A Cost of Breaking Taboo

Deaths in Action, and Suicides– US Military, 2012

The number of US military suicides received continual attention through the second half of 2012. As many sources have reported, the year total for suicides outnumbered the year total for combat deaths in 2012. The chart and graph above are from a story that  The Guardian ran last Friday.

Last summer we reviewed Karl Marlantes’ book What It’s Like to Go to War. While post-traumatic stress disorder is not related to all military suicides in 2012, it is related to many of them, and is also related to many of the suicides of veterans. As Marlantes explains (drawing from deep and painful personal experience), being intimately connected to killing and destruction puts the human psyche into contact with powerful forces of life and death– powers which we have traditionally labeled as “taboo” (Emile Durkheim) or “holy” (Rudolf Otto). In the sense intended here, “holy” does not mean “really really good; saintly”; rather, it means “having qualities of the divine.” While our bourgeois sensibility may recoil at the thought of killing and destruction as being “holy”, it is, in this sense: the giving and taking of life falls into the realm of those qualities we attribute to a god, or gods, or God.

There is always a cost to be paid, for being in contact with these powers of life-making and life-taking. No one enters the Real Presence of the Holy– and according to Marlantes, combat is like that– without being marked forever. As a culture, with our myths of mastery and control, we don’t get this. Consequently, many soldiers– mostly young men– get sacrificed for our disregard for even the most basic respect for divine power. The god of our Civic Religion has no power to shape a hopeful future, because it has no power to walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death.

Here is the link to the Guardian story:

Last year, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat. And after a decade of deployments to war zones, the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse….

via US military struggling to stop suicide epidemic among war veterans | World news | guardian.co.uk.

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