Earlier this week I received a gift in the mail. It was sent to me by a friend I met through my writing here and on the Army's information-sharing website, Battle Command Knowledge System. It is an incredible book entitled, "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning", written by Chris Hedges. I highly recommend it to everyone. Mr. Hedges has travelled the world as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, and the Christian Science Monitor. I have not been able to put it down and it has provided me more moments of clarity and understanding that anything else I have read recently. If you want to understand the allure of combat and the reasons behind it's effect on people, I cannot commend this small masterpiece enough. You can find it on Amazon. It is worth the read and is also the driving force behind today's post.
There has been a huge effort over the last year or so in the Army to reduce the suicide rate among Soldiers and to remove the stigma of reaching out for help when you need it. Much like we used to see signs and posters exhorting us to buy war bonds or support the troops, now there are signs to reassure people that help is available if they need it and that it is a sign of strength and courage to reach out when you are no longer able to make sense of your world anymore. We all have times when we need to rely on others and the Army is trying really hard to get the message out to Soldiers that it will do the best it can to help them in their time of need.
As part of that campaign, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General Peter Chiarelli, commissioned year long study of suicides in the Army to try and find indicators, and to help commanders find resources etc to stem the tide. In late July the results of that study were published in a 350 page report entitled, "Army Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention Report 2010". You can find a link to the report itself here:
Consider the following two items from the report:
"Historically, the Army suicide rate has been significantly lower than the civilian rate (the civilian demographically adjusted rate typically is about 19.2 per 100,000). However, suicide and accidental death rates began trending upward in 2004, and in 2008, the Army suicide rate crested above the national average and reached a record of 20.2 per 100,000.
In Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, 160 active duty Soldiers took their lives, making suicide the third leading cause of death among the Army population. If we include accidental death, which frequently is the result of high risk behavior (drinking and driving, drug overdose, etc.), we find that less young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions. Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy."
And then this:
"At 24 years of age, a Soldier, on average, has moved from home, family and friends and has resided in two other states; has traveled the world (deployed); been promoted four times; bought a car and wrecked it; married and had children; has had relationship and financial problems; seen death; is responsible for dozens of Soldiers; maintains millions of dollars worth of equipment; and gets paid less than $40,000 a year."
Although we do not have all the data from FY 2010 available yet, the indication is that the trend of a higher than average death rate due to suicide and risky behavior will continue. Only time will tell if our recognition of the immense strain on the force and our efforts to combat destructive behaviors will be effective on a large scale, but if even one Soldier is assisted by this report, it's conclusions and recommendations, and the huge increase in resources being applied to the problem, then it will be worth it. This is not a cost analysis issue, it is a human being issue. The trust of the Soldier that the institution will keep it's promise to assist him/her in their hour of need, just as the Soldier did when the Army needed them.
But why do we have this problem in the first place? The Army report talks a lot about engaged leadership and structural issues, and recommends to leaders at all levels things that can be done, but maybe the answer is much more personal than that. Maybe, what needs to be considered is how war effects just one person. What if it's not the structure and bureaucracy of the Army? What if it's not the loss of friends? What if it's not the strain of fighting? Or OPTEMPO. More accurately, what if it is?
A few quotes from "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning":
"The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with it's destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause."
"When we ingest the anodyne of war we feel what those we seek to destroy feel...It is the same narcotic. I partook of it for many years. And like every recovering addict there is a part of me that remains nostalgic for wars simplicity and high, even as I cope with the scars it left behind, mourn the deaths of those I worked with, and struggle with the bestiality I would have been better off not witnessing. There is a part of me - maybe it is a part of many of us - that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war - and very stupid once the war ended."
"The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men schooled in the notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood, that only in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in battle, willingly join the great enterprise. The admiration of the crowd, the high blown rhetoric, the chance to achieve the glory of the previous generation, the ideal of nobility beckon us forward. And people, ironically, enjoy righteous indignation and an object upon which to unleash their anger. War usually starts with collective euphoria."
These paragraphs and others brought together a lot of loosely connected ideas that have been swimming around the edges for a long time. Even now, though, I cannot bring them into sharp focus. They are only clearer than they were before. Consider the following hypothetical scenario. Ask yourself if it doesn't have a ring of truth to it....
I am a Soldier and I feel the need to serve a cause. I search for purpose and meaning and definition. I want to test myself on the stage of manhood and see how I will measure up against the heroes of my past and history. Will I stand tall in the face of fear? Can I move smoothly between the higher ideal of compassion and respect and the basic animalistic calling of killing and power? Will I become the next history book hero? Or will I not live up to those things? Will I reach the decision point and back down from the fight? Will I give in to my fear and need for self-preservation? Will I be a man?
And so I find a fight. I find a test. I join the Army and put myself in the arena. I grab my gun and start the examination of me. And as I take the test a new reality takes hold. I like it. I like the rush, the clarity, the singularity of purpose. My whole world is right here, right now. It is simple. I must kill him before he kills me. Nothing else exists. My focus is a sharp as a laser beam. And everything else becomes just noise....
