The President spoke to thousands of cadets at West Point on Tuesday and, as anticipated, announced the deployment of another 30,000 troops starting after the first of the year.
Cameras scanned the crowded auditorium where the speech was delivered. One could see the fresh, if sombre faces of those who have chosen the military as their career, and will soon be called upon to join the front lines an ever-expanding battlefield thousands of miles away.
Forgetting, for a moment, whether or not the World Trade Center was attacked by Afghanistan in 2001, and forgetting whether or not it was Al Qaeda or the Taliban who attacked us; forgetting, too, whether Al Qaeda is even in Afghanistan, and overlooking the quintessential question — how can any serious effort at counterinsurgency not at least partially include Pakistan, one’s focus was inextricably drawn not to those were present to hear this latest war speech, but those who were absent.
Looking around the auditorium at West Point, what one didn’t see are the faces of those service men and women who, in a moment of anguish, ended their lives while on duty in Iraq, and Afghanistan. What is not factored into military service is what the Defense Department has tried to sweep under the rug, over the past eight plus years, the fact that the suicide rate over the past decade among combat forces has reached record levels. And, while efforts at containment appear to be working, combat suicides in 2008 will be the highest yet.
When called upon to send condolence letters to families of those who have served their country honorably, and given their lives in military service, the President will not be writing a personal letter to loved ones of those who committed suicide. So far this year, there have been more than 60 confirmed suicides in the Army alone. In a culture of machismo, despair is seen as a sign of weakness. By not acknowledging the service of those who have succumbed to despair, the subliminal message is “stay tough out there,” but toughness is not synonymous with insensitivity. Indeed, insensitivity, and feelings of invulnerability often lead to the kinds of abuses by interrogators at Abu Ghraib.
Being in touch with the reality of armed conflict can only lead to despair. Being called upon for protracted, and repeat tours of duty often does result, understandably, in depression.
When President Obama addressed those spanking clean uniforms at West Point, he was not addressing a group of pawns on a global chessboard. This speech was not intended to be a pep rally for a Special Ops videogame. These are not toy soldiers. They are young men and women prepared to die for their country and, more precisely, for the illusion that they’re dying for their country. The commmander-in-chief owes it to them to acknowledge their efforts, great or small, even those whose disillusionment has led them to turn their weapons on themselves.
The White House has said that not sending letters to families of soldiers who have committed suicide is longstanding policy, and one that is not of their making, but it is an egregious policy that needs to be overturned. All this policy does is transfer feelings of hopelessness, worthless, and disenfranchisement from the fallen service member to loved ones back home.
And, factoring out the whys and wherefores, whether this administration is telling the truth or not about the reasons for U.S. involvement in the region, as long as there are any troops going to war at all, it is just and reasonable for the commander-in-chief to formally acknowledge, and honor, all those who have served this country, even those trapped in a cross fire not of their making.
JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.