The Fraught Task of Explaining Suicides in the Israeli Army

The usual reason given for soldiers' suicides is emotional problems that went unnoticed. That explanation exacts a steep price

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A military cemetery in Jerusalem this week, before Memorial Day.
A military cemetery in Jerusalem this week, before Memorial Day. Credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
Nitzan Rothem
Nitzan Rothem

Memorial Day sanctifies the ethos of soldiers’ self-sacrifice, which is a heroic and noble contribution to society and state. Yet not all deaths of soldiers are compatible with this ethos.

Suicide is a military death that has no justification and carries no glory. A soldier who kills himself (or herself) seems to have misappropriated his mission. He is deserting his family and friends, just when he is supposed to fulfill his national duty. In fact, his death will likely cause shock among his fellow soldiers, discomfort within the military establishment, and disquiet among the grieving parents and the public.

How is the Israeli public to negotiate this tension – between the belonging and solidarity embedded in the IDF, and the immense alienation expressed by suicide? How do we explain to ourselves that, instead of unselfishly protecting us, there are soldiers who kill themselves?

The invention of ‘suicidality’

There have been attempts in Israeli society to offer explanations for suicides in the military, which at the same time protect the social order, which assumes that soldiers are committed to society – and that society safeguards its soldiers. The concept of “suicidality” allows for such an explanation. First appearing some two decades ago, suicidality conveys the idea of suicide as a consequence of mental illness, not as an intentional, controllable act undertaken as a response to institutional and social experience.

The definition of “suicidality”— in both the military and civic contexts — is elusive and inadequate. It suggests a type of mental disorder, perhaps congenital though perhaps not, perhaps curable though perhaps not. There’s a lot of “perhaps” in the notion of suicidality.

We have become accustomed to using the term 'suicidal,' even though professionals in the therapeutic realm are not agreed that any such illness exists.

What makes a soldier suicidal? Is it enough that he is contemplating suicide? And when do thoughts about death cross the line? Is he suicidal when he conducts gloomy conversations with friends, aims his weapon at his chin? What about writing farewell letters to friends and family before embarking on a mission in enemy territory? Is that a completely different story?

We have become accustomed to using the term “suicidal,” even though professionals in the therapeutic realm are not agreed that any such illness exists. The latest edition of the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, from 2013, does not categorize suicidality as a syndrome or disorder, only as a possible symptom of other mental disorders, such as depression. In the manual’s third section, which compiles proposed criteria not intended for clinical use, the idea of “suicidal behavior disorder” appears. This suggested disorder is restricted to serious attempts at suicide; that is, those who support it are careful to distinguish between life-endangering behavior and “suicidal” thoughts.

In fact, no connection has yet been found between the act of suicide itself and the idea that there is a suicidal illness that begins with thoughts about death, continues with self-harm, is aggravated by suicide attempts and may end in the taking of one’s life. But suicidality has become a self-evident concept, and researchers who study it receive budgets for their studies. Additionally, in Israel, the label of “suicidal” is used to classify adolescents and soldiers. Diagnosing people who supposedly manifest symptoms of this illness renders suicidality a personal and societal reality.

Unrequited love

The notable presence of suicidality in public discourse in Israel reminds us that the subject of suicide among soldiers is not off-limits. In fact, the frequent claim that the media avoid covering the subject is misleading: It is acceptable to discuss the phenomenon as long as one relates to suicide as the result of a personal problem; less acceptable are interpretations that link self-killing with heroism, autonomy or choice.

Although suicidality is not formally recognized as a disorder, its alleged existence permeates legal decisions in Israel: IDF suicides are adjudicated based on the assumption that they are all prompted by psychological problems. The courts in Israel are engaged in a variety of disputes concerning suicides, Did the soldier actually die by his own hand, or was it an accident with a weapon? Does a junior commanders bear responsibility for a soldier’s suicide? Do families of soldiers who killed themselves deserve governmental compensation? Such payment would serve as a sign of formal, yet symbolic, inclusion in Israel’s “family of the bereaved.” The concept of suicidality enables judges to discuss these questions without addressing the broad context of military service.

Number of suicides in the IDF, by year.

This is clearly seen in a ruling handed down in the case of a young soldier, who was in his mandatory service, who killed himself on his base in June 2000 with his own weapon. Ilai (not his real name), who was 25 at the time of his death, had studied physics in the Atuda program (in which gifted students undergo university studies at the military’s expense before enlisting) and went on to be an outstanding officer in the air force. Although he held the rank of lieutenant, he was assigned to a task earmarked for someone of the rank of major. The Defense Ministry did not approve payment of compensation to the bereaved mother, and she appealed the decision in a civil magistrate’s court.

The appeal was rejected. The ruling stated that, “According to the mother’s attorney […] the deceased began a new role that involved serious responsibility and a heavy load suiting a rank beyond what he actually held […] These conditions were the source of pressures that likely brought about the suicide.” The mother and her lawyer thus portrayed the suicide as stemming from a mistake relating to his assignment, an organizational failure by the IDF.

