Article - Autumn 2013

To Live Is an Act of Courage

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The crisis of suicide among our soldiers and veterans must end. Here’s how we can stop it

By Jennifer Michael Hecht

September 5, 2013


 

Strong, fierce, smart, and talented, Ajax is one of the greatest warrior heroes in classical mythology. He wins every campaign and every battle he enters, earning the name Ajax Unconquered. Yet as Ovid tells it in the Metamorphoses, “Unconquered, he was conquered by his sorrow”: he dies when he chooses to fall on his own sword.

His suicide happens after the greatest warrior of them all, Achilles, is killed, and Ajax and Odysseus defy all common sense in retrieving his body from their enemies, the Trojans. Both show extraordinary valor. Ajax does most of the fighting while Odysseus grabs the body and rides away to safety. Afterward, a council decides that both deserve to inherit the magical armor Achilles had worn. Forged on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, this armor is both extremely protective and a symbol that its wearer is the greatest warrior alive. To settle the question of who deserves it, the two heroes battle each other, but the result is a tie. At last, they make their claims in words, and because Odysseus speaks with more eloquence, the council awards him the armor. Ovid tells us that Ajax’s disappointment was what caused him to kill himself. In a play about him, Sophocles writes that Ajax is so miserable that he falls into a stupor in which he imagines a flock of sheep to be warriors, and he slays them all. When he awakes and sees what he has done, he is so ashamed that he cannot bear it, and he dies by his own hand.

The terrible irony is that all of this is about armor, yet Ajax succumbs to the foe from which no piece of armor could have protected him: his own envy, rage, shame, and regret.

Throughout history, artists and writers have depicted “the sorrowful Ajax” because the story is so heartbreaking and so very human. At times, we are all—every one of us—our own worst enemy.


Today’s military faces a tremendous crisis. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Some of this is attributable to PTSD—posttraumatic stress disorder—but a recent Pentagon study covering the years 2008 through 2011 showed that some 52 percent of those who committed suicide had never been deployed to a combat zone. Last year, military personnel killed themselves at a rate of about one a day. Veterans are killing themselves at a rate of almost one every hour, about 22 a day. Recently the rise in military suicide was so extreme that it made the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Time magazine. The rate is higher this year than it was at this point last year.

The suicide rate is also escalating in the U.S. population at large: 10 years ago it shocked observers by reaching 30,000 a year. Now it is almost 40,000. Around the world and in the United States there are more suicides than murders. For those under 40 years of age, it is one of the top three killers. For older people it is one of the top 10, though their rate of suicide is the highest (other diseases begin to compete for numbers). Women attempt suicide more, but men succeed more often—probably because they have greater access to guns, which is one of the surest methods.

In the civilian population matching the demographics of the military (considering age, sex, and race), between 2002 and 2009 (the latest year for which we have reliable numbers) the suicide rate increased by 15 percent. According to Pentagon numbers, the military suicide rate in the same period increased by 80 percent. Even this disparity may understate the problem, since the Pentagon counts as active duty people who were active for only a few days in a given year, making the rate far lower than it would be if officials counted people who were active for at least six months, for instance.

The problem is not only very real, but in some ways it is also new. Ever since we started keeping track in the late 19th century, the military has shown higher suicide rates than the rest of society as a whole, but when you compare the same part of the population—considering age and sex, for instance—the military has usually had far fewer suicides than civilians. Commentators have sometimes attributed that to the screening process required to get into the military, but it persists across periods when the military is willing to accept a much broader swath of citizens. A better explanation may be that camaraderie and a sense of purpose insulate soldiers from some of the anguish of life. Across the military and the wider population, suicide usually declines during wartime. People feel united and purposeful when under a terrible outside threat.

Why haven’t our recent wars provided that protection? Some groups analyzing military suicide, such as the National Center for Veterans Studies, have suggested that military life is more isolating than it used to be: more soldiers live off base than in the past, and those on base may have their own rooms and their own televisions, instead of residing in  traditional group barracks and communal rooms. It is also worth considering that the kinds of wartime consequences so common today—brain trauma and PTSD—are especially threatening to people who are already prone to depression or volatile mood swings.

