Confronting Suicide in the ADF

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

dark digger IISince the post-9/11 wars began in Afghanistan and Iraq, leading Western militaries have been plagued by suicide in their ranks. Australia has been no exception and, as a result, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has poured substantial medical and pastoral resources into suicide prevention.

The subject of suicide as a socio-historical phenomenon remains little understood in the ADF. This is not surprising. Suicide’s complexity as a field of study, its long history of social stigma, and the existence of a vast and varied literature on the subject, present daunting challenges to the profession of arms. A lack of military understanding of suicide is further affected by the contemporary medical profession’s intellectual monopoly over the understanding that does prevail in the form of a “disease-model” of behaviour. As a result, those who command soldiers face obstacles and contradictions when they seek to balance the time-tested principles of military unit cohesion against an influx of individual traumas imported from modern civilian society. An inadequate understanding of suicide as a subject in the Australian military hinders a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon and the formulation of counter-strategies.

Last year, in my role as a professor of military studies, I became directly involved in trying to improve the ADF’s understanding of suicide from the perspective of interdisciplinary scholarship. I undertook a study for the Australian Army’s Forces Command (responsible for all land force field units) and much of what follows in this article is drawn from my November 2017 work, Understanding Suicide: A Primer for Australian Defence Force Commanders, which is currently used in the Army.

This article seeks to demonstrate how suicide in the serving ranks is a challenge to Australian military culture in general and to its command and leadership functions in particular. My focus is on the prevention of suicidal behaviour from within the profession of arms and on the cultivation of individual resilience by service personnel. I do not deal with the medical treatment of military personnel diagnosed as suicidal personalities, nor do I address the vexed problem of self-harm that now plagues so many members of the Australian veteran community—these are aspects outside my expertise.

I shall examine four areas. First, I outline the severity of the challenge faced by the ADF by examining the statistical profile of military suicides since 2001 and placing Australian numbers in a comparative setting. Second, in order to provide a context for contemporary analysis, I sketch the anatomy of Western suicide employing historical, sociological and medical perspectives. Third, I examine the challenge of understanding suicide in an interdisciplinary manner in some detail. This is an important area because without a holistic approach to suicide awareness, ADF commanders will have recourse to only one-dimensional medical solutions—a situation that weakens the corporate foundations of the profession of arms and compromises its reputation for exemplary leadership skills. Finally, I make some observations on how commanders might seek to connect suicide awareness and prevention to greater resilience education inside ADF units at a time when society is gripped by a form of hyper-individualism that is antithetical to the cultivation of collective military virtues.


The statistical profile of Australian military suicide

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged between fifteen and forty-four, a statistic that is mirrored in Australia’s armed forces. Between 2001 and 2015 more Australian soldiers were lost to suicide than to death on operational service in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this fourteen-year period, there were 325 deaths by suicide of serving and ex-serving members of the ADF. Of these deaths, ninety were in full-time service; sixty-nine were in the reserve; and 166 were former service veterans. Men accounted for nine of every ten suicide deaths; three in five suicides among serving personnel and veterans belonged to the eighteen-to-thirty-four age group. The number of suicides among serving and ex-serving ADF members since 2001 is seven times higher than the number of operational deaths.

The ADF is not the only Western military confronted by the problem of suicide. For example, in 2009, the US Army lost more soldiers to suicide than to combined combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012, US troops committed suicide at the rate of one per day. Alarmingly, 52 per cent of all suicides in the US military between 2008 and 2011 occurred among non-deployed personnel. Most Western militaries have devoted considerable resources to suicide prevention both in their serving ranks and among their veterans. Programs involve expanded mental health services and the provision of more chaplains alongside a concentration on specific areas of concern surrounding suicide, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and moral injury. Given the secular character of most Western societies, most counter-suicide initiatives tend to be medically-driven and, as a result, are not well situated in a socio-cultural understanding of suicide as part of the human condition. This situation raises the important question as to whether the subject of suicide as a multidimensional phenomenon is properly understood by many of those involved in suicide prevention and awareness initiatives in Western militaries.


Historical, sociological and medical perspectives

As the French historian Georges Minois demonstrates in his 1999 study History of Suicide, the act of suicide is as old as humanity. In Western civilisation, individual suicide has progressed historically from the status of a sin and a crime to a disease—moving in the process from pulpit and courtroom to the realm of medical literature. As a generalisation, we might say that suicide was tolerated but seldom approved in the ancient world; condemned outright in the Europe of the Middle Ages and the Reformation as sinful; and tolerated again during the Enlightenment and the Romantic eras as secularism began to evolve in the West. Since the 1990s, as secularism has continued its relentless march through Western culture, the act of suicide has lost most of its religious connotations and become firmly established as a major social problem and a public health issue.

