Veteran suicides — barking up the wrong tree?

“Twenty veterans a day commit suicide in the US.”

How often have you seen this statistic? The subtext is that these veterans are (1) traumatized by their war experience, or (2) mistreated by “the system.” The sub-sub-text is that veterans sacrificially served our god, The Nation, and so are entitled to a special reverence that is scandalously absent in “our treatment” of veterans. It’s not like twenty people a day commit suicide in the US, and that’s terrible; but like twenty of our holy people commit suicide.

Actually, in the US, the average daily suicide tally (not just veterans) is 130 a day, with veterans accounting for just over 13 percent of the total. So let’s begin by sorting through the demographics for veterans themselves — veterans being anyone who has ever “served” in the military in any capacity.

As of 2019, there were 15.78 million MALE veterans in the US, and 1.64 million FEMALE veterans. Nine out of ten US veterans are men. As you go up in age among veterans, the percentage of men increases. The median age of US veterans is 65. Four million of US vets served when there was no active conflict; 6.4 million were Vietnam era; 33 percent of us are 70 or older. Gulf War era vets are now the biggest number, who are entering middle-age — also the biggest general suicide demographic. Old guys like me kill ourselves at higher rates per capita, but we don’t have the gross numbers that they do between 45–64 where the highest concentration occurs.

Men “succeed” at suicide far more often than women, because men use more violent means, six out of ten opting for firearms (firearm suicide rates are far higher than firearm murder rates).

Around seven percent of the US adult population are veterans; but if we break this down by gender, veterans as percentage of adult male population goes up to around 12.6 percent of the total.

Seven out of ten suicides in the US are “white” men, but then seven out of ten males in the US are white guys. In fact, the only ethnic group that commits suicide at higher rates than whites are the indigenous, at around 23 out of 100,000, which partially accounts for the very high suicide rates in states like Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Oklahoma. Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islanders are around 7 per 100,000, while white folks, especially white men, kill themselves at a rate of around 17 per 100,000.

My point is, if I haven’t been clear, that saying “Twenty veterans commit suicide every day,” apart from conflating an average with facts, utterly fails to account for other demographic factors that are hiding in the category, veterans — especially gender. Sixty percent of veteran suicides, moreover, are among men 65 or older, my peeps.

The aforementioned sub-text, that vets kill themselves over combat trauma, is utter bullshit, statistically speaking. Far more non-combat arms soldiers/veterans commit suicide than those who were in active combat; and far more who were never-deployed, or far past their last deployment, committed suicide than their deployed counterparts.

One statistic that bumps up the numbers is also gendered . . . female soldiers/veterans commit suicide about twice as often as their civilian counterparts. I can’t account for this with one cause; but I will note that military experience for women is far more complex than it is for males. Few males face each day in the military with trepidation about sexual harassment, looks-ism, damaging stereotypes, and sexual assault the way women do; but even this — in the absence of individual narratives — is speculative.

There is something else at work here than the over-broad status — veteran.

Among the most common reasons ascertained for suicide are mental illness (including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction, eating disorders, etc.), isolation/loneliness, unemployment, bullying, and “relationship” issues. These affect veterans and non-veterans alike.

Instead of asking why “veterans” commit suicide, given that with adjustments for age and gender the rate of veteran suicides are approximately the same as the general rate of suicide, we might ought to ask, “Why do MEN kill themselves so much more often than women?” That question interests me a lot more than why do “veterans” — as if this is some kind of capsule walled off from the rest of life — kill themselves.

All I can do is suggest a few directions for inquiry.

Men’s gender socialization can be as ruthless as women’s. But part of that socialization is the easy acceptance of violence . . . sometimes even the expectation that one commit or be prepared to commit violence, as well as be willing to accept and endure violence against oneself.

We men kill at far higher rates than women, and the people we kill are mostly other men. Nine out of ten homicides in the US are committed by men. Men account for 77 percent of homicide victims. (Women are generally killed by men, overwhelmingly by men who are current or former boyfriends or spouses.) Even these statistics are too broad. If you are an African American male, for example, your chances of dying by homicide are the highest of any demographic in the US, whereas if you are a white male, you are the highest statistical probability for suicide. But the point remains, killing or killing oneself . . . mostly men.

Guns. Yeah, I said this, and I’m saying it again for the folks in back. The easy availability of guns vastly increases the success rate for murder and suicide. Men own more guns and engage in more gun idolatry than women. Men use guns to kill themselves, a major factor in the higher suicide success rate among men over women.

Finally, and here I’m drifting into psychoanalytical territory, we need to ask, “What is it in men’s socialization and experience that positions us so much closer to the dangerous precipice of despair?” I’ve written many thousands of words about gender (in the “second wave” sense) and the way it perpetuates the power of men-as-men over women-as-women; but I confess that I’ve spent less time — mea culpa — on the cost of that form of power for those who ostensibly wield it. I say “ostensibly,” because it’s not everyone at once doing all the same things the same way.

