'SUPPORT THE troops" is an American lie. This nation is grievously and knowingly failing the young men and women who wear the uniform of its military services, and nothing demonstrates that more powerfully than the suicides of soldiers. According to the Army's own figures, the rate of suicide among active duty personnel nearly doubled between 2001 and 2006. The number then grew even higher in 2007, when suicide ranked third as the cause of death among members of the National Guard. Even if proximate causes vary from war zones to home fronts, such data are anomalous, since suicide rates among soldiers historically go down during wartime, not up.
Veterans, too, are in trouble. In May, the head of the National Institute of Mental Health warned of "a gathering storm." Thomas Insel told the American Psychiatric Association that one in five of the 1.6 million soldiers who have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan (or more than 300,000) suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome or depression. Potentially life-threatening mental disorders, including self-destructive behavior like addiction, raise the prospect, in Insel's words, of "suicides and psychological mortality trumping combat deaths."
As America has steadily averted its gaze from the actualities of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so, too, has the nation refused to look at what is happening to those it sends to fight. Repeated deployments to war zones, combined with meager support upon returning home, are leaving many soldiers adrift. Each one who commits suicide, or attempts to (more than 2,000 last year), shows this. It would be presumptuous to draw conclusions from any single instance of such despair, but taken as a whole, these acts of self-destruction lay bare some difficult truths.
The war in Iraq, in particular, is an exercise in the obliteration of meaning. The war's essence is its lack of essence. The war's catch-22 is that its stated goal is social order, while the American presence itself creates disorder. Our troops know this. They arrive in the war zone with every intention of protecting an innocent population from the enemy, only to discover that the enemy and the population are indistinguishable. "Insurgents" often turn out to be, not ideologues, much less "terrorists," but only cousins of those already killed. Victims and victimizers are alike. Suspicion is ubiquitous. No one trusts Americans. Such contradictions make the war controversial in the United States, but in Iraq they make the soldiers' situation intolerable.
These particular problems exist within a larger context of collapsing sources of meaning. The myths on which the military ethos depend have been broken.
Whatever ethnic fevers grip Iraqis, for example, American soldiers know, if only unconsciously, that the passion for nationhood on which 19th- and 20th-century wars depended is being undercut by the global citizenship of the 21st century. Not since Earth was seen whole from the moon is nationalism what it was. Even more transforming, faith in technological violence as an instrument of justice is being undercut by the catastrophic planetary outcome that can already be anticipated if technological violence is not curbed. The human naiveté that uses violence in the name of ending violence can no longer be sustained. For Americans plunged into the heart of this contradiction, the unbridled violence of their own nation points to the suicide of the very species.
But for American soldiers, it is more personal even than that. For meaning's sake, their purpose has been defined around loyalty. Unit cohesion is the absolute virtue. Thus our soldiers prepare to die not for Iraq, nor even for America, but for one another. "I've got your back," they promise. In combat, such commitment is often heroically fulfilled, but, alas, once the bureaucracy replaces the buddy, loyalty, too, is found to be a lie. Harsh to say, but the American military cares nothing for the individuals who comprise it, only for the mission those individuals, in formation, can accomplish. Hence the shameful exploitation of troops in disabling redeployments, and the resulting abuse of their families. Hence the nation's abandonment of those, who, upon discharge, find no unit, no cohesion, and their backs against the wall. Support the troops? On your bumper.
Suicide is always a tragedy, and, whether accompanied by a note, always a message - one that survivors must read. In the case of soldier suicides, we Americans are all their next of kin. Their despair demands our attention. What are they telling us?
James Carroll's column appears regulary in the Globe.