Battle of the Psyche: IDF Personnel Suicides

Photograph Source: Israel Defense Forces – CC BY-SA 2.0

On 13 April 2021 Israel Defense Forces veteran Itzik Saidyan attempted to self-immolate himself outside the Rehabilitation Department’s office of the Defense Ministry with which he had been in disputation. Symbolically, he chose the eve of Israel’s annual Memorial Day for ‘fallen soldiers and terror victims’.

Saidyan had physical injuries and PTSD from frontline combat in Gaza during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge (sic) in Gaza in 2014. Seven of his colleague had died within several hours of fighting. He had since been engaging in trench warfare against the relevant authorities for four years over appropriate acknowledgement, assistance and compensation. His pleas were met with bureaucratic impenetrability involving brutal denial, humiliation and indifference.

Following Saidyan’s hospitalization, a JPost editorial disclosed: “An emergency hotline received a 300% increase in calls” in several days. Efrat Shaprut, director of Natal (Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center), noted: “Regrettably, we have seen a sharp rise in applications from released soldiers who are dealing with post-trauma due to their military service. Most of the contact comes from veterans of Operation Protective Edge”.

A drastic measure had the required result. A ritual outpouring of shock horror and sympathy was forthcoming from Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Netanyahu was “deeply shocked” and promised reforms. President Reuven Rivlin responded: “We see you, we feel your pain”. And “I am praying tonight with all my heart for [his] recovery …”. Praying? And to whom? That vengeful Old Testament G-d who revelled in human suffering? A special blood donation event for Saidyan and injured veterans was set up in Saidyan’s honour. Etc.

PTSD and suicide is also a problem amongst foreigners (‘lone soldiers’) voluntarily serving in the IDF, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (3 May 2019). More, they are disproportionately in combat units by choice.[5] Under pressure from support organisations (KeepOlim: the situation is ‘deplorable’), IDF spokespersons dispute the figures and deny that it is now a significant problem. It appears that making Aliyah isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And what are the governments of such misguided zealots doing about their nationals fighting in an undeclared war against an indigenous population?

It turns out that there is an industry, a veritable army, in Israel formally devoted to ‘understanding’ suicides amongst IDF personnel and purportedly minimising their future numbers. It is manifest in a large bureaucracy testing all IDF recruits for physical and mental suitability for combat duty, and reputedly delivering advice to army units on soldier management and pastoral care (‘Mental Health Officers”) to soldiers while in service. It is also manifest in a considerable scholarly literature in medical journals devoted to IDF personnel suicides.

Select literature

Cohorts differ across the studies and no coherent picture emerges. A 1990 study of suicides during 1974-85 placed the most problematic environment for suicides in the early period of basic training for combat soldiers, when still adolescent trainees were wrenched from their familiar environment.[1] However, the study took an optimistic stance with the presumption that, in this same period, “the rigorous, physically demanding training and the potential life-threatening experiences and stresses may be cohesive forces promoting group solidarity, thereby reducing social pathologies, including suicide”.

A 2006 study found that “[combat] soldiers who committed suicide had greater behavioral adjustment and motivation to serve. In addition, … combatant soldiers had fewer referrals for psychological evaluation, higher sense of duty and autonomy scores and fewer unit changes. Excessive motivation to excel in the army [a “tendency for perfectionism”, “striving for excellence”], and the tendency to be autonomous and independent”.[2] These psychological characteristics conducive to suicide ran counter to the expectations lying behind conventional testing and monitoring. The potentially vulnerable recruits by conventional criteria have been weeded out (“a strict filtering system” [3]) by the prevention of their enlisting or by their placement in non-combat units, but the suicides continue.

A 2015 review of the literature generally confirmed the findings noted above.[3] The peak of suicides occurred during the first six months of training. As for characteristics: “The studies conducted on the IDF showed that the completed suicide acts were done by relatively more combat unit soldiers, and by soldiers who were highly intellectual, had high motivation, and were considered of high quality. They were also from families of higher socio-economic status, and usually didn’t have any prior suicide attempts”. Regarding numbers, this review cited a 1993 study that claimed that only approximately one-fifth of soldier suicides were linked to stresses of military service per se, by contrast to suicides attributed to family and romantic relationship problems, but this distinct separation of imputed causes lacks credibility.

A 2016 study contrasted soldiers who had attempted suicide with three control groups, which included those with previously known psychological problems. The dominant explanator was a low motivation for military service. Such people also were discovered (after the attempt) to have “a past history of mental disorders and/or personality disorders”, with 40% having already attempted suicide prior to army service. Clearly the ‘strict filtering system’ has major cracks. More, the findings run counter to those outlined above. Admittedly, at the authors note, this comparative study was based on small sample sizes.

Another 2016 study found: “IDF Soldiers bearing a psychiatric diagnosis or severe adjustment difficulties remained tightly monitored through their military service, and were found to be at a lower risk for suicide. However, those enlisted with mild (low) [adjustment] difficulties [and low socioeconomic status], were found to be at greater risk for suicide, as well as soldiers whose country of origin is Ethiopia”.[6] This study produced findings both consistent and inconsistent with those of previous studies.