The most important figure in thinking about the modern problem of suicide was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. His 1897 work, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, is the foundation text of modern sociology and remains highly relevant today. For Durkheim, suicide was not a sin or a crime, but a fact of society like sex, the birth-rate or unemployment, and possesses a sociology which can be identified and analysed. Durkheim believed that modern Western suicide was closely related to the rise of an impersonal industrial civilisation which eroded traditional bonds of community life, creating alienation and the rise of individual suicide ideation. For Durkheim, the risk of suicide increases whenever members of social groups lose cohesion and can no longer find solutions for individual distress in familiar institutions and common value systems. In this manner, suicide acts as a barometer of a society’s moral health: the higher the suicide rate the more it reflects a lack of social and cultural cohesion.

Durkheim established a lasting fourfold classification framework for studying suicide based on the degree of social integration and regulation in society. Suicide increases when levels of social integration and regulation are either too low or too high. Low individual integration creates what Durkheim calls egoistic and anomic suicide (such as despairing soldiers and veterans killing themselves today). Over-regulation of individuals leads to altruistic suicide (such as Islamist suicide bombers). Over-regulation also creates the phenomenon of fatalistic suicide (such as the Nazi generals and admirals who killed themselves in 1945 following the example of Hitler). Egoistic and altruistic suicides are symptomatic of the way an individual is structured into society—in the first case inadequately, in the second case over-adequately. For Durkheim, the difference between anomic and egoistic suicide is that the social force lacking in the former represents deficient collective activity, and the force missing in the latter is the absence of society’s restraining influence on individual emotions.

A twenty-first-century variation on Durkheim’s lasting work can be found in American psychologist Thomas Joiner’s motivation theory of suicide. In his 2005 book, Why People Die by Suicide, Joiner emphasises three factors that contribute to individual suicide ideation: a sense of failed belongingness; perceived burdensomeness from personal existence; and a habituation to self-injury. Failed belongingness corresponds to Durkheim’s category of low social integration that can contribute to egoistic-anomic forms of suicide. Perceived burdensomeness resembles the excessively high integration or over-regulation Durkheim associated with altruistic and fatalistic suicide. Joiner postulates that suicide often occurs when an individual’s desire for death combines with a capacity for self-injury. A pattern of escalating self-harm may then occur in which the natural human instinct for self-preservation is overcome by the desire for self-extinction.

Despite the influence of Durkheim’s sociological approach to suicide his ideas have never stood alone. During the twentieth century, many studies of Western suicide took inspiration from the rise of psychoanalysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud and by the biological-neuroscience theories advanced by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. Freud identified intrapsychic conflict as a major cause of suicide, while Kraepelin developed the somatic school of psychiatry that argues that suicide emanates from individual manic depression. Kraepelin challenged both Durkheim’s theory of cultural disintegration and Freud’s focus on intrapsychic conflict by arguing that the causes of suicide are to be found in biology and disease, not in culture or psychology.

Complicating the divisions between Durkheim’s sociology, Freud’s psychoanalysis and Kraepelin’s neuroscience was the arrival of the pharmacological revolution of the mid-twentieth century. Psychotropic drugs were introduced, with a focus on serotonin and antidepressants to treat mental illness in general and suicidal personalities in particular. By the late twentieth century, given rapid pharmacological advances, many Western mental health professionals came to believe it was now possible to view suicide less as a sociological-cultural phenomenon and more as a postmodern disease of individuals. By the early years of the twenty-first century, a combination of pharmacology, psychotherapy and postmodern secular society succeeded in overturning most of the religious and cultural taboos against suicide. This has led to a paradoxical situation in which contemporary Western secular societies—while well equipped with pharmacology—now lack a pervasive cultural and philosophical argument to persuade people against suicide. As Jennifer Michael Hecht notes in Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (2013), Western culture is now more willing to accept the legitimacy of voluntary death than ever before. She writes:

Today millions of people have no religion, and there are millions more whose religious views do not completely rule out suicide. Yet our culture’s only systematic argument against suicide is about God. This limitation is untenable because even among believers, some believe that God will forgive the act … We have no secular, logical anti-suicide consensus.

Hecht’s viewpoint is borne out by today’s widespread demands for voluntary euthanasia to deal with terminal illness and by the rise of the right-to-die movement—both of which are prominent in public debate in Australia. Yet while medical science has made important inroads into treating suicidal individuals, it has narrowed rather than broadened our understanding of suicide as a social and cultural phenomenon. The medical profession has failed to explain why suicide attempts continue to occur and, above all, how suicidal individuals come to choose self-extinction over self-preservation. In short, the reason why “there is no secular, logical, anti-suicide consensus” today—to employ Hecht’s striking phrase—is because Western societies increasingly lack an interdisciplinary understanding of the subject of suicide.


