Veteran suicide: secret men’s business

May 11, 2021

“When I put my hand up [with PTSD], I was basically told to ‘f’ off. The second time I did it, I was told I was lying. . . . It does stall your career, if not halt it completely, you’re less of a person—especially for the guys you’re less of a man for owning up to having issues”. A former Australian soldier. 

It’s just as well Scotty’s not in the military. Because he wouldn’t be. Like the insurance company policy of not responding until receipt of the claimant’s seventh letter (why seven?), Scotty could no more do what he’s asked than he could go solar.

Regardless, on receipt of the seventh letter, Scotty reluctantly launched a royal commission into Defence and veteran suicide. What circumstances led to the commission? Of myriad problems, the most troubling is this: Compared to their compatriots, medically discharged men veterans are at a much higher risk of self-harm.

You’d say, given existing medical diagnoses, that’s unsurprising. But nearly three times at risk of suicide? Yes, on average, during the period 2002 to 2018. The figures for voluntary veterans, on the other hand, mirror those of Australian men overall (female veteran suicides are few).

Why the higher risk of suicide among medically discharged vets? The reasons are hidden in plain sight, as are the solutions. That does not mean the solutions will fly – far from it.

First, some background. How high is the number of suicides among male veterans? Easily answered? For our government, apparently not. The sector, say some analysts, “is flying blind”. The current government figure is 419 in the period 2001-17. Veteran Scott Harris begs to differ; he has counted 731 for the same period. What is clear is that more Australian veterans have lost their lives by suicide than have been killed on active duty since 2001.

Trauma forms a common backdrop for suicide. ‘Shell shock’, that invisible injury much maligned during WW1 (Malingerers! Cowards!), is now understood as a psychological response to intensely traumatic events. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as it is now known, affects roughly five per cent of the general population, the most common cause being motor vehicle accidents.

PTSD may affect up to 20 per cent of military veterans (depending on circumstances). Sufferers may find themselves reliving, over and over, the feelings aroused by the original trauma, often relating to direct-combat or dangerous-war-zone experiences.

Researchers enquiring into the causes of veteran suicide – among them, veteran Ben Wadham and analyst Deborah Morris – point to several contributing factors. Alarmingly, some of the most egregious are systemic to the ADF itself. Not to pick on the ADF of course (it is, after all, holding the gun). No, all military institutions – given five millennia under patriarchy – shine bright with every prejudiced ‘ism’ under the sun.

Clearly, myriad circumstances contribute, directly and indirectly, to suicidality among veterans – trauma, poor health, lack of support, and so forth. But here I’m pointing to inherent structural factors. Wadham and Morris say the very structure of the ADF encourages “abuse, bullying, harassment and denigration of military personnel”. Moreover, the institution itself gets in the way of veterans accessing financial, mental and physical support.

To really understand the problem, its solutions, and, crucially, why leaders have danced around veteran suicide – ‘war is hell, after all’ – we must dig deeper. To come clean here, I am not a scholar of military affairs. I study the psychology of gender and abuse, and what follows is my best guess as a psychologist.

Arguably, when soldiers are exposed to traumatic events, something else sinks the boot into them while they’re still down, namely, two of the most dangerous lies ever invented. The first? If a man is not a winner, he must be a loser. Second, if he’s not a man’s man, then — shame upon shame — he must somehow… maybe unconsciously… be feminine. If a man is not beating back demons — including his own — then he’s as weak as the proverbial.

A man who is shamed, say the old myths, has forfeited his masculinity… and to lose his masculinity is to be feminised… and to be feminised is to become as worthless as women are under patriarchy. Not worth living. Under such circumstances, who wouldn’t kill to retrieve one’s honour, one’s life? The fear of being feminine is known as ‘femiphobia’. As an aside, as regards so-called honour killings, for example, the question is not why some men kill women; it is why most men – enculturated as they are into this brutal system – do not.

‘Am not!’ yells the toddler—his eyes filling—to the big boys on the see-saw. ‘Am not, am not, am NOT!’ And his little body is wracked with sobs as he turns toward his mother. Australian playground.

Where does femiphobia come from? The little boy’s fear of being feminine starts as soon as he is introduced to older male peers (typically earlier). For the rest of his life, that peer group will police his gender behaviour and attitudes. A single pheromone of so-called femininity – even if only imagined – and all hell breaks loose.

Of course, male peers are not the only gender police:

“I divorce my son!”, she said. “I go there and he has an apron on and he’s doing the dishes! I didn’t bring up my son to do this! He’s a woman! I divorce him!” – Greek-Australian woman. “There is a feminist march to purge our institutions of masculinity, from the military to universities” – Miranda Devine. “The ‘diversity’ revolution that Lieutenant General David Morrison inflicted on the Australian Army now threatens to diminish our war fighting capability” – Miranda Devine.

