November 09, 2009

War, Suicide, and Emotional Labor

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Janis Prince Inniss recently blogged about the cost of warclip_image002 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?


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Possible solution? Well let's first find your theory, then we can determine the action. It seems that the thesis is that the objectification of individuals into hive-minded soldiers is leading to anxiety, which leads to violence within the service. So the action would be to stop the objectification of individuals in the service. Without starting a debate on war and military intervention, we can use the evidence from this blog entry to demonstrate that the tactics the military uses to create soldiers is in some ways making them weaker. Thus, individuality must be more accepted in the military. So how do we do that? The military can either try to erase diversity (what it's doing now), or educate the soldiers on how to accept others and their differences. I prefer the latter.

I found it particularly interesting how you included your own experience of basic training as a defining rite of passage in this article "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!" - this really puts things in perspective.
In his comment on this thread, Alex puts the finger on how the whole socialisation/individualiation ratio could be taken in a new direction to make room for greater acceptance and understanding. On a different but related level, I wonder if the presence of female officers has entailed or has been associated with a process of accepting differences within the military over the years and I would be very much interested in your opinion or feedback Sally


I find it extremely interesting that suicide rates within a specific social institution are rising, although it is alarming. America has had the mentality that we are indestructible until the Vietnam war and the current war today. The institutionalization of these people merely do not affect them for their deployment time, but for a life time. I understand why these soldiers must be trained the way they are, however I agree that there should be some flexibility in allowing individuals to express themselves somewhat. The government implementing these programs clearly isn't enough when the suicide rate is still growing rapidly.

Soldiers know what they are getting themselves into once they choose the path of protecting our country. Most have researched the profession before choosing it. The only way the soldiers can carry out specific duties is by stripping them of their identity, through basic training. It is sad that suicide rates have increased, but it is also because the stress of the war has increased. It will never change. Finding alternatives such as counseling may help soldiers express there emotions. It seems that Americans are finally letting the pressure get to them, which is not something anyone is used to since we are such a strong country. Soldiers just need to be able to talk with someone, such as a counselor and reassurance helps a lot as well.

I believe that the supression of emotions along with high stress situations of war causes the mental problems in soldiers. It is our nature as humans to show and have emotion. A possible solution would be to shorten the length of time soldiers are in combat and training. Although it would be costly to move and to train more soldiers, I think it would give soldiers time to recover from the high stressors of war.

I selected this article because I really like Sally’s blogs and because my cousin, who is 19, has recently enlisted in the Marines. I think this is a very good article to discuss because I too was going to enlist myself in the Marines when I graduated high school. Instead I enlisted in college and glad that I did. I had an idea, but didn’t realize that the stresses in the military were that severe. I have a cousin through marriage that is in the Marines and he’s the nicest guy you could meet. He is one big man and would never think that he could be undergoing such stresses. Since they are taught to suppress their emotions day one, I guess nobody would ever know otherwise.
Now that I have read this article, I am a little worried for my cousin. Worried, because I know he comes from a rough childhood, not having a father and having no direction in his life. I think that’s why he chose to go into the military because maybe he saw no other way. I wish I can help him, but he’s old enough to make his own decisions now. On the other hand, it might be good for him. The military can teach him some discipline, responsibility, respect and turn him into a stronger person. He might lose his individuality and maybe even his life, but I’ll pray every day that he doesn’t. In Raskoff’s question about changing the culture and allowing freedom of expression of soldiers, is a very good question. I don’t have an answer, but hopefully someday there will be, because it could help in making humane decisions in time of war.

First of all I have never been to war and hopefully I will never have to. Second I hate the idea of members of the United States Military taking there own lives due to stress, limited expression, and a period of life lived under the command of a superior. Not being a soldier I cannot speak from experience, but I feel that war is something no one should have to endure. Although if our nation is under attack i will be the first to enlist despite the numbers of growing suicides. I feel suicides are due to mental weakness and moral strength. It is ok to show sadness for experiences in war, but to take ones life is no the way to do it. I also feel our liberal population is using these statistics as a scapegoat to pull out of the war on terror.

My dad has served in the Army for 16 years and has been deployed countless times. What most civilians need to know, is that the armed forces have many services available to the soldiers including access to counseling. Even when attending a regular doctor's visit, they ask how the patient is emotionally. The problem is that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. Furthermore, saying to remove the troops from the war, end war all together, or to shorten training time is naive. Training is already as short as possible because they want to prepare the soldiers quickly so they will be able to enter the war sooner.
There may be a rise in suicide rates, but I believe this is a light-house effect (you only hear news about the light-house when it fails to work and ships crash). We are not considering the even larger number of soldiers who are saved by the Armed Forces and rise to a better self because of it.

I never have read anything about how people in the war are or what they go through and what they have to do. When the author was describing what the soldiers have to go through it was scary and sad. I do not know if I could go through that. The soldiers have to get rid of everything while they are in training. They aren't allowed to have any personal possessions until they leave home or until they go to their base camp. When I read I actually thought if you had a tattoo it would be some nice memory of home. Maybe I would get one, just to remember a bible verse of something to remind me of home. It is also not surprising that many people kill themselves during war. They have to become the same as everyone else and not have individuality. This article is really sad but it also makes people more aware of what the soldiers go through and how we can help them and how much the appreciate it.