But clinically depressed people are not the only ones who kill themselves. Many soldier suicides come in response to a bad situation: a broken marriage, a financial crisis, legal trouble,  or some other reversal. A recent Pentagon study showed that about half of military suicides had experienced a failed marriage, frequently just months before the victims killed themselves. Another report showed that most suicides occurred in people under the age of 25. Family and friends who have lost someone to suicide often report that the person had legal or financial troubles, or both; that they were struggling with drugs or alcohol; that they came back from the war deeply changed; or that they were frustrated at not being deployed.


By and large, people kill themselves today for the same reasons Ajax does: because life can be disappointing, unfair, and painful, and we often respond by doing things that make us feel ashamed in the morning. The extent of the misery Ajax experiences is in large part because, as a great hero, he expects so much of himself. These days we expect a lot. We live in a culture that makes us all want to be special, and the math on that will never add up. We all feel terribly let down sometimes.

If someone is besieged by suicidal thoughts, it is important that he get help from a mental health professional. Talk therapy can work, bringing real insight. Antidepressants can take the edge off the pain as a person figures out her life. But we can also draw on the inner resolve of the individual, and on the history of ideas.

To save our future selves from suicide, we have to do some work now. Boot camp and additional training get a soldier ready for war. In situations where most people would freeze and give up or run away, soldiers are trained to fight the fight and try to get out alive. People do not often speak of it, but the inner life of soldiers and civilians alike can be so brutal that it too requires training in advance of a crisis. We need a boot camp of the heart and of the psyche.

Beyond the moment of crisis, people do not want to die of suicide any more than the person who freezes up in a firefight wants to die in battle—they are both just overwhelmed and undertrained. The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that suicide is always a matter of taking oneself by surprise, a rushing of one’s own defenses. Like other defenses, those against suicide can be strengthened. Abundant data show us that the suicidal impulse can be of remarkably short duration. The mood passes. One study followed up on 515 people saved from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge more than 20 years earlier and found that only between five and seven percent actually went on to end their own lives. Other studies have shown that an overwhelming number of people who have attempted suicide are unambiguously glad they did not die.

An untrained person experiencing profound disappointment or depression may let the part of him that wants to die win the day. Any of us might get to a place where the sliver of ourselves that wants to die is in control for a while. Don’t let it happen. Inculcate into your very being the idea that killing yourself is not an option. This is work everyone should do. Those who have never felt intense inner pain should not scoff at its power. As the 17th-century doctor Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Hope, ye miserable. Ye happy, take heed.” Everyone suffers; no one escapes. When the bad time comes, it will feel like it is never going to end. But it will. We must think it through now so that the training against suicide kicks in and saves our life and the lives of our fellows.

The reason I say “the lives of our fellows” is that one of the principal predictors of suicide is knowing someone who has committed suicide. We influence each other to an extraordinary degree. Parents who kill themselves leave behind children who are three times as likely to kill themselves as children who make it to age 18 with living parents. It’s not just parents. According to sociological studies, one suicide in a community very often leads to a rise in suicides by people who knew the deceased, or knew of him, or felt themselves like him in some way, especially with regard to age, sex, and occupation. In my new book, Stay, I compile a large number of studies showing that suicidal contagion is real. It shouldn’t surprise us, because studies have shown that with weight, smoking, recycling, and other choices, people do what they think the people around them are doing. Even with choices as permanent as getting tattoos or having a third child, people follow each other. After one suicide, the suicide rate in a given area increases. It happens at schools; it happens within professions; it happens after a celebrity suicide; and it is happening in the military right now.

Because of this phenomenon, suicide is also homicide—you take somebody with you. When you take your own life, you normalize suicide for people who liked you and who are like you. Once the numbers reach a critical mass, as they have in the military today, it is a massacre. We have to take better care of each other by insisting on sparing ourselves in periods of emotional agony. What I want to tell our soldiers and veterans is this: If you want your buddies to live, you have to find a way to live, too. Living through your misery is a colossal gift to the community. You may now or someday feel as if you are useless, as if the world would be better off without you. But that is wrong. You may have made some mistakes, even some terrible mistakes, but you would do even more damage—immeasurable damage—if you were to kill yourself. It is not an option.

