Soldiers can die several ways

by Yule Heibel on March 25, 2004

Via BBC today, this item:

US army acts on soldier suicides
by Nick Childs
The US army is planning to improve its mental health care practices because of concern about the number of suicides among US soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait. A report by an army medical health team which visited that region also showed low morale among troops and units. At least 23 US soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait committed suicide last year. As a proportion of the number of troops deployed, that is more than a third higher than the rate for the US army as a whole in 2003. The army says it cannot find any clear reason for this but there is concern about whether more can be done to bring the rate down. [More…]

I don’t think that this is in any way an isolated or “special” phenomenon: there is a history to soldier suicide which suggests that it’s not a problem of the individual soldier, and is instead more likely to be endemic and symptomatic of a larger problem. I was reminded of something I came across while researching “the image of man” in the immediate post-WWII period in western Germany:

When it became clear after the battle of Stalingrad in 1943 that Germany was losing on the Russian front, the military leadership was confronted with the phenomenon of soldier suicide. As the beginning of 1944 saw a repeat of the defeats of Stalingrad, both German and Soviet resistance movements tried to fortify their gains in the propaganda war for the German soldier’s mind. One such group was known as the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschlandd (NKFD). Its goal was to convince German soldiers to capitulate and defect to the Soviet side. [n.b.: The NKFD was composed of high-ranking, generally ultra-conservative army officers who had turned against Hitler; with Soviet support, they were waging a propaganda war against the Nazi leadership from within Russia. And obviously they were detested and distrusted and discredited by the Western Allies, Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, et al. Nor were they in the least democratic in the western liberal sense of the word, as they typically came from the Prussian Junker class. Hence, they had nearly no resonance in the West, even though they did understand a thing or two about life behind the Soviet lines, including insights into death camps and soldier suicide, since they had eye-witness access to matters known mainly via hearsay in the West.]
Suicide, practiced by an increasing number of German soldiers, appeared to the NKFD as proof of a deep crisis in individualism and self-conception. In one of their propaganda leaflets dropped behind the German lines, the officers tried to analyze the causes for suicide. Why was suicide preferable to capitulation? [The NKFD obviously wanted to persuade the German soldier to rise against Hitler (defecting to the Soviet side) vs. committing suicide.] According to the leaflet, Hitler’s demand for total and unwavering identification with his causes, concerns, and paranoias provoked this response. This total identification with Hitler, most effective with the generation born around 1920-25, left an enormous vacuum once Nazism was defeated, and provided the basis for the subsequent crisis in “the image of man.”
The response [to soldier suicide] by the [Nazi] Party Chancellery on 17 July 1944 exposes the cynical attitude toward human life endorsed by the Nazi leadership: suicide [the Chancellery proclaimed] is not dishonorable “in those cases, in which no further exertion for the people is any longer possible, or when impending Soviet imprisonment could make the continuation of [one’s] life into a danger for one’s own people.” What is implied is that “man” is to be made over as “Nazi,” fully and completely, and that individuality is relinquinshed in favor of total identification with the leader. One is provided with a ready-made “image of man” that claims totality, to know all the answers and define all the questions. [Reconstructing the Subject, p.18.]

Presumably the US military will never behave in as misanthropic a fashion as the Nazi Party Chancellery did — today we have our counsellors and chaplains and other various ministrations for soul-care — but military structures haven’t changed fundamentally. The soldier is still supposed to identify 100% and unquestioningly with his / her leadership, and soldier suicide is still a huge warning sign that something is snapping beyond any margin of human flexibility. This entry is a continuation of entries posted on March 23, March 22, and March 21.

{ 1 comment }

maria March 26, 2004 at 3:35 pm

Yule, great post … one that herds things into a focused perspective, not so much because it points to a specific history of this, but because it exposes the unchanging frame of the way the military handles questions of the value of life. Not that I don’t appreciate the historical view, by the way. I always learn so much when I visit here, about both the present and the past….

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