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Losing war: One veteran every 80 minutes

March 28, 2012

Source: Margaret C. Harrell and Nancy Berglass (2011)
Even with tens of thousands of US soldiers on ground in Afghanistan, the US is fast losing out to the Taliban who are again establishing consulates in the Middle East and foothold in and around Kandahar. The US, however, is losing even a bigger war at home where a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes.

A suicide epidemic has hit recent veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the United States. Margaret C. Harell and Nancy Berglass while writing for the Centre for a New American Security argued that the US was losing the battle owing to the spike in veteran suicides.

Whereas, veterans account for only 10 per cent of the adult American population, they represent 20 per cent of the suicides. The US Veteran Affairs (VA) claims that the veterans experience a 21 per cent higher suicide rate than the general public.

Source: http://icasualties.org/

Suicides are not confined to veterans alone. In July 2011, almost 33 active and reserve members of the US army took their own lives. Thousands more American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Almost 5,000 US soldiers have died in Iraq alone. In Afghanistan, the death toll for American troops has crossed over 1900 during the same time.

The cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to limit overseas US casualties. However, as hundreds of thousands of suicide-prone US veterans return home, the passive war between veterans and the daemons will linger on for decades causing thousands more deaths resulting from suicides.

Scores of Americans lose their lives to violence each year. However, lives lost to suicides exceed far more than those lost to homicides. In 2010 alone, 14,748 people were murdered in the US. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 32,000 Americans take their own lives each year, twice more than those who are murdered.

Writing in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012, Mark Kaplan and others categorise suicide a major public health problem. “According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of the Inspector General, 1000 veterans who receive care from the VA and as many as 5000 of all veterans die by suicide every year,” Kaplan and others noted. In an earlier study they had estimated that veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide than the non-veterans.

Not all studies found a higher suicide risk amongst veterans. For instance, Kang and Bullman noted comparable suicide rates for veterans and the rest. The annual crude suicide rate for veterans ranged from 15.3 to 25.5 per 100,000, and 20 to 24 per 100,000 for the comparable general population. Similarly, Miller and others in 2009 concluded from a study of 500,000 adult men that veterans did not exhibit a higher propensity for suicides.

The controversy about higher than usual suicide risk of veterans could be an artifact of how studies are designed and conducted. For instance, Miller and others studied a large population of older men with an average age between 56 and 59 years. Whereas veterans of Iraq and Afghan wars, who exhibit a higher suicide risk, are much younger.

Despite the controversy, the fact remains that the “evil-doers”, a term of endearment coined by the former President George W. Bush, in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been able to inflict such massive casualties as have resulted from suicides by veterans. In no single year did the US lose more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that it does now to suicides. In fact, more veterans commit suicide in a given year than the total number of US soldiers (4,490) who have died in Iraq since 2001.

The more important question to ponder is why such a large number of US veterans are taking their own lives. The epidemiological research identifies post-traumatic stress disorder and severe brain trauma as the leading causes behind suicides. Seeing one’s comrades, or even enemy, die in front of one’s eyes is bound to scar the soul. The US Army sergeant who recently killed 16 unarmed civilians in Afghanistan (including several children) and whose wife refuses to acknowledge her husband’s culpability, may beat the murder charge, but his real battle will be with the daemons that have pushed several like him to the dark side.

America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not without excessive costs. While the number of Iraqi and Afghan dead have run into hundreds of thousands, even with a relatively much smaller death toll the US is still paying a heavy price for trying to tame Afghans and Iraqis. An estimated $1.3 trillion have already been spent on the wars.

Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in economics, estimates in his book that these wars will cost over $3 trillion dollars. A large portion of the costs is tied to rehabilitating veterans, many of whom were gravely injured while being deputed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kang and Bullman estimate that through March 2009, the number of wounded veterans from America’s recent wars equalled 33,907. Their care and physical rehabilitation will be a costly endeavour.

As the winter turns to spring in Washington, DC, (or summer in Pakistan and Afghanistan), the winds of change are blowing away the house of cards that Nato and others tried to build in Afghanistan. The Taliban are now reopening their embassies in the Middle East and are extending their control in the Pushtun dominated parts of Afghanistan. The Nato’s war in Afghanistan was launched to eliminate the same Taliban with whom the US is now negotiating an exit strategy.

After a decade in Afghanistan, the US and her allies have not much to show for development. Afghanistan continues to be ranked amongst the lowest in human development as measured by the UN Human Development Index. The infant mortality rate and other similar proxies for development rank Afghanistan amongst the worst in the world. Apart from small-scale pilots, such as schools for girls, there is not much to show. Many have profited from the misery that now embraces the very poor in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With such major debacles in Afghanistan that now call for comparisons with Vietnam, which many right-wing commentators hasten to deny, one wonders if the US policymakers have learnt any lessons in humility. Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University in Canada, laments the lack of introspection amongst the US policymakers. He is concerned about the “utter absence of collective introspection” and believes that the US “seems incapable of learning from its own mistakes.”

The challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq are not yet resolved. The situation there cannot be categorised even as work in progress since not much progress has been made. One, therefore fails to appreciate why the US is so bellicose towards Iran. Starting another war in the Middle East will suck in hundreds of thousands of more soldiers and billions more in costs.

While the American news media tries to cheerlead the US into yet another war in the Middle East, the families of the war veterans in the US face the reality that each veteran is a ticking time bomb ready to self-destruct. And while the veteran’s families live in fear of their loved one taking his or her own life, the American public continues to live in ignorance of the realisation that the US is yet again deserting a conflict that it was quick to start, but reluctant to resolve.

*Harrell, Margaret C. and Nancy Berglass (2011). Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide. Centre for a New American Society. 

Kaplan, Mark S.; Bentson H. McFarland; Nathalie Huguet; Jason T. Newsom (2012). Estimating the Risk of Suicide Among US Veterans: How Should We Proceed From Here? American Journal of Public Health. Vol 102, No. S1. Pp. S21-S23.

Kang, Han K.; Tim A. Bullman (2009). Is There an Epidemic of Suicides among Current and Former US Military Personnel? Annals of Epidemiology. Volume 19, Issue 10 . Pp. 757-760.

Suicide Among US Veterans: A Prospective Study of 500,000 Middle-aged and Elderly Men.

Miller, Matthew; Catherine Barber; Deborah Azrael; Eugenia E. Calle; Elizabeth Lawler; and Kenneth J. Mukamal (2009). American Journal of Epidemiology. Vol. 170, No. 4. Pp. 494-500.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.