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Refreshing military candor about suicide and war

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 1, 2010 at 5:51 pm with No Comments »
July 30, 2010 5:54 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Whatever problems the U.S. Army may have, evasiveness isn’t among them. This is one straight-talking organization.

Its newly released study on the psychological health of its soldiers, “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention,” is brutally honest about a growing problem in the ranks.

The rate of suicide, drug dependence and high-risk behavior among soldiers has been pushing upward in recent years, the Army acknowledged.

The intuitive conclusion is that young men and women are snapping under the pressure of combat, but that appears to be only part of the problem – and probably the smaller part. The authors reported that only 21 percent of the soldiers who committed suicide had been deployed to combat zones more than once. The rest had been deployed only one time or not at all.

The Army pointed the finger right at itself. Some commanders – pressed to prepare their units for war – weren’t paying enough attention to their soldiers’ mental health. Standards had been lowered to meet recruiting goals. More recruits were entering the service with such baggage as drug abuse and criminal records. Fewer soldiers were being kicked out for misconduct.

Those are all command problems, though they appear largely driven by two wars that weren’t of the Army’s own making.

The first step toward a cure is an accurate diagnosis. The report suggests that today’s Army has a healthy capacity for open self-criticism, which bodes well for solutions.

There’s a connection here to the public’s unperturbed “So what else is new?” response to the 91,000 classified war documents recently posted on WikiLeaks.

Those reports – many of them raw battlefield dispatches – point to tactical errors, serious setbacks, Taliban successes and treacherous Pakistani “allies.” But Army commanders have been bluntly speaking of these problems all along. There were few surprises, hence no scandal. If anything, the leak underscored the military’s general candor and honesty about the war.

One can’t help but compare that honesty to the pathological deceit, collusion and fraud that have been exposed in the corporate cultures of some of America’s largest banks, securities firms and mortgage companies in the last couple of years.

An organization in which lying at the top is the norm – WaMu comes to mind – will rot from the inside out. An organization with an ethic of relentless honesty can be self-healing.

The Army’s officer corps undoubtedly has its share of people who will bend the truth to cover their backsides, but they don’t seem to be running the show.

If only such traditional ideals as “honor” and “duty” were as prevalent on Wall Street as they appear to be in the military.

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