True, someone cannot simply decide not to feel miserable, or just choose not to have suicidal thoughts, but people can choose not to go through with it. Consider, for example, that the powerful cultural taboo against suicide for women with small children corresponds to a low suicide rate for such women. They are no less depressed—50 to 80 percent of women experience some postpartum “blues,” and between 10 and 15 percent suffer from postpartum depression. Nothing suggests that they have fewer suicidal thoughts, but they resist them. If women can do this for their children, then soldiers can do it for their comrades, their families, and their own future selves.


One of the famous suicides of the ancient world was that of the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca. But only in the ancient world would his death be clearly understood as such: the emperor Nero had ordered him to do it, so it was really more of an execution. The sense that it was a suicide was bolstered by the fact that Seneca wrote a lot about depression during his life. Yet Seneca never advocated suicide in his writings. Indeed, he tells his reader to resist the temptation to die. He writes of having experienced a time of misery in which he was tempted to end his life, but consideration of the feelings of his aged father kept him from doing so. “I saw not my own courage in dying, but his courage broken by the loss of me. So I said to myself, ‘You must live.’ Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

Many great minds in history have spoken of the courage required to stay alive. It may seem like a very different kind of courage than what war requires, but similarities exist. In some cases, courage on the battlefield is observed by many others and can lead to a medal, but even on the battlefield the greatest courage is often witnessed by only a few other people. An act of heroism can nevertheless be deeply satisfying. The courage to live through suicidal feelings and stay alive will not earn a medal, but it will bring the respect of those close to you and may well bring tremendous satisfaction.

And beyond satisfaction, it can bring wisdom. Most people feel at times that they have dug themselves into a hole out of which they cannot climb. No one wants to be humbled in this way, but it is an essential ripening. From military heroes, leaders we admire, and deep thinkers of all kinds, we hear over and over that real knowledge comes from pain. Living through inner pain is how we lose our arrogance, our selfishness, and our ignorance. It is how we acquire gentleness and a sense of responsibility, maturity, and the capacity for leadership.

History shows us that other eras had more robust messages against suicide than we have today. In Christian Europe, the Catholic Church and, later, the Protestant churches decreed that suicide was the ultimate sin: not only would your soul go to hell, but your family could not inherit any of your estate. The bodies of suicide victims had stakes pounded into their hearts, were dragged behind a horse (drawn)—or, in France, both drawn and quartered—or were strung up to be eaten by dogs and birds. And of course they could not be buried in church cemeteries. Suicides were characterized as having given in to the temptations of the devil. Though cruel and inhumane, such strictures did accomplish some positive things. They kept some people alive through times of suicidal feelings—people who later described the ordeal as a struggle against the devil. We also have to give some credence to what the authorities of the time said they were doing, which was keeping the deceased from haunting the living. Even if we don’t believe in ghosts, suicides can be said to haunt their survivors psychologically. The awful practices were intended to make it clear that the suicide was really dead and gone, and thus help people from feeling that they were being called to from the other side.

Philosophers, poets, and sages have also put forward intense arguments against suicide. Plato said we must stay alive the way a guard must not desert his post. Aristotle said we owe it to our country and our community to live through our times of misery. The medieval sage Maimonides wrote that he who destroys himself destroys the world. We live in an era that values individuals more than communities, and yet our extreme interest in highly successful individuals can leave the rest of us feeling small and forgotten. We must recognize that we each need others and others need us. This idea may be obscured in our culture, but it is no less true for being hidden.

Two more thinkers can be added to the extensive list of those who proclaimed suicide to be wrong. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals that we harm all of humanity when we remove ourselves from the world. French Nobel laureate in literature Albert Camus wrote that suicide is wrong in part because it is a submission to death. He also wrote that life is absurd and that instead of killing ourselves in response to it, we should embrace the absurdity and live.

