister of Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff have both urged military members to get help from the system created for that purpose. So, “Why don’t they do it?” or, “Why isn’t it working?” are the usual follow-on questions I get. Here’s what I tell them.

To understand, you have to know a couple of background things about the military’s culture and training systems. Any person entering the military goes through a grinding selection process that cuts down on the number of recruits, making the most minuscule of distinctions between those that pass and those that don’t. Those that pass are deemed ‘fit’ and ‘deserving’. Building a sense of achievement is the first lesson about membership in the military. It is very elitist and chauvinistic.

Next comes incorporation of the selected few new recruits into the team mentality that each service uses to build effective units. While some claim that unit identity is the ‘glue’ that enables military teams to accomplish difficult tasks in the face of great risk, it is really the linkage between the team members that makes it so. Call it camaraderie, or loyalty or duty, but success in operations is usually built on a foundation of trust between people that can go as far as self-sacrifice. It is powerful and heady stuff. That is the second lesson.

The training and team formation processes are founded on the doctrine of the profession of arms. It has a lot of mythology that is only vaguely understood by the new recruits and is treated as gospel by the veterans. Strict adherence to standards and procedures is the normal recipe for success in the peacetime military. Trust in the system and in your ‘buddies’ is a necessary for producing a military that will respond reliably and efficiently to lawful command in conflict. The problem is that the ‘normal’ rules and standards upon which our military is built don’t really apply in the new security environment of the post-Cold War era.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and a dozen of other places, non-military combatants and even some uniformed members of foreign militaries simply don’t fight by what we view as ‘the rules’. Innocent people are used as shields or as targets to bring out the enemy (meaning us) to a place where they can be hit. Children, especially, are seen as disposable pawns. Ethnicity and religion are sufficient motivation for what we judge to be atrocities. General Rick Hillier infamously classified such perpetrators as “murderers and scumbags.” His angry characterisation meant he did not understand that their motivation boils down to this: any means to achieve victory is ‘fair game’. Death and destruction are deliberately executed randomly to undermine confidence in the local government and to create doubt in the minds of our military about the prospects for ‘success’. Counter-insurgencies, like the one the UN conducted in Afghanistan, have a success rate of about 50 percent if intervention occurs within six months of the outbreak of violence. The rate of success plummets the longer it drags on.

Once the insurgents are firmly established, our people find that their tactics and plans have little effect on a shapeless and elusive enemy. Discriminating the ‘bad guys’ from the ‘good guys’ is an enormous problem. Training and rules seldom prepare the person who has to make a decision about shooting to kill, or not. The stress is incredible and when death comes, it is usually random and unexplainable by any of the normal means.

Even if the military member does not directly experience a major violent act, the stress of anticipation can induce Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. There is very little known about predicting who will suffer it and almost all efforts are focused on reactive treatment and therapies. Here’s where it runs into difficulty with the military training system and its culture.

The training system hammers in the idea that adherence to procedure is the surest way to achieve success. But success in Afghanistan is elusive; death and destruction are random. There is no way to reconcile this dilemma. Even the best may fall and there is no logical explanation why. The elitism and chauvinistic pride in achievement means nothing in the end. Heroes still emerge but their efforts don’t alter the situation much, if at all.

People who suffer PTSD, and I have met many, are like the heroes in one important way (they can be one and the same): they don’t like to talk about it. In their view, it is all just part of the job. Unit accomplishment is more important than individual success. The first thing that happens when one is diagnosed, or self-identified, as suffering is they are separated out from the group, either physically or figuratively. They feel like they have failed in some way to stay loyal to the group ethic and their comrades. The stigma of being less than they were, or than their friends still are, is terrible. Many who go through the treatment want to return to the unit in order to ‘prove’ they are still of value to the military system. Creating difficulties for their military teammates by being absent is a major worry during treatment.

While the political and military leadership tout the Joint Support Centres created to deal with this problem, I have heard that the percentage of PTSD sufferers that return to their units is actually very low, as low as 10 percent in some areas. Once judged ‘unfit’ for service, they are paid off and released.

So, why would a member that is shaped and formed by a system and culture that values membership and trust between members above all else voluntarily submit to a process that has a low probability of returning them to the team? David Finkel describes it well in his book, Thank You For Your Service, when he writes: “The truth of the afterwar [is] that you’re on your own.” Military people know this and so they won’t risk it.

The result is that the training and treatment systems are working at crossed purposes. And so, the PTSD sufferer remains silent, until it all becomes too difficult. Then, there is only one solution. They do not see suicide as failure or shameful. It is merely escape from a systemic and personal dilemma that is not of their making and which has no obvious solution.

When Warrant Officer Michael McNeil’s funeral was held in Truro, Nova Scotia, on December 5th, Lt. Kendra Mellish, widow of McNeil’s former comrade, Warrant Officer Frank Mellish, tearfully described in her eulogy how deeply Michael grieved for his friend when he and three others were killed in 2006 during the second day of Operation Medusa. That they may have been killed in a friendly fire incident is still rumoured, though many deny it vehemently. The possibility that they died due to a higher failure of the team system is too painful to contemplate. True or not, it adds to the frustration and continuing uncertainty about the price of Afghanistan.

Kendra Mellish’s emotional pleading at the funeral for those suffering PTSD to “get help” is unlikely to have any effect on traumatised survivors. The years of military training and team building make such individual messages sadly meaningless. The only way to address this problem is from the front end of the military system.

Military culture and training has to change in order for it to become relevant in the new environment of ‘war amongst the people’. The military must become far more proactive, which will be a major departure from their current reactive approach to dealing with problems. This may simply be too difficult, especially for a military that values tactical effectiveness above all else. More importantly, the most basic question remains unanswered: Can military forces be employed effectively for what is fundamentally a police responsibility? Right now, there is no clear answer and there are no signs that the military is going through any penetrating self-examination to find out.

The last word, if there can be such a thing, has to be about the suffering of the families left behind by these deaths. The military members may have passed from this life and are no longer tormented, but the survivors are still here.

More than one member has told me the divorce rate in the battalions after rotation is “huge.” The family’s lives are being changed forever by a sad litany of death, domestic violence and divorce. The social cost of Afghanistan for Canada will be enormous for a very long time to come.