There comes a saturation point at which I can no longer listen to institutionalists (e.g., military and other government officials, academicians, members of the media) babble about what may be the most telling symptom of the anti-life nature of the state: the suicides of those entangled in its destructive machinations. Top military officials appeared this week before a congressional committee to discuss the fact that more American soldiers are dying by suicide than in combat, and to inquire into what can be done about this situation. I suspect these officers were quite sincere in their assessments and suggestions but—like institutional authorities generally—said nothing that might raise fundamental questions about the military or military thinking.
I watched about as much of this hearing as my mind could take, as one officer after another spoke of the needs for “programs” to address this problem; to help “train” servicemen and women to better handle the economic and family pressures, work-loads, and deployment in foreign countries. One military official spoke of the need to “analyze the data” to help protect the soldier who, in his view, was the military’s “most valuable asset.” One would fathom from the bulk of this testimony that what the young men and women who are contemplating self-destruction need most are more problem-solving skills; or perhaps another structured training program for soldiers to go through. The project could be expected to generate lucrative government-funded research grants to universities and so-called “think tanks,” but no unsettling questions for the established order.
While I heard no mention of behavior modification drugs being administered to potential suicides, such an approach has been used in school systems to control young children. Might the state decide to fall back upon this strategy, perhaps to reinforce earlier conditioning, as well as to please the major pharmaceutical companies? Maybe “big-pharma” will be able to offer—at the high prices that always attend government programs—suicide-prevention drugs. As I watched this viciousness unfolding on C-SPAN, I kept recalling the Stanley Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange.1 Taken from Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name, the movie focuses on coercive methods of operant conditioning designed to overcome an individual’s free will.
By its very nature, the state will persist in looking upon human beings as “assets,” as “resources” to be cared for in much the same way as a rancher cares for his cattle. Problems that arise within the herd will be dealt with mechanistically and collectively: anthrax vaccinations and uniform diets for all; individual tastes and preferences being irrelevant to the “greater good.”
I also heard no mention made of what, I suspect, is the principal contributor to the escalating rates of suicide: the insanity of the war system itself, its moral and spiritual bankruptcy. In the time that I watched these hearings, I heard not even an oblique reference to the spiritual costs of persons having their lives robotized and directed by the state for no other purpose than to kill men, women, and children who have been selected as targets. What does it do to an otherwise psychologically and emotionally centered person to have one’s training as a systematic killer of strangers become the highlight of his or her life?
It is the war system, itself, that must be confronted and ended, lest it destroy all semblance of humanity. Those who have chosen to devote themselves to the planning and carrying out of programs designed for no other purpose than the mass slaughter of millions of fellow humans experience psychic costs that no amount of militaristic strutting or patriotic blather can suppress. It is not in the nature of any species to consciously destroy itself.
Individuals have a spiritual and emotional nature that is absent from institutions. Institutions are, at best, tools driven entirely by linear, mechanistic, and materialistic considerations. They are abstractions which, like computer games, are purely the product of thought. They operate on the basis of compulsion, not compassion; what is nonmaterial is immaterial to such entities; they have become ends in themselves, while individuals are but transient beings who can be conditioned into serving as fungible resources to be exploited for collective ends. “Liberty” is a condition valued by individuals, but it is a form of entropy—energy that cannot be put to use for the purposes of the institutional order.
There is nothing more contemptible, in my mind, than the spectacle of school systems training impressionable children in the evil doctrine that their lives exist to serve alleged “greater interests” than their own. Whenever I am asked to identify the one governmental program I would most like to see disappear, my answer has always been: the government school system. This institutionalized form of child abuse has generated far more destructiveness than even the war system, for its pernicious conditioning is what makes possible our identification with the state as well as our willingness to give up our lives for it. Schools have trained us to see the necessity and desirability of the institutional scheme of things. Through the use of standardized teaching and standardized testing, they have taken standardized categories of children and trained their minds in the virtues of standardized thinking for a standardized world. In the words of Ivan Illich, “[s]chool is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”
Many parents—having been previously conditioned to become state servo-mechanisms—are unavailable to their children at a time when most needed to help question any of this organized insanity. Far too many mothers and fathers, I am sorry to say, end up loving the state more than they do their own children, and content themselves with a folded flag—handed to them by a uniformed officer—as a substitute.
It is not just the soldiers who commit suicide that provide evidence for the pathology of war. Those who die, or end up as cripples, or who desert, or who survive war physically unscathed but remain silently torn up inside, are all victims of this depraved system. I can only imagine the turmoil a young soldier must go through before, as an act of utter despair, deciding to take his or her own life.
It is sad that adults—who express concern when an “Amber Alert” informs them of a missing child—will turn their backs on grown children who need support to help them through their spiritual crises. Of course, when “support the troops” really means “support the war,” persons conditioned in the virtues of war and statism will provide no genuine help for the potential suicide. They will respond like the man who, upon witnessing a child drowning in a lake, can do no more than offer swimming lessons!
What will come from all of this superficial institutional hand-wringing will be but another interventionist behavior-modification program to help the soldiers overcome their failures to better adapt themselves to the needs of the military. Suicidal soldiers are an embarrassment to the state, making it difficult to enlist new recruits with promises to “be all you can be.” Such disrespect to the system must be confronted! Perhaps within the Pentagon, military officials are even now watching re-runs of A Clockwork Orange.
The state—like so much of medical practice—profits by focusing on symptoms, while carefully avoiding attention to the underlying disease. Raising more fundamental inquiries might produce doubts about the central role to be played by institutions. It is the soldiers who are in need of reformation. As long as they are looked upon as the source of the suicide problem—to be rectified by additional conditioning—we can expect the self-destruction to continue. It is sad to think that an awareness of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the war system might be grasped most strongly by young people caught up in the middle of its destructiveness without what Joseph Campbell called “invisible means of support.” Paradoxically, their acts of desperation may reflect a sanity that will be lost to a world wrapped in flags. Their suicides may be a harbinger of the fate of civilization itself.
Vonnegut on War
I am reminded of a television interview I saw with Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, reliving their war experiences and how these had influenced their writings. Toward the end of the interview, Vonnegut told of coming back to America on a troop ship and asking a friend of his what the most important thing was that he learned from the war. “Never to believe your own government,” was his friend’s reply.