Why do War Veterans Commit Suicide or Murder?

In two recent articles in the Los Angeles Times and the academic studies that inspired them, the authors investigate the question of which war veterans are most likely to commit suicide or violent crimes. Remarkably, the subject of war, their role in war, their thoughts about the supposed justifications (or lack thereof) of a war, never come up.

The factors that take the blame are — apart from the unbearably obvious “prior suicidality,” “prior crime,” “weapons possession,” and “mental disorder treatment” — the following breakthrough discoveries: maleness, poverty, and “late age of enlistment.” In other words, the very same factors that would be found in the (less-suicidal and less-murderous) population at large. That is, men are more violent than women, both among veterans and non-veterans; the poor are more violent (or at least more likely to get busted for it) among veterans and non-veterans; and the same goes for “unemployed” or “dissatisfied with career” or other near-equivalents of “joined the military at a relatively old age.”

In other words, these reports tell us virtually nothing. Perhaps their goal isn’t to tell us something factual so much as to shift the conversation away from why war causes murder and suicide, to the question of what was wrong with these soldiers before they enlisted.

The reason for studying the violence of veterans, after all, is that violence, as well as PTSD, are higher than among non-veterans, and the two (PTSD and violence) are linked. They are higher (or at least most studies over many years have said so; there are exceptions) for those who’ve been in combat than for those who’ve been in the military without combat. They are even higher for those who’ve been in even more combat. They are higher for ground troops than for pilots. There are mixed reports on whether they are higher for drone pilots or traditional pilots.

The fact that war participation, which itself consists of committing murder in a manner sanctioned by authorities, increases criminal violence afterwards, in a setting where it is no longer sanctioned, ought of course to direct our attention to the problem of war, not the problem of which fraction of returning warriors to offer some modicum of reorientation into nonviolent life. But if you accept that war is necessary, and that most of the funding for it must go into profitable weaponry, then you’re going to want to both identify which troops to help and shift the blame to those troops.

The same reporter of the above linked articles also wrote one that documents what war participation does to suicide. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that out of 100,000 male veterans 32.1 commit suicide in a year, compared to 28.7 female veterans. But out of 100,000 male non-veterans, 20.9 commit suicide, compared to only 5.2 female non-veterans. And “for women ages 18 to 29, veterans kill themselves at nearly 12 times the rate of nonveterans.” Here’s how the article begins:

“New government research shows that female military veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women, a startling finding that experts say poses disturbing questions about the backgrounds and experiences of women who serve in the armed forces.”

Does it really? Is their background really the problem? It’s not a totally crazy idea. It could be that men and women inclined toward violence are more likely to join the military as well as more likely to engage in violence afterward, and more likely to be armed when they do so. But these reports don’t focus primarily on that question. They try to distinguish which of the men and women are the (unacceptable, back home-) violence-prone ones. Yet something causes the figure for male suicides to jump from 20.9 to 32.1. Whatever it is gets absolutely disregarded, as differences between male and female military experiences are examined (specifically, the increased frequency of female troops being raped).

Suppose for a moment that what is at work in the leap in the male statistic has something to do with war. Sexism and sexual violence may indeed be an enormous factor for female (and some male) troops, and it may be far more widespread than the military says or knows. But those women who do not suffer it, probably have experiences much more like men’s in the military, than the two groups’ experiences out of the military are alike. And the word for their shared experience is war.

Looking at the youngest age group, “among men 18 to 29 years old, the annual number of suicides per 100,000 people were 83.3 for veterans and 17.6 for nonveterans. The numbers for women in that age group: 39.6 and 3.4.” Women who’ve been in the military are, in that age group, 12 times more likely to kill themselves, while men are five times more likely. But that can also be looked at this way: among non-veterans, men are 5 times as likely to kill themselves as women, while among veterans men are only 2 times as likely to kill themselves as women. When their experience is the same one — organized approved violence — men’s and women’s rates of suicide are more similar.

The same LA Times reporter also has an article simply on the fact that veteran suicides are higher than non-veteran. But he manages to brush aside the idea that war has anything to do with this:

“‘People’s natural instinct is to explain military suicide by the war-is-hell theory of the world,’ said Michael Schoenbaum, an epidemiologist and military suicide expert at the National Institute of Mental Health who was not involved in the study. ‘But it’s more complicated.'”