In recent times, those kinds of arguments, both religious and the philosophical, have all but disappeared. We see suicide as an illness against which people have no power. Cultures that recognize suicide as a morally wrong choice, as dishonorable, keep some of their suicidal members alive to see a better day: Hamlet resists his temptation to suicide in part because he accepts the religious command against it:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! …

Characters in literature often tell each other not just that suicide is wrong but also that we must set our minds to struggling against it. The narrator of Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf says that some people must struggle against suicide the way a kleptomaniac must struggle against theft. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo writes a few striking sentences about profound inner pain and our duty to bear and live through it:

You want to die, I want that too, I who am speaking to you, but I don’t want to feel the ghosts of women wringing their hands around me. Die, so be it, but don’t make others die. … Suicide is restricted … as soon as it touches those next to you, the name of suicide is murder.

Note the compassion of these lines. Instead of taking a clinical, distancing role, the speaker answers someone’s desire for suicide by confessing that he too harbors that wish but warns that suicide is prohibited precisely because of what it does to other people, even to the point of influencing them toward death.

G. K. Chesterton, the English author of the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, wrote in Orthodoxy, a book of Christian apologetics, that he categorically rejected suicide on moral grounds:

In all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.

People in the military tend to have a deep commitment to appearing strong and in control. It can keep them from seeking help. They should know that throughout history people have considered it an honorable act of strength to reject death and make a commitment to living.

The way we talk about suicide today is off balance. We are so caught up in the language of illness that we end up stigmatizing misery, when in fact misery is a part of everyone’s life. As a nation, we take millions of pills to deal with our sadness, yet we strive to seem fine all the time, such that everyone ends up alone with his or her struggles. We read and write about all sorts of weakness and heartache, but the stories are almost all recovery tales. We are willing to talk about it when it’s over, but while people are at their lowest points they are often isolated by shame about their troubles. We need at least to know that inner pain is common and always has been.


After all my research and thinking about this subject, I have come to believe one reason that the suicide rate is so high in the military is the snowball effect. Suicide is so prevalent that most people know someone who has done it, and this normalizes the act as a valid way of dealing with pain. One death causes more deaths, and eventually we have a culture of death.

Here, I believe, is what we need to say to our soldiers:

Let us reject this culture of death. Let us refuse to let it kill us and those around us. It is not that different from running into withering fire to save a fellow soldier. Staying alive is inarguably a kind of heroism.

To train for this future heroic act, choose now that you will not let a moment’s misery murder you. Spend some time thinking about this oath of loyalty to life. If ever a thought of wanting to die flickers through your mind, do not suppress it in horror, but rather let yourself look right at it and know that it is not an option. Then if suicide is ever dangerously on your mind, you will be used to rejecting the idea. Remember that you owe it to the community to be strong, to wait it out. You also owe it to your future self.

Lots of solutions are needed to deal with the suicide epidemic. This is one that doesn’t stop the pain; it just stops the suicide. It keeps people around long enough to either get the care they need or possibly outlast the trouble they are in. In one of his most famous sonnets, John Milton wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” and people have gained strength from that notion ever since. Milton had lost his eyesight when he composed that line—he dictated “On His Blindness” to his daughter—and felt he would no longer be of use in the world. Yet in the following years he would write Paradise Lost.

We need to think these issues through and take a stand now so that when we are feeling anguish, we have a commitment to avoid taking our own lives. We need to know that suicide is wrong. We need to read it, and hear it, and speak it, one-on-one and in gatherings.

Ideas are never the whole story: people face biological depression, cataclysmic financial loss, maddening drug addiction, and awful luck in love. To fix the national problem of suicide, among soldiers and civilians, we need better access to mental health care and a better economy. But ideas do matter.

History and philosophy indicate that people can gain strength from knowing of the suffering of heroes, historical and mythical. When we are miserable, it is hard to remember anything positive, so we have to memorize some things before those moments come. Life is meaningful, and it is meaningful for reasons to which we do not always have access, because of our youth or because of our mood. Trust the wisdom of the ages and wait for greater knowledge and better times. Life will raise us up again. Practice having some faith in it.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, which will be published in November.


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