It’s not as simple as Men=bad/Women=good, or Man=oppressor/Woman=oppressed. The dialectic of gendered power is far more complex and treacherous than that. In the past, and for good reasons I believe, I’ve emphasized the cost of the gendered power dialectic to women and the advantages for men . . . kind of Feminism 101. But we men and women are not like two separate classes (say, the bourgeois and the proletarian), even though that framework has been useful for exposing certain aspects of gendered power. The Amazon worker does not live with Jeff Bezos, is not his wife, mother, daughter, sister, cousin, grandchild.

What I really want to talk about is recognition. We’ll be dipping into a little Hegel here, filtered through “intersubjective psychoanalysis” as represented by Jessica Benjamin in what she calls “the paradox of domination.”

The deep dive (barking up a different tree)

Benjamin’s criticism of Freud is based on Freud’s implicit acceptance of the Homo economicus (the free-standing, self-interested “individual”)— or in Freud’s more feral version, Homo homini lupus, a wolf man — a primal and savage subject, regarding all in the cosmos as his object. Benjamin calls this approach to psychoanalysis intrapsychic, and against it she proposes a model she calls intersubjective, a term she cribbed from Habermas.

The intersubjective view, as distinguished from the intrapsychic, refers to what happens in the field of self and other. Whereas the intrapsychic perspective conceives of the person as a discrete unit with a complex internal structure, intersubjective theory describes capacities that emerge in the interaction between self and others. Thus intersubjective theory, even when describing the self alone, sees its aloneness as a particular point in the spectrum of relationships rather than as the original, “natural state” of the individual. (Benjamin, Bonds of Love, 20)

Benjamin’s thesis begins with the human need for recognition. Human beings have a need to belong. They need to be with other people, and they need to be recognized by others as well as granting recognition to others. Synonyms for recognition in common speech include acceptance, affirmation, validation, and love. Recognition is mutual. Both of us need to do it at once. For you to recognize me, I need to acknowledge you as a subject like myself, and vice versa. Objects cannot grant recognition.

Research with mothers and infants shows that mutuality begins very early. Unlike the object-relations approach of intrapsychic analysis, the child is not merely an appetite aimed at a breast or seeking warmth. The child and mother actually recognize one another. An infant in short order knows the sight, smell, and sound of his or her mother and takes pleasure in her presence beyond the mere satisfaction of appetites

In this mutuality, psychic boundaries are necessarily permeable; therefore there is an element of vulnerability. There is also an element of self-assertion. Self-assertion exists in tension with the desire for mutuality when we simultaneously recognize another and want something from him or her. When that tension, or balance, is broken by the polarization of self-assertion and vulnerability between two people, the love that is constituted in mutuality gives itself over to a dynamic of domination. Benjamin emphasizes this dynamic in her study of sadomasochistic relations, when “the inability to sustain paradox . . . convert[s] the exchange of recognition into domination and submission.”

Referring to Hegel, Benjamin summarizes this paradox as the simultaneous need for the “independence and dependence of the self-conscious.” In Hegel, this is a struggle to the death that leads to a “master-slave” dialectic, because in Hegel, as in Freud and Hobbes, mutuality is foreclosed by a view of the person as an isolated, strategic being. Benjamin allows for a tension between independence and dependence within which mutuality is possible.

Part of this tension is the fact that the other person is held in my mind in a way that never completely accords with the other person’s own experience of existence. This can produce expectations, the frustration of expectations, misunderstandings. In a sense, the other person must continually be destroyed in my mind, then observed to have survived that destruction in order for me to reassure myself of her existence, an existence that makes recognition possible. Her independence is necessary for her to recognize me, subject to subject. Yet the way I know she is independent is by challenging her independence through my own self-assertion. We have all experienced this tension with our children, our friends, our lovers, our spouses, or our parents.

When this dynamic involves a ready state of forgiveness, of starting over, power is negotiated and mutuality is retained. When one ego has to prevail and another submit, mutuality is lost and a domination-submission dynamic replaces it. The submissive then desires revenge. The dominator loses recognition, because his objectification of the other out of a desire for omnipotence (also the original sin) has effaced the subjectivity of the other which is necessary for mutual recognition. If one asserts his will, destroying the other in his mind, and the other survives without becoming combative, without pitting the two egos against one another, then rapprochement is possible.

Serial experiences of rapprochement lead to attunement, and the earliest experiences of attunement— usually between mother and child, but now a little more often including the father — are bound to the development and experience of the erotic, that psychosomatic sense of deep attachment. The erotic here does not mean simply sexual feeling, but the experience of oneness, which presupposes the permeability of boundaries.

Children who are raised in a zero-sum atmosphere of parental omnipotence form powerful defensive psychic boundaries early, which can lead to abject submission accompanied by feelings of vengefulness and resentment. They often have difficulty later in life forming relationships characterized by mutuality.

