War, Suicide, and Emotional Labor
Janis Prince Inniss recently blogged about the cost of war and mentioned the rising rate of military suicides. As the New York Times reported, the suicide rate within the military is higher than that in the general population. The graph on the right shows the “self-inflicted death” rates from the Department of Defense from 1980 through 2008. While the peak in 1995 is disturbing, it is clear that the rates have been increasing since 2001.
Military bases overseas and at home, including Fort Hood and Fort Bragg, have seen tremendous rates of – and been in the news for – suicides, domestic violence, and sexual violence. They have instituted many different programs to prevent and deal with the stresses of military life.
For example, Fort Hood instituted a "Resiliency Campus" on the base where soldiers and their families can get help coping with the emotional, financial, and mental health issues they face before, during, and after deployment.
However, the source the source of the stress has not abated. We are fighting two difficult wars and no one can predict when they will end.
The shootings at Fort Hood were allegedly carried out by an army psychiatrist about to deploy, whose job was to counsel soldiers coping with combat stresses. He was also apparently vocal about his objections to about the war. This event and other such mass shootings, including the workplace shooting in Orlando, Florida the day after the Fort Hood incident, remind me of a phenomenon familiar to law enforcement, “suicide by cop” in which a suicidal person attacks others as targets of their anger and frustration yet fully realizes they themselves will die as a result of that act.
Some news coverage has focused on how Major Hasan’s interpretation of his Muslim faith may have been a primary factor motive for his behavior. However, there are many Muslim soldiers who have not acted violently toward themselves or their peers. Further, there are soldiers of many different faiths whose personal opinions about the war are not positive. Some of the soldiers who have acted violently towards themselves and their peers may have said a prayer before their violent acts, but religion is not the main issue here.
To understand this act of violence, I’d like to go back to basics: basic training, actually. Sociologically, the high and increasing rates of violence within the military, violence focused on loved ones and on oneself, can be traced to basic military training and culture.
In basic training, your identity is stripped away, literally. When you arrive, your clothing and personal items are locked away, not to be seen again until you’re heading for home or for your training base. You are given new clothes to wear, identical to everyone else. If you are male, you lose all your hair; if you’re female, you have strict guidelines as to how your hair can appear. You wear no jewelry, or embellishment of any kind. If your clothes have buttons or zippers, they need to be buttoned or zipped up. Your classes teach you how and whom to salute, the customs and courtesies of the service branch you’ve joined, including ranks and insignia.
You rise in the morning with everyone else, dress quickly, and get in formation to march to breakfast, march to physical training, march to classes, march to your other meals, and march to anywhere else your training instructors want to take you. You look like everyone else and you must act like everyone else. Any individualistic expression is not encouraged.
These are my memories of basic training. Although I’ve been out of the Air Force for almost 30 years, I still remember much of that six-week period. I still eat meals too fast because of basic training!
At mealtime, we filed into the mess hall, picked up our trays, and filled them with food as we went through the line, much as anyone would in a cafeteria. You had to be sure not to take food you weren’t going to eat since you cannot throw any food away. When you approach a table, no one could sit down until there was a person at all four chairs. When your peers who were seated at the first table get up from their meal, people at the last table only have minutes to exit – with all food eaten – and the entire group gets into formation outside the mess hall. The first people cannot linger to allow the others more time since the training instructors are also in the room making sure that these rules are followed.
These rituals and restriction reshapes people into soldiers. You learn to finish what you start. You learn to work together with the other people in your unit to get the job done and get it done the right way. (The “right” way is the Army way, or the Air Force way, or the Marine way, or the Navy way, you get the picture.) You learn to suppress any emotion or feelings about what you are doing since you took an oath to do the job and your peers depend on you. You learn to respect the hierarchy of authority even if you don’t agree with the details.
People who serve in the military can hold whatever personal opinions they want about political issues. However, they must do the job that they hold no matter if they agree with it or not.
In the military, to acknowledge emotional issues is to appear weak. To acknowledge emotional problems is to appear unable to do one’s job. To appear weak and not do one’s job, you leave your unit to do the job without you and that is not an acceptable alternative.
If one gets physically injured, that can be a tolerable way to leave the front and/or your unit and not suffer any stigma. But psychological injuries have not traditionally been considered within military culture.
We are now paying a lot of attention to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to explain the high rates of suicide and interpersonal violence within the service. Vietnam-era veterans experience more depression, anxiety, and PTSD compared to pre-Vietnam era veterans and their rates of deaths from suicide, drugs, accidents, and homicide continue to be high many years after that conflict ended.
The military has created new programs to deal with PTSD, including public talks by high-ranking members on their own family losses or their own experiences of PTSD. They have also pointed out that PTSD affects brain structure and has physical causes, attempting to re-categorize it as a physical problem, not just an emotional one.
Sometimes when boys and men are socially isolated they turn to violence. Social isolation is an important factor in explaining aspects of suicidal behavior, yet the gender distinction is important. The typical military context involves a combination of suppressed emotion, dangerous situations, and a competitive environment and this is the very definition of a masculine culture.
Sociologically, what is happening is that soldiers may use the tools of this culture – aggression and violence - when they experience high levels of prolonged stress and are unable to adequately deal with the situation due to the suppression of their emotions.
The bigger issue is that the masculine and patriarchal culture of the military undercuts its ability to effectively deal with issues of stress in prolonged times of war and deployments. The military features that make good soldiers can also create troubled and damaged people.
Those who do emotional labor, such as flight attendants and service workers, often have a backstage where they can vent or let down their performance of managed emotions. There is no backstage in the military since soldiers must control those emotions while in combat, with their units away from the front, and even with their families.
To limit wartime stresses we could include end war or decommission the entire military. Most would agree that these are not likely or optimal options. Changing the culture of the military is another logical option, but intentionally changing culture of any kind is not an easy task. How would military culture change to allow the full range of expression for human emotions yet still create soldiers who can effectively protect the country?
As long as the military is defined by aggression and emotional suppression, we have to expect that there will be a toll on service members (and their families), especially when there are prolonged exposures to wartime stresses. What might be a solution to this problem of increased violence within the service?