Having dealt with this myself when my then boyfriend came home from iraq in september i feel that the "debriefing" week when they get back in to the states should be longer. Although i can say that he did have to particapate in classes about PTSD and abuse during his first week back. They also had to speak with a councler about his feelings about what he had seen and about his feelings about returning home.

I used to feel sympathy for soldiers just because they are placed in harms way to defend our way of life. However, after reading this article I now have a new set of sympathies for our soldiers. Not only do they risk their lives physically, they risk losing what makes them who they are. The procedures in line for soldiers almost seem in place to dehumanize and make everyone more like a mindless robot. Is this really what is necessary to convince sensible people that it is okay to kill? I wish there was another method to train our soldiers and prepare them for war. Personally I find the above stated methods unacceptable.

My status on soldiers is that they are trained not to individuals but a unit. War should be ceased because we are taking the choice of individuality out of people's live. They train them to kill humnas and sometimes innocent people.

Throughout history there has always been war and violence in our society. This will probably never change. Along with the physical aspect of the damage that war causes there is an emotional and sociological impact that can sometimes far out last the war itself. When soldiers are put into such high stress situations these problem of PTSD are almost unavoidable. The army has many different options to help reduce the effects of this dissorder. While there is still war and violence in our society we will always have these problems that accompany it.

It is sad that suicide rates are the highest among people in the military. I can't imagine killing someone and then continuing my life once I got home without thinking of that moment for the rest of my life. I feel all people in the military should receive counseling once they arrive home to help them cope with their past in the war. I feel bad for the men and women who are fighting for our country, I do not think people realize how much these soldiers risk for our country. During boot camp they are completely changed as a person and all ask as robots. I do not think war is the answer for our country, too many of our innocent men are dying from it.

The higher suicide rate in military personnel than in the general population has been well proved. Unfortunatelt with the current increase of deployments it has risen even more than usual. In my opinion we should expect this. I'm not saying it is right or good by any means. Soldiers simply go through so much psychological trauma that it is hard to handle for anyone, even specially trained people. They see so much death and pain that those images will never go away. On the domestic violence, we train these men to be ruthless in their combat tactics. They go to war and violence is key in their life. Coming home is simply a new shock for them. The natural, and what would now seem normal and comfortable, reaction would be violence. Unfortunately these scenarios and problems won't end until there is no need for armed forces or violent measures. The stop of the wars would certainly help in the meantime though. Our society has become much relient on resulting to the tyrant methods against contries that do something we don't like. The whole society needs a change of heart and thought before we can make true progress.

highly suggest the people with depress psychology to go army and be a solider. in the army, the people can be reshaped, with strong character. They can handle high stress, follow the leadership.

War, Suicide, and Emotional Labor

I found this blog very interesting. I think that it is kind of ironic that some of the strongest and bravest men in the military can withstand a bullet wound but their mind is their weak point. Men are always "taught" that they are supposed to be the non-emotional ones in society. In the military their emotions are suppressed even more, but society also plays a role in their PTSD. If you look at the number of suicidal and violent military men compared to women, the number is smaller. That's because in society, women are allowed to cry and show emotion. Men, are not.When they leave the military, they are expected to be dignified and the bravest people around. But, in reality, they have so many things going through their head that could make any man cry. In Vietnam, many of the soldiers could have been suicidal because of the things they saw. They were forced to kill people for a cause that some felt was unjust. When they got out, I'm sure that they saw every person they killed. Also, when soldiers came home from the Vietnam War, the citizens of the US also hindered them. When they came home, instead of being treated like a hero, they were often spit on and called names. The people in this country blamed them for the war, when the soldiers were just as helpless as the protesters. I don't think that a military reform would be the best solution to this problem. I think solving this problem will take more time in an office. I think soldiers should go to a psychiatrist, not a military psychiatrist, but a regular one when they get out of the service. Thee need a chance to express their feelings, fears, and dreams.

yeah, I total agree with you.

I don't know if I could answer that question what can be done to change the increase violence within the service.Its sad to see soldiers killing themselves because they can't control they emotions or don't know how to deal with them. Men leave their families a loving person and return a totally different person and everyone has to adjust that hard. I'm not sure what can be done but something definitely needs to be done.

I found this blog very interesting because I can relate to it. I knew a lot of the things they were talking about about the 6 week training camp being told by my brother. He was also in the Air force and attended the camp. He told me the training was no joke and what they learned during camp was horrible. They learned to kill and I guess it changed everyones attitude, they began thinking they were tough and that they can kill anyone. I believe the training camp messed up most of their heads about life and who runs the world. My brother came back from the air force acting completely insane. Very brainwashed and not acting normal. He was very violent and said this is what the air force taught me. I think when your in War and you see and experience all of these crazy things happenning it traumatizes you and it is very hard to get those images out your mind and you begin to act accordingly.