The Defense Ministry argued that “the deceased’s conditions of service were not difficult and in no way contributed to the act of suicide. The suicide came against the background of a depressive response to separating from his girlfriend, with whom he had a close relationship.”

This explanation was backed up by “poems about death and about unrequited love that were found in possession of the deceased,” as well as by the opinion of a psychiatrist who testified for the ministry. The psychiatrist spoke of “the personality of the deceased, who was a very responsible, achievement-oriented, perfectionist.”

Along with perfectionism, the judgment connected other personal traits of Ilai with the idea of suicidality, such as rigid thinking: “Veganism was a matter of fanaticism for him. He passed up participation in the pilots course after arriving at the conclusion that in that capacity he would harm and kill people.” As though inadvertently, a moral principle of opposition to violence was interwoven with suicidality. Other traits cited were introversion and odd behavior: “Socially, the deceased integrated well with those around him, even if to some of them he seemed a little strange, telling cynical jokes that weren’t funny.”

The district court also rejected the mother’s claims in a further appeal, preferring the psychological explanation over the organizational one. This court noted that the officer was “very educated, perfect in all traits, very smart, special, a perfectionist and very insular.”

The emphasis on soldiers’ mental problems allows the public to divert its gaze from the impact of the compulsory draft law and the messages ingrained in a culture of heroism and sacrifice.

Exempt from institutional responsibility

The judgments on whether to award compensation to families of soldiers who committed suicide exemplify vividly how conjectured impressions about soldiers’ lives become a portrait of a pathology. The profiling of the suicidal soldier is accompanied by a random collection of character traits and displays of behavior, such as shyness, low self-esteem and a lack of self-control – juxtaposed with perfectionism and excessive self-control. These contradictory traits are applicable to many of us at different periods in our lives.

Nevertheless, the common psychological image portrays a soldier who does not make friends easily, is not mature enough, is not content with himself and does not exhibit patriotism. These deficiencies have a common denominator: They conjure up, by contrast, the normative soldier who makes friends easily, displays self-confidence and is eager to shoulder the collective burden.

Within the framework of suicidality, the soldier’s family is also frequently listed as a risk factor. The family becomes a convenient suspect, particularly as it is not clear what the desirable psychological balance is between parental involvement in a child’s life and insufficient interest in it. The elusiveness of an answer makes every family potentially blameworthy.

The destabilizing potential of suicide in the military is blunted by the concept of suicidality, which portrays the soldier as a victim of his own fraught psyche, his difficult personality and his conflicted family. In this explanation, the soldier’s plight is not related to his military service and his death is not the result of a calculated decision. If the soldier did not leave society willingly, society is exempt from having to conduct a moral and institutional self-evaluation.

In a different case, an appeals committee found that there was no connection between the suicide of a reserve soldier and his military service, basing its conclusion, in part, on the farewell note he left. The ruling mentioned that “a note in the deceased’s handwriting, bearing suicidal content, was found in his pants pocket,” and elaborated by quoting from the note’s content: ‘I think it became finalized the moment I got off at the central bus station in Hadera. A taxi driver spoke with his friend about us, the reservists, and the friend replied: Better that they do it and not me. I thought of possibly writing more, but… I am simply tired. Tired of believing that it will be all right, tired of smiling…, tired of the hypocrisy, of the corruption… I just want to rest.’”

An Israel Defense Forces recruiting center in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Categorizing the note as “bearing suicidal content” reduces its message to evidence of mental distress, and thus ignores the criticism voiced by the soldier. “It’s all shit,” he wrote in a different document that was quoted in court. “Shit [political] parties, a shit government, shit soccer, everything is shit.” The soldier criticized the government, the parties and sports, but his words were understood not as a manifestation of indignation, but as an indication of emotional instability.

The courts’ decisions in compensation cases also reject the most obvious institutional context: the availability of weapons as a cause of death in the wake of military service. In the case of another soldier who took his life, a physician who testified on behalf of the Defense Minister maintained that “IDF weapons are not intended for suicide, just as the sea is not intended for drowning or windows for jumping.”

An appeals committee, however, accepted the psychiatric opinion presented in the name of the soldier’s family, according to which, “If the soldier had not had a weapon in his hand, it is almost certain that he would not even have considered putting an end to his life.”

The district court in turn overturned that decision, which was quite dramatic from the point of view of the responsibility of the army and the state regarding all the cases of suicide in the IDF. The judges found that “a weapon is not one of the causes of suicide, but a means… in the same way that a soldier who jumps from a naval craft in mid-sea with the intention of committing suicide, does not take his life owing to his service.”

A single explanation

The tendency to ground judicial content in psychological ideas seems like an example of what can be called “psycho-law-gy,” by which psychological reasoning swallows the social role of law. When Israel’s judicial system adopts therapeutic language, particularly in the context of maintaining the “people’s army,” it validates, both economically and ethically, society’s weak commitment to soldiers.

When suicide becomes suicidality, it also becomes an issue of personal responsibility – not a moral challenge of a society that obligates citizens to agree to kill and be killed.