The need for an interdisciplinary understanding

If suicide is to be understood inside the ADF and its causes mitigated, the most vital step is to analyse the phenomenon in holistic and interdisciplinary terms. The connections between history, sociology, culture, psychology and psychiatry must all be explored. On its own each of these subjects is inadequate to explain the etiology of suicide, but examined together they shed light on the subject and provide deeper understanding for non-experts such as military commanders. As the leading historian of suicide Marzio Babagli writes in his book Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide (2015): 

An explanation of suicide cannot be fully posited without taking account of the results of studies carried out by historians and anthropologists, psychologists and political scientists. More perhaps than any other human action, suicide depends on a vast number of psychological, cultural, political and even biological causes and must be viewed from different points of view.

The most important study of suicide from an interdisciplinary perspective is the American social historian Howard I. Kushner’s American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration (1991). Kushner argues that the sociological work of Durkheim, the psychiatric work of Freud and the biological analysis of Kraepelin remain non-integrated, making a comprehensive understanding of suicide elusive for educated lay persons. Kushner believes that the medical specialisation on suicide that has occurred over the past century tells us little about the most fundamental question about suicide, namely: “Why, when faced with a similar set of circumstances—whether cultural, psychological or biological—does one commit suicide while another does not?” Western society lacks what he describes as a psychocultural understanding of the etiology of suicide. The growing dominance of a “disease model” of causation in suicide has served only to separate medical, psychological, sociological and cultural explanations into competing and mutually contradictory paradigms. Kushner laments:

Sociologists have claimed that suicide is a social disease; psychoanalysts have assumed it results from intrapsychic conflict; while neuropsychiatrists have insisted that suicide is an organic disorder … The demands of professional orthodoxy have made it difficult for a true synthesis to emerge from the ranks of any of the three specialities. Yet without such a synthesis we will have moved no closer to the answers we seek than Durkheim, Freud and Kraepelin had almost a century ago.

The uncomfortable truth is that suicide is a protean event that we can only begin to hope to understand if we integrate social, psychological and biological factors. The need in the twenty-first century, then, is to expand research towards what Kushner calls the “intersection of intrapsychic distress and cultural conflict”. Kushner’s work on the need for a broad approach to understanding suicide is perhaps the most insightful on the subject because it integrates knowledge from multiple disciplines and tries to make the subject accessible to the non-expert who may be confronted by suicidal individuals in an organisation.

It is no accident that in the twenty-first century, several important studies have echoed Kushner’s call for integrated research into suicide. Three examples are instructive. In 2013, the leading Canadian psychiatrist Laurence J. Kirmayer, endorsing a new study titled Suicide and Culture, noted that “suicide is fundamentally a social act, suffused with personal and collective meaning”. In the same year, the prominent Norwegian health scientist Heidi Hjelmeland noted that “biological research in isolation can contribute relatively little to suicide prevention unless the socio-cultural issues are properly dealt with”. Similarly, in 2014, the Harvard medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman called for the subject of suicide to be “liberated” from narrow domination by pathological models in favour of a “biosocial approach” based on holistic programs. “Suicide,” Kleinman reminds us, “like health and social problems more generally, cannot be left to medicine and public health alone but must be examined in the broadest and deepest context of human experience.” An approach towards suicide prevention in a spirit that reflects Kleinman’s breadth and depth of human experience has much to offer the Australian profession of arms.


The multidimensional character of suicide

While a mental health or “disease model” of suicide has been dominant in most Western militaries since the late twentieth century, its inability to explain, still less prevent, the wave of uniformed suicides since 2001 has led to questions over its value. In 2011, two United States Air Force behavioural scientists, George R. Mastroianni and Wilbur J. Scott, writing in the US Army’s flagship publication Parameters, urged military establishments to pay more attention to interdisciplinary ideas of suicidal behaviour—particularly in garrison situations where acts of self-harm are seldom explained by medical stresses emanating from repetitive deployments or combat experience. The authors highlight the reality that deaths of military personnel in garrison situations are far more likely to conform to factors found in the works of Durkheim and Joiner than in purely medical literature—that is, in a failure in social integration and personal belonging combined with perceived burdensomeness and a history of self-harm.

Similarly, the Canadian suicidologist Antoon A. Leenaars, in his major 2013 study, Suicide among the Armed Forces: Understanding the Cost of Service, firmly rejects the explanation of suicide as a disease or a biological anomaly. He quotes the definition offered by the “father of modern suicidology”, the American psychiatrist Edwin Shneidman, that “suicide is a multifaceted event [and] biological, cultural, sociological, interpersonal, intrapsychic, logical, conscious and unconscious and philosophical elements are present, in various degrees, in each suicidal event”. For writers such as Scott and Mastroianni and Leenaars, accepting an interdisciplinary interpretation of voluntary death is essential if military hierarchies are to develop counter-strategies to deal effectively with suicide ideation in the ranks.

