Veteran suicide is a terrible problem. More veterans die by their own hand after they return to civilian life than have died in combat over the last two decades. We have written about how underreporting of not just veteran suicide but all suicides makes it difficult to understand the true scope of this problem. Has the incidence of veteran suicide always been so high? To what degree has the military, the government, and society in general ignored this issue? In this regard, here is a brief history of veteran suicide after World War One.
The Great War
The global conflict called the Great War at the time and later known as World War One started in Europe. It involved a degree of mechanization and use of destructive armaments on a scale never before seen. Because the armies in the conflict were more or less evenly matched, the Western front especially settled into trench warfare. An estimated four million died on the Western Front and two million on the Eastern front from 1914 to 1918. During this time British doctors coined the term shell shock to describe what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers lived every day in the belief that they would soon die.
The Lost Generation
The effect of the war on those who survived was dramatic enough that it was seen as a social phenomenon, the lost generation. This was primarily seen in the Europeans and those from allied nations whose war lasted from 1914 to 1918 more so than the Americans whose war lasted from 1917 to 1918. Earnest Hemingway used the term in The Sun Also Rises, referring to how the young men of that generation left the war “disoriented, wandering, directionless” in spirit.
The terrible violence and losses of the war were part of why the lost generation came to be but more so it was the meaninglessness of leaders sending men into battle again and again for years. The US experienced this in the Vietnam era when the war came to be seen as meaningless as more and more lives were lost or damaged forever. The same thing has happened during the unending war on terror. Neither Vietnam nor the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts resulted in so many casualties as World War One but both conflicts lasted far longer with the sense in the end that being there made little or no sense.
Post World War One Canadian Veteran Suicides
The current era is not the first time that veteran suicides have been a serious issue. However, this is the first era in which authorities have paid attention and kept statistics. Nevertheless, there is information available from the post World War One era. It turns out that in Canada in 1919 40% of all suicides were by veterans of the Great War. If one looked at just men aged 18 to 39, 80% of all suicides in that group were veterans of the Great War. This writer’s uncle Lloyd served in France in the trenches and survived. He never took his own life but he was in many ways a lost soul, took to drink, moved from job to job over the years. The man who owned the clothing store next to my father’s small down business told a story about trench warfare.
He said that when they were being ordered to charge the German positions just a hundred yards away the captain of his company would have a stopwatch in one hand, a colt 45 in the other, and a whistle in his mouth. He blew the whistle when it was time to climb out of the trench and charge, then he started the stopwatch, and after one minute he shot any soldier who had failed to leave the trench.
Hopelessness and Veteran Suicide
A sense of hopelessness is a common risk factor for suicide. We see that in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain syndrome, a host of other mental heath conditions, marital breakups, loss of employment, or difficulty adjusting to a return to civilian life. The issues for veterans are compounded the nature of a person’s military service. Unresolved trauma from years of trench warfare shattered lives a century ago. An interminable war in Southeast Asia shattered lives in the Vietnam era. And the unending war on terror is doing the same today.
Veteran suicide is a terrible thing and it is not going away. Constant attention to the problem is necessary. Searching for new treatments like psychedelic medicines and constant pressure on lawmakers to provide the funds for the various efforts to reduce veteran suicide are essential.