Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Suicide in Uniform

Last Thursday a soldier was killed fighting terrorists on the Egyptian border. Last night a soldier was nearly killed by jumping off a three story building on my base. One a hero, the other a suicide. So it goes.

The would be suicide climbed atop my three story barracks building late on Tuesday night. Onlookers thought at first he was trying to get a cheap view into the top-floor girls shower-room. It was not until the soldier began hollering and approaching the edge of the rooftop that he got everyone's attention. As a few soldiers tried to talk him back from the edge, the instant response team--normally charged with responding to border infiltrators--crept up behind the unstable soldier and pulled him to safety.

I was minding my own business in bed when I first became aware of the attempted suicide. A senior officer barged into my room with a distracted soldier in tow. "Get dressed, and get outside," the officer told me bluntly. "Me and my friend here need some privacy for a few minutes." I slipped out the door wrapped in a sheet and quickly discovered that one of my roommates, the skinny guy now sequestered in the room with the officer, had just tried to jump to his death.

My roommate, a noncombat soldier serving as a truck-driver, had a long simmering beef with his assignment in the army. Matters had come to a head and he was now desperate to be reassigned to an "open base," where soldiers return home after the close of the workday. His superiors had not expressed much interest in his request and so, stressed into a corner, he had ended up at the edge of a three story rooftop late on a Tuesday night.

Suicide is rarely the decision of a stable mind. Yet what surprises me about my roommate's attempted suicide is not the deed itself but the fact that relatively few peers follow his lead. I am by NO MEANS calling or in any way wishing more soldiers would commit suicide. I am merely commenting on what anyone within the army knows to be true: the attitude among most soldiers is so negative, there is such a culture of bitterness and repressed anger, that a fair observer can only be surprised that the number of attempted suicides is not even higher.

Suicide is already a problem within the Israeli Army. Exactly how much of a problem is difficult to say (cursory research reveals no public data on the number of attempted suicides, a more relevant figure than successful suicides), since data is scarce--no doubt in part because the army does its best to prevent the media from reporting on soldiers taking their own lives. Those articles that do make it to the mainstream media tend to be about particularly bizarre suicides, like two Druze soldiers that killed themselves in April 2010 within moments of the one hearing of the other's death. Or the soldier who killed himself as French President Sarkozy left Israel in June 2008. Nearly a decade ago, a surge in soldier suicides (35 soldiers killed themselves in 2005, far more than the number of soldiers killed in training or the line of fire) led to a spate of public scrutiny and new army measures designed to sensitize commanders to the risk of suicide.

Understanding why Israeli soldiers commit suicide is really not so difficult. The reason is not, as some left-wing and anti-Israel critics like to claim, a response to human rights violations or having been turned into cold-blooded killers by an immoral occupation force. Instead the cause is rooted in the age and culture of a mandatory military. Soldiers are the same age as the demographic (19-25) that is most prone to suicide worldwide. While the Israeli army tries to avoid inducting youth with suicidal tendencies, universal conscription makes its simple for troubled teens to still find their way into uniform.

Once in the army, the problem is not that the army makes people violent (if anything, the Israeli army teaches combat soldiers to express violence in a controlled fashion). The problem is that the army makes people frustrated and embittered. The nature of a restrictive, insensitive institution is that young people with problems get even more embittered. For every Israeli that glides through the army, two dozen of his peers reach the end of their service with so much buried resentment that a year long trip overseas becomes the necessary means of finding the inner peace to move on with their lives.

The army likes to claim that extensive investigation has shown that suicide is not directly connected to military service. These reports miss the whole point: Most soldiers consider suicide because they find themselves unable to effectively come to terms with non-"military issues" insides the confines of the military. Claiming that the military has no role in such suicides is as morally obtuse as it is functionally dangerous in designing an effective response.

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