The true cost to veterans? 44 daily suicides
According to just released Defense Department data, suicides among active-duty service members increased by more than 40 percent between 2015 and 2020. The numbers jumped by 15 percent in 2020 alone.
A 2021 study by the Cost of War Project concluded that since 9/11, four times as many service members and veterans have died by suicide as have perished in combat. In 2011, reports said, 18 U.S. veterans, on average, died of suicide every day, while the latest Veterans Administration report with figures from 2020 still puts the number of veterans taking their lives at 17 a day — after a high of 22.
Other observers warn that these are undercounts. One report just released argues that the number is more like 44 a day.
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 by 1987 might have been as low as the 9,000 the Centers for Disease Control estimated that same year — or as high as 200,000.
One retired VA doctor who supports the latter figure wrote then 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 years ago with a young American soldier in Afghanistan.
He had just survived a firefight where he’d 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.
A permanent emotional toll
How damaging is the emotional toll for our men, and now women, who must suppress the feelings that connect them to their humanity 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 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 box office hit nominated for 11 Academy Awards, 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 — or fought in battles since?
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. No man ever has his manhood questioned for killing another man.
And this kill-or-be-killed agreement for something as abstract as “the American way,” “freedom,” or “the country” constitutes proof for many that they did live up to what it is to be “real” men.
Equality, as measured by the patriarchy
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 lives are as valuable as men’s only to the extent that they are willing to give them up.
Yet, current impressions persist that women’s lives are more valuable than men’s in these matters. A woman taken in combat is still a much more tragic event in our media and political culture. When women were added to the combat fields in the U.S., one congressman warned: “Wait until you start seeing our girls come back in body bags.”
For men, let’s just keep the body count as low as possible. But a woman taken or molested 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 dying in the national interest. It’s a big part of the straight (not heterosexual) male role.
Boys will be boys?
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 anyone to become fighters in life. The hurt, fear, and confusion all humans feel cannot bubble up or it will destroy the missions assigned to the standard manhood.
Stuff them deep. 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. It might even mean you’re gay. That’s how homophobia works after all.
Our men, and now our women, are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder not just because of what they witnessed but because they are human beings — men and women as fully human as when they were born — who are being asked to do something far out of touch with their humanity. And to honor it.
Implications for LGBT acceptance
The men 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 didn’t 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.
Equality in the armed services means military women are being taught that they too must be out of touch with their humanity to be as good as conditioned men, to compete with them, and to suffer and die.
And the full acceptance of LGBT people by the Pentagon means they too must show that they’re as “straight” acting and thinking as any of those “real men” who are rewarded for killing and being killed in our warrior society.
Our men 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.
But all this rightful military equality comes with the same price as toxic masculinity: It’s likely now to tear anyone apart as they struggle to bridge the gap between their real humanity and a deadly straight role they must prove they can live — one that could end up killing them one way or another.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.