Raskoff makes it easy to see that American's military culture might contribute to the problem of violence and suicide among troops. I have a younger brother that is resently contemplating on signing up for the marines. Of course, like any other parent my mother opposes the idea. My mother is aware of what goes around in the military; she often talks about the friends she has and how they are completely transformed and brainwashed. Nowadays the military has programs where veterans can attend and help alleviate their post traumatic stress. I think that if my brother would really know what goes on in the military he would consider other options. It's difficult to say that the military could create soldiers by allowing the expression for human emotions. Who knows, maybe this can lead to some other post traumatic stress. Since the U.S. is so addicted to war, I say that it would be difficult to start a new way of creating the army and protect the country.

i wanted to be a marine but just the fact that all this happens and that you have got let go of those you love the most made me realize their is better things to strive for

It does not suprise me that sucide rate is higher in the military then that of the general public. The stress they put up with while they are at war would be difficult for anyone to endure. I don't think it is possible to create soilders who can express themselves freely. Showing emotion demonstrates weakness and can affect the way they react in a critical situation. It is difficult to enudre and suppress the pain they witness on the battlefied. To keep this pain from their families must aslo be very stressful, because you feel there is no one you can turn to.

According to Sally Raskoff, emotional stress develops during the six week training period. From the moment a soldier walks into that training process he is stripped of his identity. The males get their heads shaved. They are forced to follow orders and are told to do everything in a specific way. The troops are trained to eat their food quickly and they have to eat all the food that is on their plate. Showing a sign of weakness is shunned. The only way a soldier could show weakness is if he or she is wounded during battle. All of these things together create an unstable patriarchal environment that may directly contribute to the suicide rate. I believe that in order for America to have the best military in the world the training must be extremely intense. I do not think America is going to allow full range of expression for human emotion in the military because of the reputation and the responsibility that the American army holds. The military should remain a vigorous training program in order to develop soldiers that are qualified to protect America from opposing nations. Although the training is mentally tough I believe there should be a better funded program that assists troops that are struggling with depression and anxiety.

The American military culture exposes soldiers to many hardships. It is a culture of creating aggressive killing machines. According to Sally (a former air force member), soldiers are trained to march everywhere they are told, look a certain way and act certain ways. These are some elements of the American military culture that contribute to the problem of violence and suicide amongst the troops. The military can change its culture to "allow the full range of expression for human emotions yet still create soldiers who can effectively protect the country". We can do this if we truly put our mind to it. This is something that the military should do to decrease rates of suicide and violent acts amongst the troops. The military can possibly allow visits by or to loved ones so they are less stressed. They can also possibly allow more freedom within the training camps.

Prof. Phi-Fa

I've always been conscious about the milltary sucial rates. So that the fact that suicide rate within the milltary is higher than in the general population isn't a shocking news for myself.
It is truth that their daily action is to training and the training all the time, and eventurally it may affect the soldiers's mentailty in negative way.

According to Sally Raskoff the fact that these soldiers are stripped away from individuality, taught what to say and what to do without questioning motives, forced to change their eating or morning routines, taught to avoid and not acknowledge emotional issues, and the fact that they develop "rituals and restriction" that make them into a soldier causes them to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD contributes to the problem of violence and suicide among the troops. Suppressing their emotions, being involved in dangerous situation, and being in a competitive environment are some contributors, also. When the soldiers are under a great deal of stress some turn to agression and violence because they can't deal with their supression of emotions. In my opinion, I think the military could change its culture, but it turns into a matter of whether it would be effective or convenient for them to do so once they send those troops to the battlefield. Maybe changing the culture wouldn't work because they think that emotions and acting on personal opinions will get in the way of getting things done.

Dr. Pih, SOC 150

The specific elements of American's military culture might contribute to the problem of violence and suicide among the troops is that they are fighting in wars for long periods of times and are being traumatized. The military should change the way they assist the troops with their emotional problems. Such as providing and funding better programs and events to cheer them up. Also, I think our country is so concentrated on being the bigger better person and think fighting is the only way to get their way. This is not true there are others ways to get your point across without fighting.

This is a sad affair because soldiers are trained to kill. they are trained and sent to war, It is so difficult to imagine what they see while serving. Lives are lost and not only that the soldiers that return have mental issues due to what they encountered by loosing a good friend, peers or seeing someone loose limbs and or mental capacity. There must be more done to assist our soldiers in re entering society.

Training boys to become soldiers ready is one thing military does best. What they lack is training on how to get back to normalcy. My son and two brothers have done tours in the middle east and have seen first hand the lingering effects of what it leaves behind. They have to deal with the why my friends and not me. To aggravate things is the suicides by their friends when they get back. They do go through a psychological physical, but as one friend of mine told me, they are trained by others on what to say, so they will not be labeled with PTSD. The soldiers that separate from the military have the hardest time I've been told. The soldiers that are National Guard reserves get back to their units and see each other once a month and have some sense of normalcy. The problem is not about creating soldiers with emotions, is teaching them how to decompress and tell them that what they are going through is normal after what they have experience and provide them with group support.

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