The judges’ decisions are based on the choice of a single explanation for suicide. Two possibilities are presented to them: Is the military service, and in particular the availability of weapons, connected to the suicide? Or was the soldier mentally unwell yet successful at concealing his problems from the army’s mental-health screening system? In practice, families who do not receive compensation in suicide cases and who, in appealing the decision, succeed in getting it overturned, do so only if they can convince the court that a failure occurred in the IDF’s screening procedures. The legal battle is conducted under the dual assumption that there is such a thing as suicidality, and that it can be identified – two problematic assumptions.

The dominance of suicidality in court rulings draws a portrait of a fragile soldier and a society that only needs to classify and contain soldiers. That explanation disallows for other explanations that may be more disturbing for Israeli society to consider. Until a decade ago, articles in the media, including in this newspaper, provided a platform for bereaved parents to attribute suicide to hardships embedded in military service such as hazing, humiliating dismissals from prestigious courses in the army, and moral difficulties involved in police-style missions in the occupied territories. In the 1990s, there were also studies on the suicides of new-immigrant soldiers. Another subject discussed at the time was the difference between the freedom of the adolescent years and life within the confines of the military establishment, which demands obedience and arbitrary discipline, and is based on a monotonous routine – in other words, the suffocation of a young person’s joie de vivre. However, over the past decade, this type of critique has almost entirely disappeared from the public conversation.

The emphasis on soldiers’ mental problems allows the public to divert its gaze from the impact of the compulsory draft law and from the messages ingrained in a culture of heroism and sacrifice. The price exacted by the ethos of self-sacrifice is a central issue in the type of contemporary Hebrew literature that presents suicide in the IDF as a sad imitation of the death of heroes. (An example of this is Yehoshua Kenaz’s 1986 novel “Infiltration” – “Hitganvut Yehidim” – and its protagonist Alon, who while shooting himself, imagines the heroic deeds of Masada and of Israel in the 1950s.)

A connection exists between the narrative that sees suicide as stemming from the values of sacrifice, and the idea of suicidality. Both notions diminish the range of the interpretations allowed for suicides in the IDF and delimit the expressions of the human experience. When it takes place in a military context, suicide is not examined, neither by psychologists nor by novelists, as a possible expression of surrender to the “sorrow of the world” (Weltschmerz), or as a human response to the pointlessness of ephemeral existence. Similar to the depiction of the soldier as a suicidal person, criticism of national sacrificial values rebuffs these interpretations, which expose emptiness and loneliness – which, after all, are experiences common to us all.

Sticking to the suicidality explanation is convenient for both the army and the public, even if its price is to increase the blame attributed to specific individuals. Suicidality makes it possible to mark out the guilty figures: the junior officer who brought the soldier to the edge, the mental-health officer who was negligent in identifying distress, a partner who was inattentive, and finally, the dysfunctional family. When suicide becomes suicidality, it also becomes an issue of personal responsibility – not a moral challenge of a society that obligates citizens to enlist, use weapons, evidence masculinity, make a national contribution, and above all, agree to kill and be killed.

IDF snipers on the Gaza border.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Possibilities of life

Memorial Day in this coronavirus spring is a unique moment for confronting death. The Israeli public, like other societies around the world, has agreed to put a stop to its routine life of work and entertainment, and has consented to moderate the horizons of protest and resistance. It is hard to argue with the ethics behind that goal: the desire to prevent large numbers of deaths, especially of older people.

The period of lockdown and unemployment has raised another concern: of death by suicide. In response to that concern, a psychological initiative has formed that calls for funding to be made available for a struggle against suicidality. The presumption is that the suicide rate will surge as soon as the Israel public shakes off the initial shock of the lockdown period: the loss of livelihood and of freedom of movement, along with the diminished ability to manage time, to enjoy public spaces and to find support in human closeness.

There is no reason not to support such a move, which seeks to save lives. But this initiative talks about suicidality and not about suicide per se, and its messages only intensify the vagueness and passivity that are bound up with suicidality. This is a problematic concept for those who wish to cope with the challenges of the coronavirus epidemic in a way that will promote equality and fraternity in Israel.

Most readers of Haaretz will have encountered the approach that holds that, focusing on the psychology of the individual serves to conceal economic alienation and contributes to the loss of solidarity. The focus on suicidality makes it possible to forget that states do not always reject self-killing – they allow it as long as it takes place under the state’s supervision (as in physician-assisted suicide, in certain countries), and even encourage it implicitly (in situations of captivity and combat).

It is important for society to consider whether suicide is an act that questions the nature of life and the horizons of shared existence – both in the way we handle the effects of the coronavirus restrictions and in an attempt to safeguard soldiers. These is a need to consider what it is that a soldier is expressing through his deeds. Such questions make us confront fundamental social assumptions: the feasibility of free choice, the expectation that soldiers are willing to sacrifice themselves, the distinction between friend and enemy, and the necessity of living by the sword. The present period calls more than ever for the cultivation of such a discussion.

Dr. Nitzan Rothem’s book “Suicide in Uniform: Choice, Duty and Guilt in Israeli Society” (Hebrew), was published by Tel Aviv University Press.