The Enemy Within

Why aren't we holding the military's leaders responsible for the suicide epidemic?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The U.S. military is confronting an epidemic of suicides, which, in the Army alone, are currently averaging more than one a day. To deal with this scourge, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that he wants military leaders to "kick ass" and that he will hold them accountable for whether they succeed in helping desperate troops.

But while the commissioned officers and the noncommissioned officers currently leading men and women in combat and support units should make every effort to help their troops, they are not responsible for this sad state of affairs. Rather, the people who should be accountable are the civilian and military leaders who sent these men and women repeatedly into combat zones without sufficient time at home between combat deployments and lowered the standards for new enlistees in order to meet their recruitment goals.

The all-volunteer force (AVF) came into being — over the opposition of the military chiefs, who were concerned that the volunteers would be mercenaries — because so many elites, including many current and past U.S. political leaders, avoided service during the Vietnam War era. Those who had other priorities during the war in Vietnam included presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Ronald Reagan in 1981 — when he was deciding whether to fulfill his campaign promise to abolish Selective Service registration — the AVF is a peacetime force. War requires mobilization — that is, the activation of Selective Service. Doing so would allow the military to give the troops at least two years in between one-year deployments and prevent the military from having to lower its standards to get people to "volunteer" for wars that appeared to have no end in sight. Moreover, given that over 20 million men are in the Selective Service System, the armed forces could ensure that they drafted only men who met their standards.

Unfortunately, successors in the Joint Chiefs of Staff — including the chairmen who presided over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gen. Richard Myers, Gen. Peter Pace, and Adm. Mike Mullen — failed to speak up publicly or privately about what 12- or 15-month deployments with less than a year at home in between were doing to thousands of military people and their families. As far as can be ascertained from their testimony to Congress, nor did military leaders point out to their civilian superiors how the granting of more than 100,000 moral waivers by the Army and Marine Corps to meet recruitment quotas was affecting the quality of the force and unit cohesion. For example, Pvt. Steven Green, who was allowed to enlist in the Army even though he had not graduated from high school and had three misdemeanor convictions, persuaded two of his colleagues in 2006 to help him rape a young girl in Iraq and then kill her and her family.

The military chiefs were aided and abetted in this dereliction of duty by their civilian superiors, particularly Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, and President Bush. By the time Rumsfeld left office in 2006, there were almost 200,000 troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon after Gates took over from Rumsfeld, he extended troops’ tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months to carry out the surge and then sent many of these troops back into Iraq and Afghanistan with less than a year at home. In addition, neither Rumsfeld nor Gates prevented the services from using moral waivers to meet recruitment quotas, which allowed people with criminal convictions, including felonies, into the Army and Marine Corps. At the height of the war, in 2007, the Army and Marine Corps together issued waivers to 861 recruits with felony convictions. Nor did Rumsfeld or Gates ensure that all the men and women in the units had all the necessary individual or unit training before being deployed to combat zones — something we only became aware of when the families of the young soldiers informed the media. In 2007, Mark Thompson of Time magazine covered the story of a group of soldiers who were deployed to Iraq after a "cut-rate, 10-day course on weapon use, first aid and Iraqi culture" rather than the typical four weeks of intense combat training.

Ultimately, the responsibility for this moral outrage stops with Bush. As commander in chief, he should not have allowed his civilian and military leaders to send members of the armed forces back to combat zones without sufficient time at home, or to send unprepared people into battle. But Bush knew that if he raised the specter of activating Selective Service before invading Iraq, the American people and their elected representatives would have asked a lot more questions about whether the mindless, needless, senseless invasion and occupation would be a cakewalk, as he and his acolytes claimed, and that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators.

The failure to activate the Selective Service System when the United States invaded Iraq also had strategic consequences that linger today. Even after stretching the force too thin, the United States still did not have enough troops to achieve its objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously. The Bush administration, in the words of Mullen, did what it had to in Iraq and what it could in Afghanistan. Consequently, the war in Afghanistan, which should have been over years ago, continues today.

Although not every suicide can be attributed to the stress of combat, it is no accident that the Army, which has borne the overwhelming portion of combat, has the most suicides and has seen the greatest increase. In 2004, the suicide rate for the Army was 9.7 cases per 100,000 soldiers. In July 2012, that rate had more than tripled to 29.1 cases per 100,000; in that month alone, 38 soldiers, or more than one a day, killed themselves. And in the first eight months of 2012, suicide rates among active-duty troops averaged 33 per month.

Yes, Secretary Panetta should hold today’s military leaders accountable for helping desperate troops avoid suicide. But we must all remember why they are desperate. It is because of the actions of previous leaders in the Pentagon and the White House. How about kicking them in the butt?

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