With the above research in mind, there are four overarching guidelines that can be recommended to ADF military commanders confronted by suicide ideation amongst serving personnel. First, suicide in the military must be regarded as primarily a command challenge which requires that leaders at all levels of the profession of arms are equipped with a basic understanding of the subject. Second, because successful suicide is usually a multidimensional event, ADF commanders must seek mitigation strategies that are based on holistic counter-measures, not just on single factors viewed in isolation. Third, the ADF’s hierarchy must clearly differentiate between the imperatives of an effective military culture focused on the use of collective force and those of the mental health professions focused on the primacy of individual welfare because they are not, and can never be, one and the same. Finally, the ADF needs to investigate the potential for improved resilience education, particularly among new recruits, and to sustain such education within the high-risk eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old demographic. Moreover, this type of education needs to be composed of several interdisciplinary “pillars of resilience” embracing subjects such as psychology, philosophy and religion.


A command and leadership challenge

For the ADF, military suicide and its prevention and mitigation are, in essence, leadership responsibilities from the most senior level of officership down to all members of the non-commissioned-officer corps. In 2010, a US Department of Defense publication, The Challenge and Promise: Strengthening the Force, Preventing Suicide and Saving Lives, noted the importance of traditional leadership skills in dealing with suicide prevention and risk-mitigation. The document stated:

Ordinary good leadership skills were likely to be a far more potent suicide prevention tool than specific suicide prevention skills. This general principle applies when it comes to organizational policies: Those that effectively mitigate work stress are likely to be more powerful tools than suicide prevention policies per se.

In an Australian context, there can be little doubt that a positive military mateship culture will assist commanders in identifying individual personnel who may be at risk from emotional disturbances that, if unnoticed or neglected, may escalate to suicide ideation. Such vigilance requires a proactive leadership approach that does not wait for the finality of private tragedy or of medical intervention but which attempts to use the positive psychological ethos inherent in military culture to deal with personnel problems. With good leadership, a personnel problem can be owned inside the culture, and soldiers may assist soldiers to overcome what may be temporary personal difficulties.

In a military setting, suicide prevention must involve the creation of a “command interest profile” for identifying soldiers who may be at risk from self-harm. This is important in an era when so many military personnel live “outside the lines” in off-base accommodation, work nine-to-five days and whose private lives grow ever more distant from the salve of common military culture. Yet we must also accept that dealing with suicide ideation inside any military organisation is a daunting task. As the French existentialist writer Albert Camus once observed, the act of suicide is “prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art”.

Even the best preventive measures may not always succeed against individuals determined to end their lives. Nonetheless, commanders must seize the initiative because, within the military, the prevention of suicides is too important to wait for medical science to provide ideal solutions. If the imperatives of military culture based around inspired leadership, comradeship and high morale can be employed to address suicide ideation then these will help temper the challenge to unit cohesion and, at the very least, may decisively help to shape the terrain of subsequent treatment involving mental health professionals.

Dealing with military suicide ideation remains an area that is poorly researched in military sociology. A major 2017 anthology, Handbook of Military and Veteran Suicide: Assessment, Treatment, and Prevention, is overwhelmingly a study from within the parameters of medicine in general and mental health in particular. Weak interdisciplinary research means that conceptual models of risk factor identification that might be applied to military culture are underdeveloped.

While military commanders are not expected to be medical clinicians they are, or should try to be, psychologists of the art of leading soldiers. This is what Louis XV’s Marechal de Saxe meant about command when he wrote in 1757, “in a knowledge of the human heart must be sought the secrets of the success and failures of armies”. Any military commander worthy of the name will know his personnel better than any clinician can. In this sense, commanders are the point of the spear in dealing with any crisis of suicidal ideation among personnel. As the American general Colin Powell was fond of saying during his service, “the day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them”. While commanders may not be able to prevent an individual soldier from committing suicide, through their ability to shape a positive military environment they can do much to ensure the introduction of better mitigation strategies.

The situation is not an easy one for military leaders, for as Leenaars observes, “the military must be educated about suicide [yet] such education—given that suicide is a multidimensional event—is enormously complicated”. In April 2010, Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, Director of the Proponency of Behavioral Health in the Office of US Army Surgeon General, noted that it is often not soldiers with major psychiatric disorders who are at greatest risk of suicide, but those who are undetected and who are afflicted by what she calls “undetermined adjustment problems”. This is why a healthy military culture is so important in addressing individual adjustment issues and why it may provide life-saving agents from within—ranging from empathetic fellow soldiers to sharp-eyed non-commissioned officers—who can act as champions and mentors and help prevent the phenomenon of imitative behaviour or military “suicide clusters” from forming in a unit.