These absolutist, black-or-white, all-or-nothing beliefs are demonstrably untrue. But that is of no consequence in the face of five millennia of patriarchal rule. Not just women and children, but young men too, have reason to fear the old men – the gender police – of the tribe.

The lies about honour and shame, that a shamed man, for example, has lost all value, are so ingrained, so naturalised as to have become part of our psychological DNA. And nothing short of consciousness-raising can help us break free. And that would be right up the military’s alley – challenging its own ideas about what it takes to be a man.

We tend to not share our feelings and thoughts as we feel it appears un-masculine and because we fear being ridiculed by our peers and society. Unfortunately, men are portrayed . . . as powerful, solitary and confident heroes. 18-year-old ‘Taylor.’

Traditional ideals of masculinity, as described by ‘Taylor’ above, are increasingly seen by researchers as injurious, both to men and to those around them. Just as debilitating is the open or camouflaged abuse suffered by many boys as they are growing up. What better way of showing a boy he must be tough than by attacking him? And so it goes.

Abuse is endemic to patriarchal systems. And it starts early. On average, eight out of every ten American boys report having been sexually abused. Boys aged ten or eleven made up nearly 90 per cent of victims of church-worker abuse in one Australian state.

In the US, military victims of sexual abuse, more so than civilian victims, suffer more serious long-term effects, including PTSD, anxiety, dissociative, and personality disorders, substance abuse, and double the rates of self-harm and suicide attempts.

Abused boys and men often blame themselves for being attacked, just as they might blame women as ‘asking for’ sexual assault. Following the same logic, the boys see their own unconscious ‘femininity’ as responsible – after all, why would a man assault me unless something about me attracted him?

Could the way that many military men think about masculinity be a factor, along with PTSD, in provoking suicidal feelings

We are born into our culture as fish are into water. Though permeated by it, we cannot see it. Just as fish do not ask, ‘Where is the sea?’, we do not ask, ‘Where is this system you speak of? This is just the way things are’.

Look, really look, at this system. It rests on the toxic notion that the female is a ‘mutilated male’(Aristotle) or is simply naturally inferior (Freud). The lie has run deep in warrior’s veins for at least five millennia. The system says weakness equals feminine. Hence, whenever men experience trauma or PTSD, they are at risk of interpreting their natural human responses – fear, horror, disgust, helplessness, rage, and so forth – as weakness.

By the above logic, a medical discharge signifies weakness, and the man may see himself as having been intolerably feminised by his physical or mental injury. The shame may lead him to attack what he perceives to be the feminine in himself (self-harm or suicide) or, for example, in his partner. Aman in this situation is at risk of tearing into himself and/or those closest to him.

Returning to the question of solutions, why are our leaders unlikely to action the recommendations of veterans and analysts? Men who begin to question their own enculturation as men will inevitably question the culture itself. Our military leaders fear that ditching its honour-and-shame mentality – which is central to its traditional functioning – will eventually bring the entire edifice crashing down.

As with Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s past inquiry into the ADF’s treatment of women, the fear is palpable. Said soldier-turned-MP, Phillip Thompson, recently: The ADF has ‘gone a little bit woke over the past few years’.

Blame former Chief of Army Morrison, I say. More generous souls said he’d been woke, that is, he had his consciousness about sexism raised. Morrison’s enemies said he’d been feminised by his fireside chats over tea and scones with Liz ‘Medusa’ Broderick.

Murdoch journo Miranda Devine said Morrison had been… no, not Rogered, but rather, ‘Brodericked’. And, said Devine, ‘next to be “Brodericked” was the AFP’: ‘Take a male institution, add a sexism scandal, and call Broderick & Co to the rescue’.

MP Thompson’s ‘little bit woke’ worry is standard-issue brotherhood anxiety about what civil society can do to military men. Civil society, says Wadham, is “the military’s feminine”. So, wouldn’t delving into the femiphobic core of the matter radically destabilise the institution itself?

What institution of masculine honour wants to confront its own fear of being weakened, feminised and thereby made worthless in the eyes of men? A psychologist would say, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway. Plenty have, and they’ve lived to fight another day. How else will we mature as a species?’Perhaps the military will make an appointment.

And, as a nation, could we move away from imperialist aggression and the coalitions of the killing to adopt the perfectly honourable defensive position that many nations do? Would these solutions satisfy those of imperialist bent – the old femiphobic men of the tribe? Would Scotty go solar?

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