On the other hand, children who experience attunement, which is a balance of self-assertion and recognition (not permissiveness), are habituated to the practices of mutuality.

Erotic attachments later in life, which can include sexual attraction, are likely to reflect these early experiences of attachment; and some will tend toward attunement, while others will tend toward the domination-submission dynamic. While this is not a perfectly predictable pattern, the sons of men who abused the boys’ mothers are more likely to abuse their partners, and the daughters of men who abused the girls’ mothers are more likely to neglect or abuse their children.

Here is where I raise a question for some future researcher. How do murder and suicide, if they both overlap in any way, correspond to the subject’s relation to hegemonic masculinities — in the case of our highly militaristic society, hegemonic masculinities which valorize conquest (of nature, of enemies, of women, etc.).

Masculinity constructed as domination, or conquest, eroticizes violence. A tragic paradox here is that women in a society where hegemonic masculinity is constructed as domination are indoctrinated to find dominance in men sexually attractive, which makes Benjamin’s study of the domination-submission dynamic, as opposed to simply domination, so important.

In war, where domination masculinity is given its freest reign, there is also an extreme submission to authority, the fear and adoration of dominant figures. This might be anything from an admired infantry squad leader to the Führer. If we cannot understand the submission half of this dynamic, we cannot fully grasp the power of domination and its relation to the persistence of conquest-masculinity.

At any rate, I don’t want to privilege the analysis of the psychodynamic above an understanding of the social conditions that give rise to and reproduce them. Both the psychology and the sociology are important, and they are in practical reality inextricable from one another, divided and categorized only for the purpose of analysis.

Benjamin’s point is that there is more here than simply politics and power. The need for recognition, which is primal, projects us into domination-submission dynamics without our understanding why we act in the ways we do. There are two sides to this breakdown of mutuality. Both pay a price in the loss of mutuality. This domination-submission dynamic pertains to men’s attitudes toward women and to men’s submission to authority in the practice of war, as well as the worship of authority (and veneration of veterans) in militaristic societies.

In gangster films and urban crime films, we often see violent men in search of something called “respect.” This conceit is a clarified artistic version of the relationship between the desire for recognition and the desire for omnipotence coalesced into a domination dynamic. The “man of respect” in the gangster genre is actually a man who is feared. He is admired, too, but for his capacity to create fear. If you fail to recognize him, that is, give him his due respect, he might hurt you or kill you.

The problem for this man is that he can never know mutuality — let’s call it love. At the same time that he asserts himself through the desire for omnipotence, he forecloses the possibility that the other can see him in the way that says, “ I am yours and still mine; you are mine and still yours.” Men, in their very socialization against vulnerability, and against their own mothers — the first love — are systematically buffered against, even cut off from, love.

This “gangster” domination-respect is an anti-erotic connection. One’s sense of belonging does not entail contact, or fusion, presupposing the permeability of one’s boundaries. There is not the vulnerability of love, but a world seen through a bulletproof one-way mirror.

Benjamin notes that in Freud, the origins of domination are understood as an Oedipal conflict, a primal conflict between son and father. This is not surprising, because Freud inherited a modern society that was only recently a result of republican conflicts that were regarded metaphorically in exactly that way (fraternite contra the aristocratic patriarch). In Freud’s psychic origin myth, the son overthrows the father, but then his fear of the lawlessness of his own son compels him to replicate the repressions of the father. This was the basis, according to Freud (and of Hegel and Hobbes, without specific references to Oedipus), of civilization. (No accounting here for the early separation of the boy from his mother — except to praise it.)

The search for recognition is transformed into a struggle for omnipotence — understood as a flight from dependency (real men are independent!) — not by an imbalance between id, ego, and superego, but by the cultural construction of masculinity and femininity. Because boys generally form their first and deepest attachment to their mothers, this is a painful process of separation that can contribute to deep confusion, as well as resentment toward and irrational desire for revenge against women: You made me dependent! You told me no! You threatened my hard masculine boundaries with feminine vulnerability!

The same struggle against vulnerability can lead to a lifetime of bitter loneliness, the subtraction of genuine love from one’s experience, and a psychic field that’s as barren as the Atacama desert. When men can’t meet the expectations placed on men, whether its from this broken capacity for love, or the roles and responsibilities we’ve been taught are ours . . . provider and protector, for example . . . we find it hard to see the point.

Contexts for suicide.

I’ve not given men as much attention as I could in the past except to project my own sins on them. And I don’t want to assert some equivalence between the ways gender — as a system that divides labor and power — affects men and women. I’m saying I haven’t given the psychic struggles of men sufficient attention — even when I’ve experienced them myself.

Are we killing ourselves out of lovelessness?

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” “Tough Gynes,” and “Smitten Gate.”