Eighteen U.S. veterans, on average, commit suicide every day. Eighteen. Every day.
That’s the latest statistic of one of the most under-reported costs of our wars. It adds up to more than are actually being killed in our on-going wars themselves.
There is still debate about how many Vietnam veterans have committed suicide on top of the more than 58,000 who died in that war. The number might be as low as the 1987 Centers for Disease Control estimate of 9,000 or as high as 200,000.
One retired VA doctor who supports the latter figure wrote that: “the reason the official suicide statistics were so much lower was that in many cases the suicides were documented as accidents, primarily single-car drunk driving accidents and self inflicted gunshot wounds that were not accompanied by a suicide note or statement.”
There are many messages one can take away from these grim statistics, but few as moving as the one that hit me as I watched a “60 Minutes” interview a while back with a young American soldier in Afghanistan.
He had just survived a firefight where he lost two close comrades. His interview was punctuated with the welling-up of tears that he continually fought back as he struggled to keep in place the mask of his war-assigned duty to cover up what was tearing him apart inside.
How damaging is the emotional toll for our men, and now some women, who must suppress the feelings that connect them to their humanity in order to fight wars for a system that parties away on the other side of the world, a system where their mostly well-off leaders tell them they must do this thing, and that they can earn no higher honor?
It was difficult enough for many of us to sit through the first thirty minutes of the box office hit “Saving Private Ryan” without turning our eyes away as bodies were blown apart and men cried out in agony before our eyes. What must the real experience have done to those men who endured the gruesome, relentless destruction of their comrades for days on the Normandy beaches?
One salty old Navy veteran of the actual event, confessed to me that he cried during those scenes in the film, adding: “I don’t know why.” It wasn’t like him to so react, but those feelings were obviously there in some depths he no longer believed he could access.
It’s still true that a major measure of manhood in our culture is a man’s willingness to go off somewhere to kill other men and be killed by other men. And this kill-or-be-killed agreement for something abstract like the “American way,” “freedom,” or “the country” constitutes proof for many that they did live up to what it is to be real men.
And if that is the measure of a man, then equality in patriarchal terms means women will also have to take upon themselves the idea that their life is as valuable only to the extent that they are willing to give it up.
Yet current impressions remain that women’s lives are more valuable than men’s in these matters. A woman taken in combat (think the Jessica Lynch capture and rescue fable the military cooked up) is still a much more tragic event in our media and political culture.
For men, let’s just keep the body count as low as possible. But a woman taken in combat indicates the enemy has fallen to new lows.
The justification for this difference was that men are somehow inherently violent. They’re more ruthless, competitive, and cutthroat in an inborn, genetic sense.
Internalizing this kill-or-be-killed ideal teaches men that their lives are important only to the extent that they sacrifice them at work, in sports, or in war, for their families, for the team, for the nation. We reward them for killing and dieing in the national interest.
To get men to internalize this message requires relentless monitoring. “Boys will be boys” supports the early version of this message: beat or be beaten. Boys enforce on each other that toughness and aggressiveness are valued, while nurturing, and being emotionally (other than sexually) moved by others is for girls.
Sympathetic emotions must be stuffed down as deeply as possible to get men to become fighters in life. The hurt, fear, and confusion all humans feel cannot bubble up or it will destroy the missions assigned to manhood.
Stuff them deep, boys and men. Keep them deep enough that they will never enter into your conscious judgment to infect how you decide to treat another human being, especially another male.
Should you feel any bond with the man who is your enemy in business as well as war, you are liable to wimp out. And that is still for sissies.
Our men are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder not just because of what they witnessed but because they are human beings – as fully human as our women – who are being asked to do something far out of touch with their humanity. And like it.
They are still those little boys they once were whose minds had to be worked on relentlessly to get them to believe that war was their manly duty. And fear of what would happen to them if they did not conform meant they had to deny all within that could threaten the profitable agenda of the military-industrial-prison-media complex.
They did not want to be considered queer for staying in touch with what still lies down deep within and conflicts with what they’ve been told they must do. They did not want, after all, to be treated the way society has treated gay men.
They came to believe that the alternatives to living this version of manhood could be death, humiliation, and rejection. For they knew that this American warrior code still says a man will get rewarded for killing another man, but can be killed for loving another man.