When suicide seems painless

Observations on Iraq

Though it has been widely noted that the number of US troops killed since the end of overt hostilities in Iraq exceeds the number who died in the "war" itself, one statistic has been ignored. At least 10 per cent of the postwar casualties are suicides: 11 soldiers, three marines and a sailor, with 12 more deaths under investigation. The annual average for the US military is 13 per 100,000 soldiers; in Iraq, it is 17. The Pentagon has sent a team of "mental health specialists" to Iraq.

In a recent report from a US military base in Tikrit, officials said that in many cases soldiers were trying to injure themselves in the hope of returning home on sick leave, but had been fatally overzealous. Captain Justin Cole dealt with two such "self-inflicted deaths": one who shot herself in the stomach and another who shot himself in the leg. "I don't think the issues were combat issues," he told Reuters. "I think they were missing home and, as a result, did harm to themselves. Unfortunately, they did pass away."

The unravelling morale of the US military in Iraq is uncomfortably reminiscent of the TV sitcom MASH, which dramatised the antics of soldiers desperate to escape the intractable drudgery of a war without purpose or end ("Suicide is Painless" was its theme song). Calls to the GI Rights Hotline have risen to 3,500 a month and more than a hundred have been about the penalties for going AWOL. One caller said he was going to shoot himself in the foot so he could go home. Pentagon top brass should fear a situation where metaphors for disaster are no longer abstract.