Judging by that article it’s not more complicated, it’s entirely something else. The impact of war on mental state is never discussed. Instead, we get this sort of enlightening finding:

“Veterans who had been enlisted in the rank-and-file committed suicide at nearly twice the rate of former officers. Keeping with patterns in the general population, being white, unmarried and male were also risk factors.”

Yes, but among veterans the rates are higher than in the general population. Why?

The answer is, I think, the same as the answer to the question of why the topic is so studiously avoided. The answer is summed up in the recent term: moral injury. You can’t kill and face death and return unchanged to a world in which you are expected to refrain from all violence and relax.

And returning to a world kept carefully oblivious to what you’re going through, and eager to blame your demographic characteristics, must make it all the more difficult.

#NoWar2019 Pathways to Peace conference in Limerick, Ireland October 5-6 2019

8 Comments

  1. I am glad our armed forces are being trained and used in such work as cleaning up after natural disasters. That should be extended to veterans. It or some sort of community service employment program should be available to every veteran who can’t do better in private sector, even if it has to last until veteran either dies of natural causes or reaches retirement age and can be retired with enough pension to live on, and even if the veteran keeps bouncing back and forth between private sector jobs and community service employment program until reaching retirement age.

  2. For civilians also we need enough community service employment to keep everyone working at whatever they are able to do until they reach retirement age and are retired on Social Security record including from community service employment jobs. Many will also need much subsidized housing and food, maybe even a government run boarding house for the poor.

  3. Good job! It’s nice to see an article actually compare suicide rates for veterans and non-veterans, corrected for gender. Most veterans are male. Male veterans suicides at 32.1 versus 20.9 for non-veterans.

    Higher rates for enlisted versus officers is because of differences in educational levels, and cognitive intelligence both learned and innate. 1/3 of the civilian population gets a college degree, only 1/4 of veterans, and probably 10% of enlisted, if I recall correctly.

    I seem to recall, some other characteristics of the veteran population also drive suicide rates: substance abuse e.g. alcoholism which multiplies suicide rates, and, age cohorts other than age 18-29 cited above.

    I think you’ve overlooked the economic difficulty of all young people, especially those with 12 years or less of education, has been well explained lately by Case and Deaton. Young veterans who often joined out of economic desperation, find themselves out on the street after 4 or even 8 years with NO job skills, and ability to concentrate on college reduced by age and worldview.

    Thanks for the reminder of guns in the home. That’s a factor too.

    Finally there is the ACE studies. Adverse Childhood Experiences. Who’s got the data on that? We started with a difference of only 32 to 21 per 100,000 for males, not even counting alcholism, low education, unemployability etc. without even studying how many had ACE’s.

    By the time you correct for all these factors, there’s not much left for “war experiences”… The difference in suicide rates between veterans and nonveterans of the same cohorts are not significantly different at all. Sorry. Don’t say “2 times more likely” above.

    There are two exceptions of course. Females (who largely recapitulate the risk factors of the male military and veteran cohorts, plus rape and other enhancements, and unsurprisingly have similar outcomes), and the Rangers and Seals, who do so many deployments, and truly spend *years* killing people up close and personal. The military and the VA has all the data, Data you could only dream of. But they keep it secret.

    The next article on World Beyond War should go straight into this cohort of special forces, and cover military AND veteran populations. The rest of it is a big huge distraction.

  4. I’ve been thinking about suicide for a long time. Basically all of the things that I did in the military, and some things I’ve done outside while applying militaristic thinking, have ultimately fueled vast oceans of guilt, remorse, and quite frankly hatred of the self. The problem with our society is that the powers at bay will convince you that the problem is with the veteran or his/her current situation. But it’s much deeper than that. Taking otherwise peaceful people, enlisting them with a sense of duty after years of brainwashing, and then guiding them to take others lives destroys them. Because as time goes on they realize that everything they’ve come to believe is false and that they’re nothing but murderers and enablers of those who wish to murder. Just in Iraq alone, we have slaughtered nearly half a million people, a vast majority of which were innocent peoples. It is sickening. And extremely difficult to manage. The most powerful people see the people as malleable sheep, herded for their agenda – control of diminishing resources. Instead of being honest and addressing the fact that the USA’s energy issues are driving war, we lie and say it’s terrorism. But terrorism is something that we created by bombing and killing in the name of energy. There must be another way. Uniting our citizens to build vast solar and wind arrays would surely be much more humane than the slaughter of innocent lives in acts derived from profit seeking, power seeking, and energy seeking. We could create a society that is self sufficient and safe, yet instead we exploit cheap non renewables creating a world of innevitible suffering. God damn us all.