Beyond the ivory watchtower

This literature is ‘scholarly’ in the conventional sense – methodologically formally sophisticated (“Using a Generalized Linear Model with a Binary Logistic dependent variable to predict suicide, while controlling the effect of intervening variables …” [6]) and embodying a herculean detachment from context. Who are IDF combatants opposing, on what terms and why? Is the chosen enemy relevant to the PTSD and the suicides?

Though occasionally the literature lets a little light in. It is said therein that the IDF has “always been considered a ‘people’s army’”.[1] Israel’s cherished youth is thus deemed to be near-universally at risk (save for de factodispensation to the ultra-orthodox who have other priorities). A more accurate designation of the IDF as a central plank of a top-down implacably militarised state has an undesirably value-laden tinge.

The implicit existential crisis creeps in on the margin: “Likewise, with the IDF’s being a small army in a small country, the enormous human tragedy generated by the loss of each soldier also carries significant impact”.[4] What? The enormous human tragedy generated by the loss of each Palestinian under military occupation (for which Israel has legal obligations) has no evident place in this genre of scholarly literature.

The Israeli media is more forthcoming regarding context, yet naturally is equally blind. The Times of Israel (13 April) has the 2014 IDF assault on Gaza battling against “Palestinian militias led by the Hamas terror group”. The adjective ‘terror’ is compulsorily attached to the noun ‘Hamas’.

The ToI takes some satisfaction (3 January 2021) from the fact that IDF personnel deaths were down in 2019-20. Though in 2020, suicides (and car accidents – suicides by other means?) far out-numbered a solitary ‘security-related’ death – a young soldier who “was killed when a rock was thrown at his head during an arrest raid [‘operational activity’, quote unquote] in the northern West Bank village of Yabed”.

The mental health specialists, leveraging the scholarly studies, have worked on reducing suicide numbers. Control the possession of firearms outside of combat. Train and force senior IDF officers to treat their underlings with prudence and to have their mental status regularly monitored. And engender mutual responsibility amongst the troops. Shelef claim: “The [Suicide Prevention Program] has succeeded in reducing the suicide rate by almost 50 %”.[4] Ta-dah! Working towards utopia – a killing machine with no downsides. But the suicides continue.

Pragmatically, the quick fix on PTSD and suicide numbers is to refrain from on-the-ground combat in Gaza (and Lebanon, etc.), where one is met by equals who have something genuine to defend, and to bomb the shit out of the place from above. Rather than suffering anguish, the vanquishing pilots can go home to a comforting hearth elated. Manly vigor and self-respect is restored in knocking out sub-human neighbors who refuse to know their place. Cherry on the cake – enhance the mental health of blood lust-deprived Israelis by giving them a box seat to enjoy the carnage.

As for the Occupied Territories, what damage can the average soldier, fully equipped, face in arresting, humiliating, beating, torturing, killing sub-human Arabs, especially juveniles, armed at best with rocks? Back home in time for a warm dinner and a sound sleep. Nothing to worry about there other than to tighten the repression.

Just get out, and ask the un-asked questions

I, untutored outsider, have a suggestion. If one wants to minimise suicides amongst IDF personnel, active or retired, get the hell out of the Occupied Territories pronto and relinquish your comprehensive control over and crushing of Gaza. If one can’t stand the heat, stop stoking the fire.

The IDF is an army of Occupation – period. The Israeli mental health apparatus might confront that those with PTSD and those who have suicided have displayed their humanity in the face of finding themselves in an intolerable environment over which they have no control. Voice or exit – they choose, or fall subconsciously into, exit.

On the contrary, what does the success story of the IDF mental health apparatus look like? On the outside we have a succession of generations, if thoroughly dehumanized, embodiment of a chosen people legitimized no longer by dubious antique scriptures but at the end of the barrel of a gun or of the exploded fragments of a bomb. Veritable super-men and -women. And this masterwork is defended by an all-enveloping hasbara, yet one so preposterous as to generate incredulity and outrage in its disbelieving recipients, gobsmacked by a pathetic self-debasement, thanks to a blind tribalism, of its perpetrators.

This formidable army of mental health experts, perhaps short of work, might contemplate doing a mega-scale study of IDF soldiery, present and past, to inquire of its seemingly healthy well-adjusted cohorts of how they have dealt psychologically with their brutalizing treatment of a subject population. Has a master race been produced, forged by trial? Or is there a latent psychopathic time bomb that is building to go off?

IDF personnel suicides are the subterranean canaries in Israeli society. Can one out the damned spot?

Select References.

[1] Fishman, Gideon, ‘Suicide in the Israeli army’, Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Fall, 1990.

[2] Bodner, Ehud, ‘Soldiers Who Kill Themselves …’, Archives of Suicide Research, 2006.

[3] Shelef, Leah, ‘Characteristics of the suicidal soldier in the Israeli Defense Force – a review of literature’,Disaster and Military Medicine, 2015.

[4] Shelef, Leah, ‘A military suicide prevention program in the Israeli Defense Force: a review of an important military medical procedure’, Disaster and Military Medicine, 2015.

[5] Shelef, Leah, ‘The contribution of the socio‑demographic characteristics on suicidal ideation among Israeli soldiers’, Disaster and Military Medicine, 2016.

[6] Shelef, Leah, ‘Risk factors for suicide in the Israeli army between the years 1992-2012: A case-control study’,European Psychiatry, 2016.

Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached