Can Historical Analysis Help Reduce Military Deaths By Suicide?Roundup
tags: World War II, veterans, Vietnam, war on terror, military, suicide
Jeffrey Allen Smith is an associate professor of history and chair of the history department at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Michael Doidge is a contract historian with the Department of Defense specializing in modern military history.
Ryan Hanoa is a historian and U.S. Navy veteran who currently is a historical research assistant at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
B. Christopher Frueh is a salvage consultant, behavioral scientist and novelist who has worked with military veterans and active-duty personnel since 1991.
In the global war on terrorism, America’s longest war, a service member is more likely to die by their own hand than an enemy combatant’s. U.S. military suicides have been rising steadily since 2004, and no one is sure why, despite parsing numbers with the most advanced and sophisticated scientific methods in history.
At the dawn of a new decade, it is time to broaden the scope of research and use history to inform our problem-solving and the policies we develop as result. Incorporating historical data can help scientific researchers recognize and separate chronic forces from acute factors affecting suicide rates. Instead of analyzing military suicide over the past 20, 50 or 70 years, what if we examined available records and documents from the past 200? We did just this in a recently published study.
While war and serving in the military have always been highly stressful, we found that throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, periods of war were associated with decreased suicide rates in the U.S. Army, something that flipped with the long war in Vietnam. More broadly, we found that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. Army suicide rates were well above today’s rates. Then, beginning with World War II, rates dropped precipitously. From 1941 until 2004, these numbers were comparable to or even below civilian rates. The military suicide rate overtook its civilian counterpart between 2007 and 2008, upending a paradigm that had stood since World War II — and no one has been able to discern why. But history may provide insight into how to tackle this tragic problem.
U.S. Army active-duty suicide rates increased over the course of the 19th century, eventually peaking in 1883 with a reported rate of 118.69 per 100,000 soldiers. Then the rate declined in three successive waves, each occurring with the end of a conflict, specifically the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. Notably, the U.S. Army officially reported its lowest suicide rate, of 5 people per 100,000, in 1944-45.
During World War II, total civilian mobilization and new legal and financial protections and opportunities for service members coalesced to significantly reduce the suicide rate. These included measures such as the G.I. Bill and a program that provided starter loans to service members and veterans for education and buying a home. This helped them to secure their finances, start a family and reincorporate into American society. New legal protections also helped to keep them from being evicted when deployed. And service members’ retirement benefits were improved.
Following World War II, to maintain commitments abroad, the United States drafted a standing army larger than ever before. To enhance retention and keep the U.S. military competitive with the private sector, President Dwight Eisenhower championed expanded access to housing and health care for service members and their families in his 1954 State of the Union address. Improvements to both followed in the years ahead.