It is important not to exaggerate what commanders may be able to achieve in prevention strategies. Suicide ideation is difficult to assess because intense trauma may have several causes and lurk undetected like an invisible enemy. A 2007 study on suicide completion published in the American journal Death Studies highlights the reality of trauma as invisible enemy when it concludes with chilling clarity: “No changes in army duty functioning were reported in the majority of the individuals who committed suicide.” In many cases, there may be no correlation between a disturbed emotional soldier and his effective military functioning. A better illustration of Camus’s dictum that suicide is “prepared within the silence of the heart” could not be found.

For military leaders, then, beyond the dynamics of the battlefield, there are few more complex problems than dealing with suicidal behaviour in the ranks. While solutions may be elusive, an understanding of voluntary death based on multiple causes and interacting socio-cultural as well as psychiatric factors is an essential starting point.


The difference between military culture and mental health culture

In the profession of arms, mental health issues carry great fear of stigma for service personnel. This is because military culture in order to be effective must be able to prosecute lethal armed force. Military culture is a collective entity in which interpersonal relations are mediated and controlled by hierarchy and rank. The self is subordinate to the unit and to moral traditions of martial life derived from service in war through the ages. Militaries must continually highlight the qualities required for operations—such as self-sacrifice, comradeship, strength of character, personal resilience and fearlessness—if they are to fulfil a sworn duty to defend society. In his book The Profession of Arms (1983), the West Australian-born British general Sir John Hackett explains this sworn duty as representing an “unlimited liability”—a covenant between soldier and state that demands that the former lay down his life for the latter. Hackett writes:

The essential basis of the military life is the ordered application of force under an unlimited liability. It is the unlimited liability that sets the man who embraces this life somewhat apart. He will be (or should be) always a citizen. So long as he serves, he will never be a civilian.

Those members of the military profession who falter in pursuit of the “ordered application of force” are inevitably seen as unreliable in operational conditions in which many lives may be at stake. ADF commanders need to be conscious that the culture of mental health is in many key respects the antithesis of that of Hackett’s profession of arms. Mental health culture focuses on the individual, not the primary group, and mental health professionals are trained to look for signs and symptoms of weakness and emotional vulnerability. In contrast, a military organisation seeks to inculcate the need for what the ADF defined in 2011 as an “operations-focused culture”—one based on collective resilience and unit cohesion in conditions of high physical danger.

Several analysts in the fields of military psychiatry and suicide studies have recognised this inherent tension between mental and military cultures and have urged mental health professionals to adapt themselves to the norms of the armed forces. In their important study Shell Shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War (2005), the British scholars Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely warn that military psychiatry remains an ambiguous field “because, of necessity, it operates along the border between stress that enhances performance and stress that can cause long-term psychological injury”. The dialectic between enhancement and vulnerability demands that stress-management must be carefully understood by both military professionals and mental health professionals.

In this respect, a 2011 RAND report, The War Within: Preventing Suicide in the US Military, is instructive when it warns that raising suicide awareness is not the same as creating military-centred behaviour based on enhancing resilience. This is a key distinction for ADF military commanders to grasp. “Few [military] programs,” the report notes, “teach strategies to help service members build skills that would help them care for themselves.” In order to succeed with military personnel who may exhibit suicidal ideation, mental health specialists require a military-friendly approach in behavioural therapies—an approach that employs positive psychology as a means of empowerment and self-improvement. Adversity and stress need to be reframed as crucibles of soldier-centred learning for the development of robust character and be presented as methods for refining mental toughness.

It may also be useful for Australian commanders to encourage therapists to distinguish between the concept of self-sacrifice in war and the concept of perceived burdensomeness in suicidal ideation. Such an approach highlights the crucial difference between “giving” one’s life in the pursuit of voluntary duty and “taking” one’s life in pursuit of voluntary death. Again research in this area is weak. One authority, Craig J. Bryan, writing in a 2010 edition of the journal Military Medicine, notes, “to date there exists no body of literature identifying areas in which suicide risk management differs between garrison and combat settings”. Some psychologists have called for the creation of “a science of human strengths” based on the notion of positive psychology. From this perspective, the “disease model of human nature” and the edifice of humanistic psychology from which it is derived is rejected. A good example of this type of revisionist literature is the 2004 study Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification edited by two psychologists, Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman—a book which promotes a positive psychology based on character as “the bedrock of the human condition”.


The ADF needs a system of resilience education

The differences between mental health culture and military culture and the need for a positive psychology approach towards suicide ideation are closely linked to broader questions of resilience. Over the past three decades there has been a major change in Western liberal democratic society away from collective values and community obligation and towards personal autonomy and identity. The twenty-first century is an age of amorphous values that are oriented around self rather than a body of existential truths drawn from the moral grammar of Western civilisation. In liberal democracies such as Australia, there is a fragmented and morally relativist culture based on individual choice, emotional feeling and notions of self-realisation.

