Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thankfully, do not have to face the kind of opprobrium that an earlier generation of Vietnam veterans encountered. But there is still a tendency to pathologize vets, to assume that they are victims of a sinister system, innocents who have been sent into battle against their will and forced to pay a high cost.
Take the surge of concern about military suicides. The problem is a real one—the suicide rate is rising in the ranks of the military—but let’s not get carried away. Given the demographics of the military (young white males are one of the population groups most likely to commit suicide) and the easy availability of lethal weapons, one might expect that the suicide rate in the military would at least be higher than in the general population. That’s not the case. As this New York Times article notes: “In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.”
Nor is it the case, as widely assumed, that most service members who commit suicide are traumatized combat vets. As the Times article further notes: “Pentagon data show that in recent years about half of service members who committed suicide never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. And more than 80 percent had never been in combat.”
Then there is the problem of sexual assault in the military. No doubt the issue is a serious one, but is it really the case that women in the military are more likely to be assaulted than those in civilian life? It’s hard to say for sure because statistics in this area are suspect, but isn’t it possible—even likely—that the military is simply better about tracking the problem than is civilian society?
I do not mean to minimize the problems of suicide and sexual assault, nor do I mean to deny the problems caused by post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is no doubt that many who have been in combat will bear the psychological scars for years to come and they deserve our sympathy and compassion along with the best treatment available. But I worry that by hyping these issues—while neglecting by comparison the daily acts of heroism and self-sacrifice performed by our service personnel—the media foster the image of soldiers as crazy or criminal. That is about as far from reality as it is possible to get.