Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
USAToday reports a study of the high rate of suicide and drug-related deaths in the military. The report concludes that such deaths have increased because soldiers, particularly during wartime, are “inclined toward risky personal behavior”.
After nine years of war, the Army attracts recruits ready for combat but inclined toward risky personal behavior — a volatile mix that led to more deaths from suicide, drug overdoses and drinking and driving than from warfare, an Army review concludes. “Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy,” says the 15-month study, released Thursday.
Commanders have failed to identify and monitor soldiers prone to risk-taking behavior, the report says. As a result, suicides among soldiers have soared. . . .
Many recruits join the Army knowing they will be sent to combat, so they may “even be more comfortable accepting high levels of risk and uncertainty in their lives,” the report says. . . .
Chiarelli commissioned the review 15 months ago as the Army suicide rate exceeded that for civilians. The study says poor command decisions helped contribute to a record 160 suicides by active-duty soldiers last year and an additional 146 deaths resulted from risky behavior such as drug or prescription medication abuse. Seventy-four of those deaths were overdoses.
Randall McElroy III, at The Distributed Republic, has a useful comment:
Internal investigations by government agencies always seem to turn out this way. It’s not the multiple deployments, the stress of fighting in a conflict where you can’t tell who wants to kill you until they’re doing it, the moral burden of shooting at innocent people, the vagueness of the goals of the conflict, or any of that. In other words, it’s not the essential part of what soldiers do these days.
It’s that, for some reason, without any causes, soldiers are engaging in risky behavior, and their commanders are just too darn earnest about prosecuting the war to notice.
However, I wanted to note the way drug- and alcohol-related deaths are handled in this story.
Half of all such deaths in this study, and a quarter of all “risky behavior” deaths for last year, were caused by drug overdoses. Soldiers are taking illegal drugs and dying from them, at higher rates than among civilians. Had these been civilian deaths, the narrative would have been simple: junkies OD and die. Surely far more than 74 civilians fatally ODed last year (though the per-capita rate is still lower); you don’t see many stories about this growing menace. What you certainly don’t see are civilian drug users characterized as “risk takers” or “comfortable accepting high levels of risk and uncertainty in their lives”. Convulsing to death with a crack pipe in your hand, if you’re a soldier, however, is apparently something like fastroping into a hot LZ or charging a machine-gun with a bayonet – the sort of thing those gung-ho heroes do because, you know, they just can’t help being so macho.
I wouldn’t mind this so much, if it were in any way honest. Identifying psychological factors that contribute to drug-taking, in fact, is a welcome step forward (even if slightly implausible in this case; chalking drug use up to simply being “prone to risk-taking behavior” is not only vague and one-dimensional, but even in some way circular). If the government were to take its own treatment of this issue seriously, and begin to sincerely probe the psychological and circumstantial factors that lead some people to drugs, we might be able to approach the issue of drug use in a more rational and realistic way. But of course that’s not what is being done here.
Characterizing drug-using soldiers as “risk-takers” is simply assigning a convenient euphemism to behavior, and its tragic consequences, that are relentlessly condemned in other circumstances. This is convenient in several ways: as McElroy notes, it lets the military off the hook for putting these soldiers under the stresses that, indirectly, killed them; it also preserves the unchallengeably heroic facade that the military is allowed to hide behind in all circumstances; and it gives these soldiers a pass on the judgmentalism that otherwise greets mental illness or drug use. Even outright suicide is treated as “risk-taking” – an absurd circumlocution that neatly obviates the inquiries into soldiers’ mental states, and the effect that military service has on them, that would otherwise be inevitable. In this way, behavior that would certainly be categorized as pathological, illegal, and disreputable in anyone else is folded into the military’s self-assumed and deliberately promoted ethos of heroism and rugged virtue.
Nobody is going to go on from here and say “Hey, you know, civilians also experience stress, self-medicate to deal with it, and exhibit a range of coping mechanisms influenced by their own psychology and their propensity for risk-taking. Maybe we should lighten up on the moralistic rhetoric about drugs and start recognizing the real-world factors that influence behavior, so we can respond more sympathetically and effectively. Maybe some proactive interventions with people at risk would help them out. Maybe our leaders have a responsibility to create better living conditions and offer better interventions to people at risk to help prevent self-destructive behaviors ahead of time, rather than sending millions of people to jail for being heroic, macho, rugged risk-takers.” Because the people who are painting military junkies and suicide cases as heroic, combat-ready risk-takers don’t really believe that and don’t really give a shit about people’s problems, in or especially out of the military. They certainly have no investment in being accurate, honest, realistic, or sympathetic about stress, pathology, and self-destructive behavior. Sugar-coating America’s Heroes to sweep a military-related drug problem under the rug avoids dealing with drugs realistically in any venue – which is the one thing any of our drug programs can never do.
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