Many of these individual values run counter to those required by military culture, and there has been considerable debate about what this means for the future of the profession of arms. In the late 1990s, a former British Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Carver, predicted that the military service ethos would be undermined in Western democracies as counselling and compensation came to rival courage and conviction throughout society. In 2000, the British psychiatrist David Alun Jones speculated that the idea of masculinity had changed so much during the 1990s that its future celebration would be condemned by postmodern progressives as a form of “male autism”. Such a situation, he suggested, would negatively affect men in war by highlighting the role of medical psychology over military professionalism.

These fears have only been reinforced by the passing of the years. A growing societal focus on gender identity and fluidity has created confusion in the West’s moral vocabulary about the meaning of manliness. Surveying the way changing beliefs about masculinity and military endurance now operate in Western society, Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely conclude bluntly: “We cannot accept that Roman soldiers reacted to ‘trauma’ in the same way as modern soldiers.” In 2008, the leading American general and soldier-scholar H.R. McMaster lamented that postmodern Western notions of war now spurn the (mainly masculine) literature and poetry of the ages that give meaning to a warrior’s soul and uphold the sanctity of self-sacrifice for a greater good. He cautions that professional soldiers must continue to “view war as a challenge and as their duty, not as trauma”. Indeed, the postmodern idea of military service as a form of psychological trauma has led to a bizarre view, in some circles, of soldiers not as authors of their circumstances, but as victims. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that as manliness—honourable living by men based on self-restraint, courage, respect and dignity—has fallen from social favour, male military suicide has increased. Since 2001, 90 per cent of the suicides in the ADF have been by men.

From the perspective of military culture, the hyper-individualism of the twenty-first century with its accompanying psychology of identity is a potentially destructive social force. There is now a large and growing interdisciplinary literature on the reasons for the rise of what has been identified by Christopher Lasch as a “culture of narcissism”—and by other scholars such as Ulrick Beck, Thomas Szasz, Philip Bracken and Frank Furedi as variously the “risk society”, the “culture of trauma”, “therapeutic governance” or a “therapeutic culture” in Western liberal democracies. The main thrust of this literature is on trying to explain why the twenty-first century has witnessed such a swift change in the West’s moral grammar—involving the fragmentation of social cohesion and the rise of greater individuality emphasising emotions and feelings.

In his important book Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (2004) the British sociologist Frank Furedi suggests we are witnessing the “psychologisation” of life in the West. This situation has created what he describes as “an age of traumas, syndromes, disorders and addictions” in which emotional conformity emerges as a form of quasi-social control. Furedi notes:

the expansion of therapeutic intervention into all areas of society has been remarkable. Even institutions which explicitly depend on the spirit of stoicism and sacrifice, such as the military, police and emergency services are now plagued with problems of emotion.

Greater individual identity has been encouraged by the reality that the material struggle of life that marked much of the twentieth century has been replaced by general affluence, a much greater sensitivity towards the role of emotion and a desire for personal narratives. These factors, it is argued, tend to weaken ideals of social unity in favour of a powerful rights-oriented individualism which, in some cases, creates a sense of victimology at the centre of selfhood.

These trends are particularly reflected in education, where the West’s cultural history is often no longer taught as part of a preparation for the rigours of modern life. Few students today learn from literature to appreciate Shakespeare’s Lear lamenting his torment in life as “ripeness is all”; or Keats describing the toil of living as representing a “vale of soul-making”; or Frost teaching that if human beings are to succeed in life they must undergo all the rites of experience for “the only way around is through”. One consequence of a lack of knowledge for resilient living is that suicidal behaviour is increasing among younger age groups. Last August the Australian reported that one in seven primary school students and one in four secondary students in Victoria have mental health issues involving self-harm by attempts at hanging, choking and the cutting of flesh—with children as young as seven attempting suicide. Reflecting on these alarming figures, the child psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg stated, “this is a generation that is really struggling. It speaks to me of a lack of resilience … I don’t think we are preparing even the little kids or the biggest kids for adversity.”

