While the current push for a royal commission into the alarming spate of veteran suicides will most likely result in a big payday for the legal profession, it would probably deliver a negligible result for veterans and a poor result for taxpayers. Alternatively, Mark Latham’s suggestion to appoint Tony Abbott to conduct an enquiry into the suicides has merit and would probably be more beneficial for veterans and taxpayers. Regardless, I fear that whoever is chosen to conduct the enquiry will look primarily at poor service delivery by the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs post deployment, rather than look deeper for the root causes.
So why are contemporary veterans killing themselves at such an alarming rate? To help us answer this we can compare the ADF’s recent record in the Middle East with the Anzacs in WW1. 331,781 men were sent overseas as part of the AIF. Of these, 210,000 or approximately 64.8% men became casualties and 61,519, or approximately 18.5% were killed or died of wounds. In contrast approximately 26,000 ADF personnel have been sent to Afghanistan. Of these less than 302 personnel, or 1.2% became casualties and 41, or 0.16% have been killed. A much smaller contingent served in Iraq with no combat deaths.
According to the newly elected member for Herbert, Phillip Thompson, a former soldier and veteran advocate before he was elected to parliament, the number of suicides among Middle East veterans has now reached 500 and constitutes a crisis. The statistics are stark. The number of veteran suicides is over 10 times the amount of combat deaths over the same period. This comparison is relevant because it shows that the contemporary soldier is far more likely to die from his own hand than that of the enemy. No doubt suicide was an issue for returning Anzacs back in the day but it was never the “crisis” it is now.
That suicide among veterans is more prevalent today appears curious, because there can be no doubt that the Anzacs did it far harder than contemporary veterans, a large portion of whom have never seen a shot fired in anger. The Anzacs had to cope with one in five of their mates being killed, contemporary veterans do not. The Anzacs had to cope with over half of them being wounded, contemporary veterans do not. The Anzacs had to cope with massed artillery, trench warfare, bayonet charges, flame-throwers and poison gas, contemporary veterans do not. The Anzacs had to cope with primitive and slow casualty evacuation, contemporary veterans have helicopters. The Anzacs had to cope with deploying overseas for years without a known date of return to Australia, contemporary veterans deploy overseas for six or eight months, have a fixed return date and regular communication with loved ones at home.
I’ll pause here to acknowledge that each suicide is an individual act with deeply personal reasons for each veteran. I am commentating on the overall trend, not any individual. So why is it that contemporary veterans apparently do not cope with war as well as previous generations?
It is a direct result of the emasculation of the Army.
With the exception of Special Forces, Australia no longer sends soldiers to war, rather, we send civilians with military skills. Since 1985 females have trained alongside male recruits in the Army and standards have lowered considerably to facilitate this. Back in the day when men joined the army, they were taught from day one that their individual aspirations took second place to those of the Army. They had to do any job the Army wanted them to do and go wherever the Army sent them. Training was hard, taught men to kill without hesitation and left them in no doubt about the nature of war. Not anymore. Female recruits can choose when they join, can sign on for half the commitment of male recruits and can even choose the location of their first posting. This from the Army website:
Today’s Army is a modern and forward-thinking organisation. We recognise that all personnel have an equal right to training and opportunities for advancement; and that the desire to raise a family should not impede career development. We offer flexible employment arrangements including part-time work and extended leave to accommodate changes in circumstances.
There you have it. The Army is no longer a war-fighting organisation. Mollycoddling female soldiers is more important than realistic training for war. While not all the benefits mentioned above are available to male recruits, the female-friendly policies have changed the culture of almost the entire ADF (with the exception of SF). Human rights and benevolence are emphasised more than killing the enemy. Victory in war is no longer mentioned and death symbology has been banned. According to the current Chief of the Defence Force, the purpose of the Army is to “employ violence with humility always and compassion where possible.” Compare that claptrap with General Patton’s speech to his 3rd Army prior to the invasion of Europe:
We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to rip out their living goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun cocksuckers by the bushel-fucking-basket.
Unfortunately, there is no place for a war-winning general in today’s Army.
Contemporary soldiers are technically proficient at handling military equipment but incapable of coping with the reality of warfare. The exception to this is Special Force units such as SASR, who experienced the most combat in Afghanistan and Iraq but have had few, if any, instances of veteran suicide. Unlike the majority of ADF veterans, those men have been prepared for combat and understand the nature of war.
While the emasculation of the ADF is the primary cause of veteran suicides, there are other contributing factors:
- The legalisation of warfare.
For the Anzacs, warfare was a simple albeit dangerous task. Their job was to kill or capture the enemy in order to win the war and they were backed by their leaders and government to achieve this. Military police kept order when the soldiers were on leave but did not police them on the battlefield. Military law was maintained by their commanders and lawyers were not required to investigate soldier’s conduct during combat.
Since then, lawyers have gained a far greater role in the ADF. Military and government leaders are more concerned that soldiers conduct warfare under strict legal rules than they are with such outdated concepts as ‘victory’. For the majority of contemporary veterans, their task on the battlefield isn’t as dangerous as it was for the Anzacs, however killing and capturing the enemy is now far more fraught legally. Soldiers are issued with cards detailing when they can and cannot shoot the enemy. If they get it wrong in the heat of combat, they will draw the attention of the ADF Investigative Service, who will deploy to conduct investigations in country. A new legal position, the Director of Military Prosecutions, was established in 2009 to prosecute Australian soldiers (but with no interest in prosecuting the enemy). Shortly after the DMP was established, two Commandos were investigated and charged with manslaughter in Afghanistan for combat action that in any previous war would not have required legal investigation. The case was thrown out two years later, but the precedence had been set. Soldiers must walk on eggshells in combat, because they now know that their leadership treats the battlefield as a crime scene with Australian soldiers as the only potential criminals. The Brereton inquiry into alleged ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan, now into its fourth year, is another example of this pathetic legal mindset among military leaders.
- The effect of publicity about veteran mental health on job prospects.
ABC hit-jobs on Special Forces aside, the treatment of contemporary veterans by the media and public has largely been sympathetic. This is because of the general tendency to portray all contemporary veterans as victims of war themselves. Stories on veteran’s mental health appear regularly in the media. The number of veteran’s welfare organisations has ballooned and most get regular publicity. This leaves the public with the impression that the majority of veterans have mental health problems, with the result that businesses looking for employees tend not to employ anyone with such baggage.
- Government bureaucracy.
The most common complaint from veterans is that they have been denied help by either the Army or DVA after their deployment. This despite the fact that the Army now has more psychiatric support than at any time in its history. Psychological assessment is compulsory for soldiers pre and post deployment. Nevertheless, it would appear that the proliferation of psychiatric support is having limited effect on mental health problems among veterans.
The DVA is a typical bureaucracy in that process seems to trump results in most publicised cases. While we should not forget that it has a responsibility to the taxpayers for the funds it administers, there is undoubtedly room for improvement with its service delivery. No doubt Army and DVA bureaucracy will be the primary subject of any inquiry held into veteran suicide. Providing better services for veterans is a laudable aim, however it will not fix the problem. To do that, the Army must stop behaving like a feminist organisation, revert to training men properly for war, and send all lawyers and investigators home.