According to the New York Times, suicides in the U.S. Army this January alone could total as many as 24. (For January 2008, the number was five.) If so, that would not only be the highest monthly total since the Army started keeping such figures in 1980, but more deaths than occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan combined that month. In 2008 as a whole, at least 128 soldiers killed themselves. As the Times noted, "Suicides… rose for the fourth year in a row, reaching the highest level in nearly three decades. Army officials say the stress of long deployments to war zones plays a role in the increase."
Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna, who have just completed a major multi-part examination of Army suicides at Salon.com, record this official reaction to the military health crisis: "’Why do the numbers keep going up?’ Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a Pentagon news conference Jan. 29. ‘We can’t tell you.’ The Army announced a $50 million study to figure it out." The two reporters find a wealth of evidence of military misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and plain, outright lack of desire to face a plague of suicides. ("At Fort Carson," the base they studied, "a mental problem from combat is still a scarlet letter.")
But above all, of course, there are simply those endlessly repeated tours of duty in the Afghan and Iraq war zones. Suicides, in this sense, can be thought of as the individual symptoms of a larger military disease. In these last years, the U.S. military has been, like the individuals who committed suicide, overstrained, overstressed, and made to fight wars that consumed America’s treasure, while becoming ever more unpopular at home. As retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore points out in his latest piece, "An American Foreign Legion," despite all the lovely "support our troops" sentiments in the U.S., the military was essentially abandoned to its stresses abroad and so became, in practical terms, ever more "foreign" to Americans. Is the U.S. military, he wonders, now the American equivalent of the French Foreign Legion — a force considered expendable by French elites, recruited from around the world, and meant to fight France’s colonial wars in far-flung lands? That force’s fate was well captured, he comments, in its grim, sardonic motto: "You joined the Legion to die. The Legion will send you where you can die!"
While the Army struggles, not particularly effectively, to deal with its suicide problem, political and military leaders struggle no less unimpressively to deal with the larger problems of military stress. Their unanimous solution to the global policy version of post-traumatic stress disorder: Cut down on those tours of duty and repair the military by significantly expanding U.S. forces — by more than 90,000 troops according to the latest Obama/Biden plan. The obvious response, the one that could bring the military back to a state of health, is of course roundly ignored: Downsize the global mission. Bring American troops home.