It is not necessary for military commanders to agree with all of the views expressed above on twenty-first century cultural and social change. However, it is important that they recognise one aspect of contemporary life that seems beyond dispute—namely that there are significant implications emanating from a more individualistic society for professional militaries who remain reliant on a collectivist ethos for their effectiveness. It is vital that commanders understand the influence that contemporary cultural norms based on greater individualism and self-realisation may have in shaping beliefs about trauma in general, and suicide ideation in particular. For those born towards the end of the twentieth century, rights are increasingly favoured over duties as a means of defining contemporary citizenship. An April 2018 prize-winning essay in the Australian Book Review by a former ADF member, Lucas Grainger-Brown, “We Three Hundred”, vividly illustrates this situation. The author rejects the idea of patriotic duty as archaic and unsuited to the present epoch. Viewing the ADF as “an inflexible martial organisation” awash in clichés in which free and pluralistic individuals are indoctrinated into an obsolescing battlefield pathology, Grainger-Brown writes:

For my generation, questions of country and duty rarely enter into day-to-day belief systems … My dilemma as a cadet [at the Australian Defence Force Academy] was how patriotism should motivate me … I didn’t believe. There was no stimulus to believe … My generation has yet to face anything like the Depression, the Evil Hun, the Conquering Jap, the Evil Empire. Related concepts of strong nationhood, shared monoculture and existential unity are only accessible to me piecemeal.

It is impossible to know how many of Australia’s eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old men—the demographic most vulnerable to suicidal tendencies—share Grainger-Brown’s postmodern cynicism and absence of conviction about the worth of military service. Yet a crucial question must be asked: If many of those being prepared for ADF officership, and some of those who are already officers, have ceased to believe in the historic mission of the profession of arms, how can they possibly provide moral leadership to men and women in the ranks? It is more than possible that an ethos of cynical unbelief—a kind of postmodern cult of nihilism—may be one clue to the rise of self-harm in uniform since the turn of the century. All militaries inevitably come to reflect the social influences that are current in their parent societies. As General Hackett puts it:

What a society gets in its armed services is exactly what it asks for, no more and no less. What it asks for tends to be a reflection of what it is. When a country looks at its fighting forces it is looking in a mirror; the mirror is a true one, and the face that it sees will be its own.

Yet while a Western democracy’s professional military establishment cannot be divergent from a parent society it must, as Hackett also warns us, remain different precisely because its serving members—while remaining citizens—can never be civilians.

If some of today’s military recruits become ambivalent about their service and thus more prone to emotional vulnerability and suicide ideation than in past generations, then the profession of arms must rise to the challenge and invest in its own resilience efforts and reinforce its own narrative as one of the great Australian institutions. The need is not simply to create suicide awareness initiatives but to surround these with ideals of leadership, greater recruit socialisation and better soldier resilience programs. Such programs must aim to create a “living community”—one that emphasises pride in military service as a way of enhancing personal meaning. Such a living community must prepare men and women for the rigorous challenges of military life as a special calling and not as a mere “lifestyle choice”.

As the philosopher Immanuel Kant reminds us, the highest reason for living is to seek to act from a sense of righteous duty—to follow something greater than oneself and to discover how to serve. If the ADF embraces this approach it needs to investigate the content of such resilience programs carefully and construct them as multidisciplinary initiatives that draw from the pillars of positive psychology, moral philosophy, military history and the heritage of religious teaching that define so much of Western civilisation. Providing constructive resilience alternatives to prevailing “disease” or “victimology” models of personal behaviour is of crucial importance for the profession of arms. As Jones and Wessely warn:

Any [resilience] initiative must recognize and respect the ambivalence that the military feel about psychological disorders, and accept that there are legitimate arguments surrounding an embracing of the trauma/victim culture currently on the increase in civilian society. The military may with justification argue this is a genuine threat to operational efficiency and the need for resilience.

Nonetheless, the issue of building greater resilience inside the ADF is likely to raise fundamental philosophical questions for Australian defence policy-makers: Can an essential touch of Sparta continue be forged out of an Australian society that increasingly resembles a Babylon rather than an Athens? Can the historical imperatives of a military culture historically carved out of a service ethos based on the code of unlimited liability ever be reconciled with the growing dictates of an Australian society in the ominous grip of a therapy culture based on the demands of hyper-individualism? And is the latter trend merely transient or permanent?


Given the sobering statistic that the combined suicide rate of ADF service members and veterans in the community is seven times that of deaths on operations, improved knowledge of the subject is vital. Yet identifying a problem is not the same as solving it. Suicide is part of the tragedy of the human condition and can only be reduced, not abolished. As a subject of analysis, military suicide remains confronting and mysterious in its complexity, situated as it is at the crossroads of the religious and the secular, the sociological, the psychological, the philosophical and the medical. A further complication for the ADF arises from the fact that Australia’s secular society lacks a meaningful anti-suicide consensus, so social and cultural factors will always accompany medical factors when individuals decide to pursue a longing for death.

In order to understand why and how a member of the ADF becomes suicidal, the Australian profession of arms must first understand suicide in all its complexity. Without proper interdisciplinary understanding, ADF suicide education runs the risk of continuing a futile journey into silos of unrelated specialisation. A fragmentation of expertise will only inhibit, rather than enhance, the prospects for improved holistic strategies to meet the melancholy challenge of uniformed personnel seeking to take their own lives.