  5. Bro I know it easier said than done but hold on don’t do it. I completely agree with your points.

    In the land of free nothing comes for free.

    Respect to you.

    Try spirituality or meditation. May be watch Sadhguru on YouTube. Just a suggestion nothing else.
    God bless you!

  6. I lived with an infantry scout who served in the Army during Guf War I. Life with him was unbelievably violent. He had nightmares and struggled with drug addiction. One of the saddest days of my life was when he looked me in the eyes and said,”You don’t understand. I have have learned to like to kill.” Given a childhood of abuse where he had no power and being used as a scouting target where he was likely to take a bullet, he had lost all faith in himself and the world of human beings. He deserved better in life and he deserved better from the VA. I only hope he set aside his burden of guilt and self-loathing long enough to realize he wasn’t to blame for the abuse or his being turned into a trained killer. The system let him down. He only had a choice and responsibility for using the drugs. If I had been him, I might have used drugs to escape, too.

  7. Seen as an inside observer of the medical community and also as a VA patient.

    1. Parking lot suicides are done for two reasons . Veterans do not want their loved ones to find their bodies and know the VA will dispose of them. The other reason is that it is the final FU to a government which is so full of bureaucracy it has rendered itself useless. However, in all fairness, this trend has extended itself to the civilian sector as well for quite some time where medical care is a form of Russian Roulette. Some are lucky to escape without harm, others end up damaged or dead. The word is collateral damage in medical care.

    2. Dropping the ball in delivering medical care to veterans and civilians is becoming the norm. Health care workers are undulated with so much paper work for documentation and rules they have to follow as guidelines for the delivery of each aspect of care, they are utilizing the time they used to spend of patient care to document each and every move they make. If a time and motion study was implemented it would amaze people to know that more then 90 per cent of their time is spend documenting and covering their asses. If you are a VA patient, the time you spend with your provider is less than a few minutes because the rest of the the the provide is looking at the computer screen, charting.

    3. The patient has been considered the “consumer” in the medical field for over 20 years, whereby in civilian sectors they are called consumers. The word alone indicates that the patient has been placed on the Back 40, because the definition of consumer is purchaser, buyer, customer, shopper and patron. This enforces everything we read and know about medical care, it is a profit making organization and nothing more. The VA is blatant about their desire to make profit at the cost of the veterans who rely on their care. There are more and more job descriptions placed on each healthcare worker, and when there is a hiring freeze, they delegate the empty slots between the health care workers left, to carry the load, which frustrates and stresses them out because of work overload. The VA figures their health care providers and workers can function doing the workload of those they did not replace. The workers who are left trying their best to do their jobs, end up leaving, or are so overworked, the ball in medical care is dropped. The bottom line: profit.

    Inasmuch as the VA is trying to curtail the numbers of suicides of their veterans, the task is equivalent to the war on drugs. A waste of time and money because the war on drugs was lost a long time ago and cost the tax payers more money than the fight was worth. One can not prevent intentional suicide. Impossible. Each case is different and each person is different. What goes through the human mind when the person reaches the final stage of ending his/her life can not be controlled.

    Thank you for your time,

    Uzi Rafael

  8. Cheryl Ives says:

    yes,you veteran have been pput ia position to kill or b killed maybe you have felt used by the government for whaever reason. Earth is a learning environment.we are human. Now veteran, you ate “free” from being controlled in service. shake free. let it go & move on into the life you want. God has “infinite mercy. There is no death. energy cant die, it takes new form.we are all connected interacting on this earthplane. Suicide only hurts yourself as the problem will return until met next lufe. so best to rest when stressed.war happened, yes. now let the past go into thegands of Jesus.give all your pain up toHJesLife is an opportunity. learn from the past and give it up. the emotional pain doesnt end with suicide.they wished they didnt do it. though, again, God gives infinite mercy. we on earth are too hard on ourselves.Read Anthroposophy.It will help.

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