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A Man Takes His Life

Recently Aaron Bushnell burned himself to death as the world watched. Because of the nature of his suicide, the location and his reasons. he has become more than another statistic, unlike the many other serviceman who continue to take their life. He is a martyr to some and a deluded fool to others. Mentally unwell he may very well have been, though he felt his reasons, his convictions and his protest warranted taking his own life in such a painful and public manner. How many other military suicides are wrapped in the moral anguish of what they may have participated in or what they were going to do for the government. It’s hard to know. What is known is that human beings go to war, and return injured, even if those injuries can’t be immediately detected. For, Bushnell he did not need to go to war to experience the moral injury that his commitment to the military had burdened him with.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America reported in a 2022 study that nearly half of US military service members have seriously considered committing suicide since enlisting. A 2021 Brown University study estimates that 30,177 veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have taken their own lives. It’s not just an American issue, in 2020 the Australian Defence Force claimed that 1,600 members have taken their lives since 1985. The ADF is a smaller force to the US, so such numbers are significant, especially given that it can be at times hard to determine suicide. If an individual continues to participate in reckless and fatalistic behaviour with an underlying intention to harm or die, the outcome may be considered an accident or not specifically claimed as a suicide. A person crashing their vehicle at high speeds intentionally also can make it hard to register as a suicide, along with swimming in a storm and drowning, or overdosing on medications and drugs.

The prevalence of depression and an unease during and after service is a pragmatic problem as well as a human one. For a military it is a concern to have injured and unmotivated or depressed members for obvious reasons. It can also hurt enlistment and re-enlistment targets for an ever hungry military with various ambitions to wage violence abroad. It’s also distressing for members and their families, not to mention the wider public to be confronted by suicide. The romantic illusion of the military and honour that wearing a uniform entails can at times be contrast to the realities experienced by those who have endured the service. On a human level, there is a disturbing truth to be uncovered when such anguish and loss is widespread.

The nature of military suicides can take on a political angle, the examples of Aaron Bushnell who used his death as a protest against the Israeli government and its war on Gaza. His death should not have happened. The frustration and helpless state of witnessing mass death, knowing that you may directly or indirectly be complicit in an event you moral object to, along with a likely underlying mental unease can lead one to take their own life. Whether it becomes a statement as we witnessed with Bushnell, or in miserable silence as thousands of others have done or as a murder suicide that is reckless and dangerous. Such as Staff Sergeant and Army recruiter Adam Arndt who murdered 17-year old Michelle Miller before he took his own life. Michelle had ambitions of becoming a counsellor for returning combat veterans, to help them through the trauma they may have experienced in war.

US hero, Chris Kyle of ‘American Sniper’ fame was himself murdered along with Chad Littlefield by marine Eddie Ray Routh. Both men had been working with veterans suffering from trauma when they were killed by a man they were trying to help. The glory of war is far from what fiction depicts, it is not like the heroic actions recruiters may seduce the naive and young with and it is not free of consequences. Those human beings who are comfortable with the killing and misery of conflict, who celebrate it during and after and who mourn its end are useful for the war masters but dangerous in peace. They may go on to bash their loved ones, or worse once they come home. The conditions of conflict may transform the mind to such a point that peace and joy is no longer welcome or understood.

The guilt of surviving or having witnessed a close friend suffer and die does not disappear once the war is over. The human mind can at times seek explanations and rationale narratives, for most wars it is not so clear cut as to who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were. Whether the outcome was a victory, whether the death and hardship was pointless or not can all weigh on the mind. The reckless culture of war above all else has polluted mostly some nations politics, to send warriors to kill and die has become routine. While it may be easy for those who were not ‘there’ to move on, it’s not so easy for the victims of war and those who participated in it.

Despite the many advances in killing and warfare itself, the machines may have evolved and become smarter and sophisticated, the human factor remains primal. To die, to kill. What we understand about our own minds and the effects that certain experiences may inflict, not to mention the repercussions of proximity to explosions or exposure to certain chemicals are all unknown outcomes of war itself. Last century the air force that Bushnell served had dropped millions of tonnes of bombs onto millions of civilians the world over. Many men were complicit in such mass murder, should they think about it some may have fallen into madness or suffered mental trauma. How many went home from South East Asia to take their own lives?

Some critics have called Bushnell a disgrace, not because he took his life but for his reasons. The why someone takes their life becoming more important than the fact that they were in such a state of mind that it seemed as though it was their only option. The inhuman digital spectrum allows strangers to speculate and comment from a far, jeering over the death of a man who did not harm anyone but himself. Disgrace is the lies told to those who enlist to protect their nation. Disgrace is the destruction of innocence by the mechanism of warfare itself. The disgrace is that humanity despite all of its knowledge and wisdom can stand by with indifference as children are murdered, but worse will seek the death of more children all under the belief that it’s forging a Utopia or stamping out a scourge.

The disgrace is not that a man would take his life, while in uniform, outside an embassy as a protest. The disgrace is that such a uniform has become a blanket that snuffs out moral and individual dignity, camouflaging the suffering of those who wear it and those who must die because how the masters wield the wearer with reckless disregard. It’s not for me to call Aaron Bushnell a hero or even martyr. He is no disgrace. He is a human being. He did not murder like Arndt or Routh. As disturbed and in a place of anguish like them, he was the better man and did not murder. Because of his politics, his protest he has become more than himself. Despite his death, the innocent still die. Such killers are not so easily swayed by tragedy.

In Arlington, Virginia there is a sacred Tomb of the Uknown Soldier. The body buried iof an unidentified soldier who has become a symbol for the many other deceased whose remains have not been identified. Who they were as men when they fought on those distant battlefields is not known. What thoughts, beliefs, ideals and life they led before their death is also not known. They have become a collective symbol of the courageous warrior. It’s assumed that they were more than men, symbolically admired and respected. Whether they hated the government that used them, or loved it, if they objected to the war they fought in or volunteered eagerly for it we shall never know. They are no longer individuals, only national martyrs. The many who have taken their lives, what their true motives were are not understood either. Many of them did not publicly execute themselves as Bushnell had, they did not take their life for a cause. Because of that, like the Unknown Soldiers, they are not tainted by those eager to declare, ‘disgrace’, instead they suffer on until the very end.

March, 2023

Published inAll Articles and EssaysPhilosophy, Society and LibertyWar, History and Foreign Policy