A year later, I come back home. I convinced myself that my cause was just and that my actions are in keeping with tradition and honor and all that is expected of the warrior. And I passed the test. But there is an itch in my brain that will not go away. I crave that singular moment. The laser beam clarity. I want it back. But I'm afraid to admit it, for it means accepting something else as well. I miss the violence. I miss the power to end another person's life. I miss the destruction. I miss controlling my universe. Alone at night in the dark, I re-live those moments of perfection. Perfect power, perfect clarity, perfect fear. The adrenaline rush of randomness. But I am home now and the menial tasks of day to day life surround me. My wife and family see importance in things I do not. They are consumed with the daily routine as if it is the critical part of their being. The grass needs to be cut, the kids need school shoes, the car needs an oil change. There is nothing heroic here. It is all so very boring. My purpose has been removed and my addiction to that one crystal clear moment needs feeding. And there is nothing in my world to feed the beast...
And so I look around for things that will help me cope. Will remove the ache that the addiction has created. Alcohol, drugs - things like this ease the sharp need, but only for a little while. Fast cars, motorcycles, risk taking behaviors etc replicate the adrenaline rush, but without the sense of randomness that combat brings. I can drive as fast as the machine will go, but the decision to throttle back remains with me. In combat, that decision is not mine. It belongs to my adversary. And that is the critical difference. I quickly realize that I will never be able to replicate that crystal clear moment until I am once again in the fight. Until I can feed the beast. And the need to feed the beast drives me further away from those things that used to matter so very much. My original need for testing, for honor, for glory has now become nothing more than a need for a moment.
After 10 years of moving through this cycle 365 days at a time it all becomes too hard to take. I cannot move back and forth anymore. I cannot live in this world of trivial encounters and meaningless platitudes. And yet I realize that I have given myself over to the addiction of one clear moment and now my purpose in fighting is no longer for some higher noble purpose, but rather to feed my addiction. My struggle is that I cannot admit that I enjoy the requirements of the moment. I get off on the rush. I accept fate. I like physical power. I enjoyed trying to destroy another person who was trying to destroy me. I have embraced the lesser angels of my nature. I moved downward on Mazlow's hierarchy....and I like it. But to admit these things will only drive me further from the society that I return home to. I become a nomad sliding between two worlds and neither will accept me as their own.
In the Army study, you can find a lot of demographic data that searches for common causes to the issues that confront us. You'll find that the average suicide victim is this old, of that ethnicity, has served X long etc. You will find that facts that the investigations have revealed. But maybe something critical is missing. Maybe it's not the financial problems, or the children's issues, or the marital strife. Maybe those aren't the issues at all. Because we all have those types of problems. Soldier or civilian. We all have stress. What then might be the difference for the Soldier? It's actually pretty simple. The Soldier has experienced that one clear moment. He/She is twenty something years old and recognizes that they cannot feed the addiction any more. The entire world becomes mundane and boring. It's not that my wife is yapping at me, it's that what she is yapping about doesn't matter in the context of one clear moment. It's not that my kids are crying, it's that I cannot control my universe and exercise power. It's not that the grass needs cutting, it's that I no longer give a damn about what my neighbors may say about me because I know that I have experienced the test and I have passed it. I have survived and prospered in one clear moment. Their opinion no longer matters. I beat randomness, fate, the enemy and fear. I felt every emotion more sharply than anyone who hadn't been there possibly can. How do you think you can help me Mr. Behavioral Health guy? Mr. Civilian? Mama family member? Really, how do you think you can help? Because when I look at you I do not see in your eyes someone who has experienced one clear moment. I really don't. Thanks for your time.
As leaders, we need to see things like this on a personal level. Without moral judgement. Somewhere, there is a group of people sitting around telling war stories. And those stories will likely hover around but never admit that they miss that moment. When we can have a Soldier come to us and say, "Sergeant, I miss the clarity of combat. I miss the excitement of a firefight. I miss the chance to measure up. I miss the power of ending a life" When we create leader conditions for that to occur, then we can begin to get to the root cause of many Soldier issues.
Most Soldiers do not want to hurt themselves. The just cannot take being nomads. Maybe the answer to the problem is to accept their addiction and slowly replace it over time with the beauty of the mundane. To turn their family and friends from a ideal to their reality.
Our problem with suicide and reckless behavior is real. It deserves nothing less than our full efforts to reduce it. But, just as real must be our acceptance that war is a very powerful behavior agent. It cannot be replicated anywhere else. When a person gets to a point where they have either measured up, or finds they cannot, that is the most vulnerable point. For those who have we must replace that crystal clear purpose. For those who cannot, we must help them redefine their individual value and meaning. For both groups, we must remain aware that they have been fundamentally changed for the rest of their lives. For both the ability to stand in the arena and the inability to do so will be decided very quickly, but it will have everlasting effects. That choice will happen in one clear moment.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. I look forward to hearing from you.