War Exposure and Suicide, a Scientific Study

Intro Note: Since I posted this short essay, MSNBC and National Public Radio have been atwitter with discussions of Post Combat Stress Disorder because of the new Fort Hood shooting. One commentator on MSBC I took to be some sort of  mental health expect declared with a straight face that  PCSD is hard to “pin down.” Yes, that what happens: When you call everything “door,” it’s difficult to find the door. PCSD is a bunch of vague things grouped together under one heading for transparently political purposes.

The new shooter at Fort Hood was in Iraq for four months, as a truck driver; no combat. After twelve years in the military, he was still at the low rank of Specialist Fourth Class. There a mystery there. It’s almost impossible not to make Sergent after such a long time. Isn’t it possible for a  someone employed by the military to  have private, non-military sources of depression or anger? According to the liberal media, the answer to this obvious question seems to be “No.”

Pacifists, the overt kind, as well as the semi-covert type,* have been taking a new tack: The obvious, real horrors of warfare are not enough anymore so, they are pointing to sequels of warfare less visible than mutilated limbs. The new sequels of war have the advantage of being largely hidden and of being capable of discovery long after the war has ended. The most useful new sequel is post-combat stress disorder (PCSD). It serves its purpose best when it causes suicide, like this:

war → death then or,

war → death now or later.

The generals and admirals have learned to be sensitive, for their own good and that of their service. (Same sensitive Pentagon that told us that 30% of the victims of sexual assault in the armed forces are males.) Correspondingly, the Pentagon commissioned a study on the causes of suicide in the military. The findings were published in a medical journal, JAMA a short time ago. They were summarized in the Wall Street Journal on 3/4/14. Here are the main findings, according to me:

The suicide rates in the military increased greatly between 2004 and 2008. That was more or less the height of the Iraq war while the war in Afghanistan was also going on. Not surprisingly the Army rate of suicide was 17.2 per 100,000 in 2010 while it was 22 for the Marines.

This makes sense, of course. The Marines are more likely, on the average, to find themselves in combat situations, exposed to violence, than are soldiers. Hence he greater incidence of PCSD and then, the higher the suicide rate. Marines are more involved in raw warfare than soldiers, therefore, they tend to kill themselves more often.
Wait a minute, wait a damn minute! I am toying with your mind; I am being deceitful! It’s the Marines suicide rate that is the lower rate, at 17.2 against the Army’s rate of 22; the latter is a full 25 % higher. Three possibilities:

  1. On the average, Marines are less exposed to the violence of war than are soldiers;
  2. The relationship between exposure to the violence of war and suicide is not straightforward;
  3. Exposure to the violence of war somehow preserves from suicide.

I don’t know which of these explanations is correct. What I am sure of however is that if the real findings had been the fakes ones I described above, there would have been no end of commentaries in pacifist circles about war participation and suicide. I am certain there would have been several NPR specials highlighting and commenting incompetently on the causal effect of war on suicide.

Myself, I believe that one should completely forbid oneself the desire to make tiny numbers speak. That’s irrespective of statistical significance. Here is why: Take the real figures. It’s possible that a single heart-breaker, one, on a single base drove two young Marines to love despair. Had they not met her, both would have been alive at the time of the study. Furthermore, it’s possible that a single Marine officer was in a bad mood for one week and that he then gave bad evaluations to three Marines who were desperate for a career in the Corps thereby precipitating their suicide. Had those two people not met those particular five Marines, the Marines score for suicide would have been as high as the Army’s. Or, a bad batch of dope hit three Marine bases the same year. Etc.

In point of fact, the Marines rate was 23 one year earlier, a little higher than the Army rate the same year.

Small number don’t mean much or they mean nothing, except when they are duplicated over time, in which case they are not small numbers. Here is a fictitious but not absurd example to drive this point home:

In the whole US, in 2013 as compared to 2012, the rate of church-going black grandmothers in full charge of their grandchildren who committed suicide jumped by a full 50%. (The raw number went from 2 to 3 nationwide – In fact, the kind of women who correspond to that description hardly ever commit suicide.)

Here is another (real) finding of the same study: During the period of observation, the number of suicides among soldiers deployed in combat zones nearly doubled. The number of suicide of soldiers who had never been so deployed tripled.

In the usual liberal logic, this last finding would dictate that one good way to save soldiers from suicide is to move them to combat zones. I don’t believe this, of course; see above.

Finally, here is the conclusion of the whole study as posted on the on-line article of JAMA. I copied and pasted it from the website to make sure I did not make another mistake:

“Conclusions and Relevance  Predictors of Army suicides were largely similar to those reported elsewhere for civilians, although some predictors distinct to Army service emerged that deserve more in-depth analysis. The existence of a time trend in suicide risk among never-deployed soldiers argues indirectly against the view that exposure to combat-related trauma is the exclusive cause of the increase in Army suicides.” (“exclusive”)

The last phrase of the conclusion is an astonishing understatement: “The more carrots I eat, the thinner I become. Therefore, carrots are not the exclusive cause of my overweight”!

Still missing, perhaps because I was not able to read the whole text of the study: a comparison of suicides over several years between combat-exposed military personnel and a truly comparable civilian cohort. (Basic demographics such as age and sex would not be good enough for me. ) Perhaps, it’s in the body of the study. Somebody, please spring some money to get it out! My own money is on that everyone would be surprised.

* I don’t like pacifism because I think it gave us World War II among other horrors. Ask me.

3 thoughts on “War Exposure and Suicide, a Scientific Study

  1. Terry: Why bother to make a comment that only two or three people will understand (if that)? You are a sociologist by trade; why not give readers a sociological critique of my tiny essay commenting on a sociological study published in a good scientific journal?

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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