Falling to the demons within

Melancholia Depression is adversely affecting the battle-readiness of soldiers. Photo: Reuters

Former deputy chief of army staff Lt Gen Harwant Singh, who once commanded a corps in Kashmir, recalled in an article in a military journal some time ago how an officer he relieved on the divisional staff, someone who had enjoyed a bright career till then, shot himself a day after he took over, perhaps because he was not sure whether the medical board would clear his promotion to the rank of brigadier.

Indeed, be it the case of suicide by a soldier at an army unit in Samba because of purported ill-treatment by superiors, or an army man spending five days atop a mobile phone tower in the heart of the national capital, it is a phenomenon that defies instant, quick-fix solutions: more Indian soldiers have died fighting internal demons than militants or external aggressors. Since 2001, more than 1,450 men from the army, navy, air force and the paramilitary forces have died without being killed by the ‘enemy’ while battling low-intensity conflicts and insurgencies. Some 90 of them have lost their lives in cases of fratricide — “fragging” — where soldiers have killed colleagues. But for a solitary exception, the number of suicides by Indian military and paramilitary personnel every year since 2001 has remained in three figures.

Experts and former army officers have blamed this phenomenon on “lack of discipline” and “poor leadership” in the forces. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, too, admitted a few weeks ago that this is causing anxiety to the establishment. His predecessor AK Antony had made similar admissions on numerous occasions, but despite investing a huge amount of funds and appointing many committees to go into the matter — there is, in fact, a Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) in place as well — nothing tangible has been done to reduce the number of suicides. There has been talk of setting up more counselling centres, improve food and clothing, provide married accommodation and introduce leave travel concessions, but the response has been thoroughly inadequate thus far.

While some may argue that in an army of more than a million soldiers, the numbers (597 military personnel killed themselves in the past four years) are not alarming, such assertions hide the grim reality of increasing frustration and disaffection among soldiers operating in some of the toughest conflict regions in the world, including the Siachen Glacier, Kashmir, the Northeast and regions affected by left-wing extremism.

Stress, personal problems and financial worries are accentuated by the supercilious, feudal attitude of officers towards the rank and file. The well-equipped DIPR may help in a lot of things, but it cannot possibly do much to change fossilised attitudes that contribute to the phenomenon of suicides among military and security personnel.

It is often said that the problem has remained grave and virtually intractable even in affluent countries. A plethora of reports have indicated a long and mysterious trail of possible causes for military personnel killing themselves in the US, where too more men have committed suicide rather than succumb in active combat over the years. American soldiers are taking their own lives for reasons ranging from the demons of drug addiction to rocky relationships and wrenching deployment in thankless situations such as the earthquake-ravaged Haiti or the prospect of an impending tour in Afghanistan.

Shocking More soldiers have succumbed to suicide than enemy bullets. Photo: AFP
Shocking More soldiers have succumbed to suicide than enemy bullets. Photo: AFP

According to a New York Times report, “Of the crises facing American troops today, suicide ranks among the most emotionally wrenching — and baffling. Over the course of nearly 12 years and two wars, suicide among active-duty troops has risen steadily, hitting a record of 350 in 2012. That total was twice as many as a decade before and surpassed not only the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan but also the number who died in transportation accidents last year.”

The situation has not improved even with the withdrawal from Iraq and the pullback in Afghanistan. The rate of suicide within the military continues to rise significantly faster than within the general population, where it is also rising. In 2002, the suicide rate in the US military was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today, the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people. Experts suspect that the military may be underestimating the problem because of the way it calculates its suicide rate, and concede that they are nowhere close to understanding the root causes of why military suicides are rising so fast.

Both in the US and in India, no single variable, seen in isolation, can explain the phenomenon. To seek any plausible explanations, one has to look, instead, at the interaction of several factors. That’s what makes it very difficult to solve the problem. And maybe that is the reason why not many advances have been made towards resolving the crisis. An emerging consensus among researchers is that, just as among civilians, a dauntingly complex web of factors, including mental illness, sexual or physical abuse, addictions, failed relationships and financial struggles, usually underlies military suicide.

In the same report, the NYT refers to a recent Pentagon finding that half of the troops who killed themselves two years ago had experienced the failure of an intimate relationship and about a quarter had received diagnoses of substance abuse. While the picture in India may be different, the underlying cause — deep-rooted frustration — is perhaps the same everywhere.

Deployment in sensitive zones and exposure to combat can act as catalysts that worsen the existing problems in a soldier’s life. Post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries may contribute to suicidal behavior, but they are rarely the sole reason for a soldier deciding to end his/her life. Indeed, policymakers in the US recognise that deployment and combat by themselves cannot explain the spike in suicide rates. Pentagon data shows that about half of the personnel who committed suicide in recent years were never deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. And more than 80 percent had never been in combat. It is thus a misconception that deployment is the factor most related to the increased rates of suicide.

Earlier, the suicides reported during the Vietnam war had galvanised policymakers to pay heed to the distressing phenomenon. Since 2001, more than 2,700 military personnel in the US have killed themselves, and that figure does not include personnel of the National Guard and reserve troops who were not on active duty when they committed suicide.

Suicide among veterans has also risen somewhat since 2001, to an estimated 22 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

When the rate of suicide in the military was much lower, many experts believed that the military culture insulated young people from doing self-harm. But in terms of working conditions or structural needs, Indian jawans cannot be compared to their counterparts in more affluent and concerned establishments abroad. While in the US, there may be a difference between a military at war and a military in times of peace, in India, it is not combat situations per se that have got reflected in the increasing suicides.

Recent trends suggest that be it in the US or in India, about 9 of 10 suicides involved enlisted personnel, not officers.

The majority of victims belong to an unprivileged section, where education and consciousness levels are pitiably low. Each of those suicides comes with its unique set of circumstances, its own theory as to why it happened.

Experts say the months just after a soldier leaves the military can be a particularly disorienting and even dangerous time. “Once cocooned in close-knit units, new veterans must learn to be individuals again, freer yet often more alone, surrounded by a society that knows little about military life,” says an NYT report, quoting available research. In India, after their often tiresome stint at work, ex-servicemen are a similarly disenchanted and alienated lot, seeking benefits like ‘One Rank, One Pension’, which they have made a somnolent establishment agree to after a protracted struggle.

Throughout his years in service, a soldier gets to spend very little quality time with his loved ones at home. And there is an added problem as well: the existing standards of enrolment are not particularly high, and military service does not constitute a favoured career option. Morale and related factors are, therefore, at a huge discount in the prevailing situation.

A telltale statistic suggests that whereas more than 1,400 personnel committed suicide over the past decade, those who lost their lives in actual combat did not constitute even half that figure. The defence establishment, which is cagey and reticent as a rule most of the time, has woken up to the need to put correctives in place to reduce the phenomenon of suicides by its personnel, but the question remains: Can’t they be doing more, and seen to be doing it as well?



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