Suicide more deadly than Taliban for UK soldiers

We are all aware of the physical dangers of war, but could the psychological threat be even greater? Tonight’s BBC Panorama investigation suggests that the answer is yes.

When soldiers board a plane to Afghanistan, they are fully aware of the physical danger that awaits. Bullets, ambushes, roadside bombs: the perils of modern warfare are deadly and diverse. But according to revelations from a BBC investigation which airs tonight, the psychological damage may be more fatal still.

Last year, 44 soldiers died on active duty in Afghanistan, 40 of them killed in action. In the same period, 21 serving soldiers and 29 veterans took their lives, bringing the total death toll from self harm to 50. Suicide, in other words, killed more British troops than the Taliban.

This scourge is an old one. One instance of post-combat suicide is even documented in the myth of the Ancient Greek hero Ajax. First world war Europe was plagued with ‘shell shock’, while psychological devastation is among the best-documented legacies of the Vietnam War.

But in the wake of recent military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers in many Western countries are facing the same issues again. The number of military suicides in Britain rose from seven in 2010 to 15 in 2011 before reaching a peak of 21 last year. In the USA the problem is even worse, with an average of three veterans every 90 minutes attempting to take their own lives – one of whom will be successful.

The condition that drives some to self-destruction is known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is thought to affect between 10 and 15% of those who experience combat, as well as victims of other violence and catastrophe.

PTSD is generally thought to be a result of extreme fear and shock: when a soldier has seen friends killed by explosions and gunfire or lived in daily terror of sudden death, the effects can last for decades after the danger has passed.

But some psychologists now believe there is a second dimension to PTSD. In the heat of battle, soldiers are often required to commit acts that would be considered barbaric in civilian life. Combat may rip to shreds not only a person’s courage, but also their moral map.

War is hell

What do these statistics say about the attention we give our troops? It’s a damning verdict, some say: as a society, we have a grave moral responsibility to care meticulously for the physical and mental health of those who risk everything in our name. Every soldier who takes their own life is a measure of our failure in this duty.

But some draw a more radical conclusion. A soldier’s broken spirit can’t simply be patched up they say: it’s not the doctors who fail our brave troops, but the government which sends them to battle in the first place. Entering a war which isn’t indisputably necessary is an unforgivable crime against the young people who suffer (and commit) its evils.

You Decide

  1. Under what circumstances, if any, would you be willing to fight in a war?
  2. ‘A broken spirit is worse than any bodily wound.’ Do you agree?


  1. Pick a depiction of war in a film, book, TV series or video game and compare it to a real life account by a modern soldier. How closely do they match?
  2. Write a diary or letter describing a day in the life of a soldier in Afghanistan.

Some People Say...

“There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.’ Albert Camus”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is it only soldiers who experience PTSD?
No. One in five firefighters and roughly half of all rape victims suffer from the condition, along with many who are involved in crises like car crashes or natural disasters. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable. If you or someone you know is still experiencing flashbacks and emotional shock months after a traumatic event, it’s worth seeking professional help.
I was thinking of joining the army, but now I’m not so sure.
Well, there are plenty of advantages to a career in the army. It’s a challenging, engrossing life with a strong emphasis on community and very good financial rewards. If you think that would suit you, it’s well worth considering. But do be aware that the health risks go beyond brief and occasional moments of physical threat.

Word Watch

BBC investigation
These statistics were obtained through a Freedom of Information request for a special episode of the BBC documentary series ‘Panorama’. If you’re in Britain, you can watch it this evening at 9pm on BBC One.
A strong and skilled warrior who plays a key role in Homer’s ‘The Iliad’. A play by Sophocles tells how Ajax went mad on his return from the Trojan War, slaughtering a herd of sheep which he mistook for the enemy before turning his sword on himself. Some even interpret Achilles’ withdrawn behaviour in ‘The Iliad’ itself as a description of PTSD.
Shell shock
The name popularly given to many young men’s reaction to trench life: helplessness, panic, depression and an unwillingness to go on fighting. Today these symptoms would usually be diagnosed as PTSD; but in World War One they were often labelled ‘cowardice’ and sometimes led to soldiers being executed.
Vietnam War
When the French left Vietnam in the late 1950s, a civil war developed between the US-backed government and groups of communist rebels. An extremely bloody guerilla conflict developed which drew in over 2.5 million American troops, most of them forcibly conscripted. Many returned home after the war’s end in 1975 with emotional scars that never healed. Their condition became known as ‘Vietnam Syndrome’.

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