Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Where have all the soldiers gone?

The Army has announced an alarming rise in the suicide rate of its soldiers, surpassing the percentage of suicide deaths in the general population.  This news comes not long after a numerically much less significant spate of suicides by people affected by or--potentially or in fact--criminally implicated in the collapse of the financial markets, both in the United States and in Europe, as well as other places perhaps, less well reported.  

The literally suicidal choices of these two seemingly unrelated groups of people--what social scientists would refer to as "cohorts"--raise disturbing questions, not so much about the eternal enigma of why (often very "successful") people commit suicide, though we cannot avoid that issue altogether, as about what we think of suicide in the abstract and suicides in the particular.

In the spring of 1976, I had lived in a psychiatric hospital in Charlottesville, VA for about three months.  My psychiatrist, a month or so before my release, had made me the roommate of a brilliant and profoundly disturbed high school student, on the theory that I could counter-balance the influence on A... of an equally brilliant and just as disturbed patient who believed herself an avatar of St. Theresa of Avila.  He thought if I could play chess with A... and befriend him I could pry him away from St. Theresa.  I suspect he knew I could not function in their league--either in terms of psychosis or sheer intellectual brilliance--but perhaps felt he had no other cards to play.  

And so I became a pawn in a very deadly game that ended one night when A... took advantage of a graduate psychology student intern's laxness in locking down the facility, walked less than a mile, hid himself in the bushes by a railroad siding, and waited for the freight train that came through at about 10:15 every evening.  Coming home from the Fine Arts Library--I left the hospital a couple of weeks later to resume my studies and already had some freedom to come and go--I probably crossed the railroad tracks within a few hundred yards of where A... awaited the freight train.

I remember my own numbness and inability to express any coherent response when the news finally came; A...'s always taut and distracted face, and his voice, tired and strained past all imagining for a fifteen year-old; the volume of Sartre on his bedside table, his attempt to find a philosophical handbook for what the pain in his mind and soul led him inexorably to do; the pathetic and humiliating ease with which he would beat me at chess.  And of course the death watch of my shrink, his staff, and the disgraced student intern, hoping beyond hope until the news came that despite an all-out police search along those tracks--he'd made an earlier attempt in more or less the same place before entering the hospital under commitment by his parents--a freight engineer had stopped with far too little warning.  A...'s body lay, a grisly mess on the tracks.  Beyond that we heard no further details.

My point in all this, though, concerns a meeting we had the next morning for all patients and staff.  I remember very little, dumb with sleeplessness and the emptiness of it all, as it felt to me at the time, the inarticulable elusiveness of it.  This much, however, I recall very clearly, because it finally allowed me to feel outrage, not at A..., but at those who would judge him.  A patient from another team--one of the alcoholics, if memory serves, which it may not--a woman in her late thirties, rose and in shrill tones of deeply moral offense declared A... and all suicides cowards.  Empathy, pain, the tragedy of losing a brilliant young mind, all took second place for her to the immorality of cowardice.  Her argument, laced with a bit of rear-pew theologizing, ignited me, though I do not recall what I said, or even whether I said it in the meeting itself, though I believe I did, and forcefully.  I could not say anything intelligible about the death itself, but I had plenty to say about those who would judge it, and that became my comment on the death----my defense of my roommate's courage by the indirect means of impugning anyone else's right to assert otherwise.

This story seems relevant in these days of mounting suicides among those schooled in courage, tested--perhaps too much--by fear.  I felt another sort of outrage at a story of a young soldier on suicide watch identified for all to see by an orange police vest, and by his lacking a belt, shoelaces, or a tie, not to mention a soldier's badge of honor, his gun.  Aside from the gruesomely counter-productive effect of such treatment, it reminds me that one of the great tragedies of suicide lies in our fear of it, our cowardice in facing the terror of it, our unwillingness to reach down, imagine the desperation, the loss of identity--the reason most often given to explain the suicides of the rich and powerful--that would drive one to overcome all one's strongest instincts of personal protection, family ties, and love of life, and to have the self-possession to plan and carry out the dispossession of self by whatever means.  

It takes a certain ruthlessness, after all.  Think of that freight engineer who saw A... and knew he had no chance to stop the train in time, distraught while talking to the police; think of Heath Ledger's family and friends, and the pain the release of the Batman film must have brought them.  Think, think, as though the suicide deserves blame for heartlessness, when all these horrible details of the aftermath serve merely to distract us from the deeply disturbing reality of the deed itself.  Soldiers, of all people, whose bravery we can hardly doubt--unless we blame war for unmanning them of their courage (I have seen no breakdown of the suicides by gender)--must give us pause in our litany of blame.  

I suspect we shy away from associating courage with suicide because we have lionized courage as a virtue.  The idea of a courageous suicide seems hideously oxymoronic.  Soldiers, who have seen so much horror and faced it, know better than others how to face it.  And yet for so many of these--the warriors who whether we like it or not fight battles on our  behalf, lose limbs in the name of liberty, properly understood or no--reaching down into the most frightening corners of themselves and emerging out the other side with an answer none of us can bear seems their only option.  This fact alone might give us profound pause the next time we want to shirk the responsibility of understanding and indeed respecting the desperate composure of one who leaves this world in a manner we cannot intellectually accept or morally compass.


More than all those  


  1. Your story and its societal context afforded an insightful journey into such complex and yet simple terrain. How mysterious that we do not choose our entry into the world but somehow it seems as if some of us choose the exit. As a friend to several people who either took their lives or life took them, there simply are no easy explanations.

  2. For some time I have been reading newpapers articles concerning the rise in military suicides, but the reality of it did not set in until I moved to Kuwait and my husband installed an AFN (Armed Forces Network) box. In addition to cautionary messages against drinking and driving and sexual harassment, what I most noticed were the messages concerning suicides, such as behavioral changes to notice, the responsibility of superior officers to recognize potential suicides and the services available for service members in need of psychological assistance. At first I was impressed at what seemed like the military's aggressive attempt to confront a rising problem, but only a short while later I realized the impossibility to curing a disease when you are only addressing the symptons.