Above all, the ADF needs to invest in a command climate of “ownership through understanding”, for it is the responsibility of every officer and non-commissioned officer to develop a basic knowledge of suicide ideation. In order to defeat the invisible enemy that is suicide, the ADF needs a broad-based program of soldier-centred resilience that builds character and develops positive thinking about military life. This will not be an easy endeavour in an era when civilian society—long remote from any reality of war—is increasingly oblivious of, or indifferent towards, the collective ethos that must underwrite the effectiveness of any military establishment.

Perhaps the best single defence against suicide ideation in the ranks is for the ADF to uphold the natural grace of the military profession—a grace that underlies an ethos of service and steadfastness of spirit—and which embeds these virtues in a community of comrades committed to patriotism. Only through a constant affirmation of such virtues can the Australian profession of arms highlight the deep philosophical difference between giving one’s life in the pursuit of a voluntary public duty and taking one’s life in pursuit of a voluntary private death.

Michael Evans holds the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College and is a Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University.


3 thoughts on “Confronting Suicide in the ADF

  • Stephen Due says:

    Michael Evans should read the piece in this issue by David Wetherell. Evans has left Christianity out of the ADF and indeed out of his brief synopsis of the West’s cultural history. In one sense he is not to be blamed, since his focus on the admittedly futile endeavours of psychology and sociology to understand and fix the problem of suicide. Yet surely it is a striking fact that suicide, while it has always been relatively high among the military (at least since the nineteenth century when comprehensive statistics were kept), has increased everywhere since the decline of Christian influence in education and social life. Christianity taught, in the famous dictum of Albert Schweitzer, the great German medical missionary, an attitude of “reverence for life”.
    As regards the moral law, Christianity was unambiguous: “Thou shalt not kill”. This prohibition against murder included murder of oneself. The modern idea that one’s life was one’s own property to dispose of as one saw fit was (and still is) totally alien to Christianity. For this reason suicide was regarded as a crime and was subject to penalties in societies throughout the West, including confiscation of assets and inability to be buried with the rest of the community in sacred ground. As modern Western society gradually became de-Christianised, the legal penalties for suicide were removed and we have now reached a point where the State is actually promoting suicide as a desirable ‘option’ for people who want it. State-sanctioned suicide comes with the Orwellian name of “euthanasia”.
    The incidence of suicidal ideation and emotions may be traced by sociologists and psychologists – but theirs are only superficial enterprises and not surprisingly have made no difference. Matters are being made worse by governments promoting suicide as an “easy death” (to translate the Greek). Christianity, on the other hand, has always taught the immorality of suicide, and provided the community with strong social and moral support to help people avoid this terrible and tragic end.

  • lloveday says:

    On the figures provided, it seems the annual rate of suicide of full-time military members is around 11 per 100,000, insignificantly different to the rate in the general population, but as men die of suicide much more frequently than women (around 3 times in Australia) and there are far more men than women in the ADF, the apparent rate of suicide of ADF men is much less than men in the general population. I don’t say it’s not a concern, just trying to put it in perspective.

    The Catholic Church, by far the largest of Christian religions, has long offered hope for those who suicide – from The Catechism:


    Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

    2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

    I have seen too many people kept alive in misery and suffering by the “miracle” of modern medicine who just a few years ago would have peacefully died years earlier to think God would exclude them from Heaven if, for example, they stopped eating and, particularly drinking, or taking medication, causing their death earlier than otherwise (in the case of not drinking, dying within a few days), viz suiciding. Similarly I refuse to believe God can see some purpose in a person continuing to live, as my best friend of over 50 years standing did, in a wheelchair, unable to talk, write, clothe himself, go to the toilet…

    That is not a case for euthanasia – I would never vote for the government determining who is allowed to kill me, when, where, how and why; they can’t even install insulation properly.

    Ex-PM McEwen effectively suicided by refusing food, as have many others – I cannot see his escape from horrendous pain at eighty after a life well spent in acts of piety and virtue, with nothing left to give, as a “terrible and tragic end”.

    • whitelaughter says:

      Church teaching regarding suicide is important not because it is backed by authority, but because it is backed by millennia of practical experience. Humans haven’t changed much (although the video I’ve linked below does describe important changes)

      Two aspects that you haven’t mentioned: firstly, people always have the right to refuse invasive treatment, for all sorts of reasons, but it boils down to you live in your body, you know what it needs. Secondly, the ‘double effect’ – a physician always has the right to ease pain. If the drugs required to neutralise the patient’s pain end up killing the patient, that isn’t murder, it is a side effect of a worthy action. These points keep being ignored in the so-called debate on euthanasia (which like most such debates, is us being subjected to a barrage of drivel).

      Anyway, this is an interesting talk on how battle fatigue has changed over the ages: obviously relevant to the suicide problem.

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