by Lawrence Wilkerson
The suicide rate among veterans and, now, among active-duty GIs is at an historic high. The U.S. Marine Corps, for example, just turned in an all-time record in 2018 for attempted and successful suicides in a year (354 active and reserve). Marine Colonel Dom D. Ford, writing in the Marine Times, is grasping at straws to explain the rising rates, from claiming there is too little Christian religion in the ranks to the Marines not being willing to accept counsel and advice. As for the too little Christianity in the ranks, as an advisory board member of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, I know the opposite is true: there is too much Dominionist Christianity in the ranks. In fact, as soon as Colonel Ford made his comments, the phones at MRFF began ringing.
But might there be far greater reasons than these desperate efforts suggest behind such a deadly development?
I think so. But no one wants to confront them, certainly not the unimaginative, almost brain-dead generals and admirals now in charge of the U.S. military. These men, and increasingly women, flit from one conflict to another, one failed or mediocre project to another, gaining stars and acclaim all the way and doing absolutely nothing to justify either, even to the point of losing wars and getting promoted afterward. All one need do is look at a World War II photograph of General Dwight Eisenhower and see at most two or three ribbons on his tunic. Then look at a modern-day general. You’d think he or she would topple over from the weight of the “fruit salad” all over the front of their uniforms.
Let’s look at a few of the likely reasons for high GI suicide rates that such leaders are either too stupid to detect or too afraid to call out.
First, as the University of Minnesota’s Francis Shen and Cornell’s Douglas Kriner have pointed out in The Casualty Gap, the past 18 years of constant wars have been the most inequitable years in U.S. history. That is, the poor and the disadvantaged have done the bleeding and dying while the well-off have escaped scot-free. That reality alone must drive some GIs to despair.
Second, these GIs have killed or helped to kill more than 400,000 human beings in these wars. Killing at that level affects people. It particularly affects people when they are unable to explain the reason for the killing or, worse, when they know the reasons and don’t care for them.
The U.S. government has told these young men and women that they are killing these people for freedom’s sake, for democracy, for women’s rights, for justice, to protect Americans, and for all manner of reasons that these troops know are just so much hogwash.
Third, the United States—with many of these GIs as the executors—has committed war crimes from Bagram to Baghdad and from Guantanamo to Bangkok. The United States has broken treaties, defied the rule of law, and smashed international covenants at will. To top it off, today the U.S. president wants to pardon war criminals.
Fourth, the 99 percent of America with no skin in the game of war makes sure to say quite frequently “thank you for your service” to any of these GIs encountered at airports, in restaurants, on the street, or elsewhere. From my own experience talking with serving troops and veterans—including a triple-amputee at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center— nothing galls them more. They see the 99 percent assuaging their guilt with a few meaningless words that don’t do a thing to alleviate the GIs’ concerns. In fact, such triteness deepens those concerns.
Moreover, America currently has a president with bone spurs, had a vice president before him who had better things to do than go to war, and a president whose father got him into the Texas Air National Guard to fly a plane (a duty George W. Bush more often failed than succeeded in performing). Bill Clinton, meanwhile, allegedly cheated his way out of ROTC. This all in the last generation.
Generals and admirals lie almost as frequently as their commanders-in-chief. “Yes,” they report from Baghdad, “these Iraqi soldiers can defend their country.” Then the Islamic State proves otherwise. “Just give me more troops and I’ll win in Afghanistan.” Right. “The F-35 is an outstanding aircraft.” Then straight out of the door to work for Lockheed Martin for a seven-figure reward.
Cabinet officers, national security advisors, and presidents lie as well: “Iran is the greatest state sponsor of terrorism,” say Bolton, Pompeo, and Trump. Almost every GI knows that the greatest state sponsor of terrorism is a U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia. Whether the kingdom does it directly or through surrogates like Pakistan, every GI knows who finances and supports the biggest terrorist threats. Every GI knows that Sunnis make up more than 90% of the serious terrorists in the world today.
These GIs know that, on account of many of these lies, they are killing people, wounding people, destroying their homes, bombing their towns and villages, and generally wreaking havoc for “God and country.” They know this is a lie. But what are they to do about it?
Some of them kill themselves—in fact, an increasing number of them.
Lawrence Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a colonel. He is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary.