The adolescents in Washington have successfully postponed the budget crisis only for a while, and so we will have to endure more irresponsible wrangling before we have some idea what our government intends to do with our money. Among the results of December's grudging agreement is the $633 Billion National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, signed by President Obama on 3 January. The law is overflowing with disparate provisions, and among them are a requirement for a DoD-level office of suicide prevention and funds for the effort.
It is interesting that last year some in Congress were complaining loudly that Defense Department had not spent all of the money authorized for suicide prevention, implying that the amount of the expenditure is a reliable gauge of success. Now, there are many problems that will yield to more money, but suicide prevention among military people isn't necessarily one of them.
Regardless of how it is measured, the rate of suicide among service members is on the increase, and Defense has acknowledged the difficulty for several years now. Although the absolute numbers are not that large, they represent a rate many times that among the general population. As with most problems, there is more than one reason for the increase.
One explanation is that we are paying attention to it. We have always had military suicides, but we are properly concerned, and so we are counting the incidents more accurately now. We have had a concomitant increase in suicide (and homelessness) among veterans, too, and one reason may be the poor state of the economy. Veterans are much more likely to be unemployed than people who haven't served, and the unemployed are statistically more likely to take their own lives.
And coincidence is not causation, but a compelling argument is the very high correlation between the increasing suicide rate among troops and American involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the era of an all-volunteer force. Never in recent history has there been such a small percentage of the American population in uniform. This puts a premium on clear-headed thinking about how to address the multifarious threats to American and allied security. Trying to defend a huge country with a very small number of volunteers puts an enormous strain on people in uniform, and it doesn't help that we send these troops on repetitive tours to areas that do not yield well to the conventional use of military power and then give them unclear, often changing, missions. From the wide gap between the serving and the served come frustration and alienation, and it should come as no shock when we see the unpleasant result in suicide statistics. Turning our armed forces into an American foreign legion has not been good for either the nation or the few citizens who defend it.
It is not surprising that the Defense Department has been instructed by Congress to create a bureau for suicide prevention, because that's what dysfunctional organizations typically do. When you don't know how to fix a systemic problem, creating an office to oversee it is the easiest way to look like you're going to fix it. And you can't appear to be serious unless you also spend money on it. But neither a new bureaucracy nor spending money will alleviate the anguish that an increasing number of American troops suffer. Only leadership---in Washington as well as in the field---can do that.