Green Room

Pentagon mulls whether to prosecute troops for failed suicide attempts

posted at 2:16 pm on November 28, 2012 by

Of all the strange dark questions to come from years of war, this is among the darkest.

“If suicide is indeed the worst enemy the armed forces have,” Senior Judge Walter T. Cox III said, “then why should we criminalize it when it fails?”

For 40 minutes Tuesday morning, Cox and the four other members of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces sounded deeply ambivalent about the complexities involved in prosecuting members of the military who try to kill themselves. While several judges sounded skeptical about the government’s claim that Caldwell’s actions brought discredit to the Marine Corps, judges also sounded hesitant about ruling out prosecution altogether.

“I question whether it’s up to us to say that under no circumstance can someone be prosecuted,” Judge Scott W. Stucky said. “Isn’t that up to Congress?”

I can think of two reasons to do it and neither is convincing. One: Convicting a soldier for attempting suicide might be a quick and dirty way to force him into government facilities where he can get intensive therapy for depression, which may end up saving his life. Problem is, the prospect of prosecution could backfire by raising the stakes of a failed attempt sufficiently that troops who try to kill themselves end up taking extra care to make sure they succeed. If someone’s conflicted about dying but intent on trying anyway, you want their attempt to be as half-assed as possible. The promise of punishment makes that less likely. And needless to say, if a soldier’s receiving intensive therapy only after a suicide attempt, something’s gone badly wrong somewhere in the military’s mental-health system.

Two: Only military members can answer this question definitively but there may be some suicidal servicemen and servicewomen who feel so strictly honor-bound to do their duties that they refrain from suicide purely because the military prohibits it. They’ve been given an order — no self-injury — and they’re going to obey it because they’re good soldiers and that’s what good soldiers do. I’m skeptical that this would weigh heavily on someone whose thoughts are so clouded with depression that they’re thinking seriously of killing themselves, but if it weighs even a little then there’s some deterrence there. (The same may hold true for the military’s prohibition on adultery. Some troops may follow the rule simply because it’s a rule, even if they’re otherwise inclined to disobey it.) Having a rule forbidding self-injury and prosecuting someone for violating that rule are two different things, though. A soldier who feels honor-bound to follow it will follow it as a matter of duty, not because he fears court-martial — although maybe the threat of court-martial “helps” in that it would bring added dishonor later. But that just brings us back to the point made above: Would a soldier who fears the dishonor of a court-martial refuse to attempt suicide or would he just make extra sure that his attempt is successful? My strong suspicion is that prosecuting people will mean more deaths rather than fewer because suicide attempts on average will become more lethal even if there’s some small group who are steered away from attempting it in the first place as a question of duty.

Exit question: Does the Pentagon seriously want to deal with the kind of publicity it’s going to get for putting troops who have survived a suicide attempt on trial?

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