ForcesWatch comment

Recently... on 'moral injury' and armed forces suicides in the US and UK

ForcesWatch comment

2012 was the the first year 'in at least a generation' in which a greater number of currently-serving US Army soldiers killed themselves (177) than were killed in active duty (176). The Guardian's analysis shows that this is partly because US deaths in military action went down during 2012 but also partly because the suicide rate has risen.

If suicides in the other services (Navy 60, Marines 48, Air Force 59) are added, the totals become 349 and 295 respectively.

Army vice chief of staff General Lloyd J. Austin III said in August 2012 that, “Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army”.

Yet the number of US military veterans who killed themselves 2012 is 6,500 - 'roughly equivalent to one every 80 minutes'. The reasons are complex with multiple deployments becoming evident as a factor. The Guardian quotes that, "William Nash, a retired Navy psychiatrist.... and colleagues in military psychiatry have developed the concept of 'moral injury' to help understand the current wave of self-harm. He defines that as 'damage to your deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. It might be caused by something that you do or fail to do, or by something that is done to you – but either way it breaks that sense of moral certainty.'

"Contrary to widely held assumptions, it is not the fear and the terror that service members endure in the battlefield that inflicts most psychological damage, Nash has concluded, but feelings of shame and guilt related to the moral injuries they suffer. Top of the list of such injuries, by a long shot, is when one of their own people is killed."

The Telegraph states that 50 members of the UK armed forces who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan committed suicide between 2001 and 2011. Eight of these killed themselves on tour: six in Iraq, and two in Afghanistan. Another UK military suicide since then was that of Captain James Townley; the verdicts on a further eleven possible suicides were still pending as of December 2012. The Mental Health Foundation 'said young veterans were twice as likely to take their own life as their peers', although the Ministry of Defence 'said no link had been found between operations and suicide in the UK Armed Forces.'

Figures from Defence Analytical Services and Advice indicate that roughly 131 suicides and open verdict deaths have occurred among UK Armed Forces regulars as a whole since 2004.

A direct comparison between UK and US is difficult as there are far fewer serving members of the UK forces as well as other differentiating factors. However, in 2002 it was reported that the South Atlantic Medal Association estimated that more Falklands veterans had committed suicide since the conflict than had been killed during it (264 suicides and 255 deaths in military action). Suicides were still occuring 20 years later.

A member of the organisation Combat Stress said in a recent interview that mental health problems are common in the UK Armed Forces, but that the average time between returning from tour and seeking help from them is three years.

This suggests that, although there is now greater recognition of PTSD and other issues that veterans face, the tragic effect of 'moral injury' on those who take an active part in conflict is likely to be felt for many years.



Add your comments

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture. Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.

subscribe to blog posts by email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

see more content on:

latest blog entries


Our reaction to today's Welsh Assembly debate on armed forces visits to schools in Wales, which represents a major step forward in the scrutiny of the ethics of the military's engagement with the education system.


Following our recent piece on the news story that the Ministry of Defence requested access (which the Department for Education rejected) to the database of sensitive data of school students in England, to help the Army better target its recruitment practice, it has emerged that the Army - in collaboration with Royal Holloway College and the mobile phone app specialists DotNet - was specifically seeking to match individuals’ data with specific Army jobs, with a mobile phone app an apparent intended output.

This and other revelations undermine the claims by the MoD quoted in the original news coverage of the story that they aren’t targeting individuals for recruitment, and that the request was an error that had been “halted”.


Letter to The Independent (see all signatories below)

Towns and cities across the UK will today be 'celebrating' Armed Forces Day. Many councils hold these events as signatories to the Armed Forces Community Covenant; almost every local authority has now pledged support to the armed forces in perpetuity, and hundreds of businesses, charities, and even schools have signed the Armed Forces Corporate Covenant.

Many of today's events are packaged as 'family fun' with military vehicles and weaponry to entice young people, and cadet and armed forces careers marketing to recruit them. War is not family entertainment. The school assembly packs on offer from the Ministry of Defence display a breath-taking economy with the truth about the purpose and consequences of military action.


A year ago we wrote how Armed Forces Day symbolises the creep of militarism into our civil institutions. Far from being merely a reflection of public respect, this creep is the result of a concerted effort, which can be tracked through policy initiatives and is fuelled by concern that the military are losing control of the public narrative around defence. We noted how these public displays, which are ostensibly about supporting 'the men and women who make up the Armed Forces', (including Camo DayReserves Day and the Poppy Appeal), act to market the military as an institution and to build a positive and uncritical narrative around it and support its recruitment needs.

A year, and another Armed Forces Day, later, we look here at how militarism continues to creep into schools and colleges and how recent developments further embed military approaches and interests within the education system.


The Department for Education has given out its £3.5 million ‘Character Awards’ and its £3.5 million Character Education grants, both championed by Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, to 27 schools and youth organisations in England, and 14 youth projects, respectively.  Despite the DfE's heralding of 'military ethos' as an  excellent means of developing character, none of those awarded mention military-style activities in their descriptions (see here and here).