On his army blog of January 19, the commanding general of Fort Bliss (Texas), Major General Dana Pittard, wrote regarding members of the military who commit suicide: “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”
According to the National Journal, “Pittard’s blunt comments about suicide have raised eyebrows throughout the military. . . . Suicide-prevention experts believe that Pittard’s blog posting has already conveyed precisely the wrong message to emotionally fragile troops.
“In the words of Barbara Van Dahlen, the founder of Give an Hour, an organization that matches troops with civilian mental-health providers: ‘Soldiers who are thinking about suicide can’t do what the general says: They can’t suck it up, they can’t let it go, they can’t just move on. They’re not acting out of selfishness; they’re acting because they believe they’ve become a burden to their loved ones and can only relieve that burden by taking their own lives. . . . His statement — whatever motivated it — can do little good for those who are already on the edge.’”
As a result of the furor, on May 23, the Wednesday before Memorial Day, the general wrote the following: “Thanks to many of you and your feedback, I have learned that this was a hurtful statement. I also realize that my statement was not in line with the Army’s guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide. With my deepest sincerity and respect towards those whom I have offended, I retract that statement.”
There are three questions that need to be answered here: 1) Was the general’s original blog post right? 2) Even if it was right, should the general have made it public? 3) Should he have been pressured to retract his original comments?
Regarding the first question, unless suicide is committed as a result of terrible and unrelenting physical pain — especially if one is suffering from a terminal illness — or a person knows that he is about to be tortured, most suicides are selfish acts. This is said with no lack of compassion for the terrible psychological suffering that people who commit suicide experience. But compassion does not negate the fact that suicide is usually a selfish act. An army colleague of General Pittard told CNN that one reason the general wrote his blog post was that he had just attended the funeral of a man, one of his soldiers, who had killed himself at home on Christmas Day. Among the suicide’s horrific effects on the soldier’s wife and two young daughters was their permanent inability to ever again celebrate Christmas with anything but pain.
To deny the selfishness of most suicides — to declare, as the aforementioned suicide-prevention experts do, that judging suicides is morally wrong — means that every great religion has been morally wrong in declaring suicide a sin. Yet it is undeniable that countless religious individuals throughout history have refrained from committing suicide solely because their religion declared it a sin.
And if that is true, the general’s remarks were probably likely to prevent some suicides. Everyone who has condemned the general should answer the question: Are his remarks more likely to increase or decrease military suicides?
On the second question, the general was quite right in making his thoughts public. Only if it can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that these comments will lead to more suicides in the military — in which case one would have to likewise believe that, by labeling suicide a sin, religions have also increased suicides among believers — would the comments have to be regarded as so irresponsible that they should never have been made.
Which leads us to the third question — and the primary concern for this column.
That the general was pressured into a public retraction of his position is another manifestation of a totalitarian mentality that pervades our era. Increasingly, no ideas that run against prevailing politically correct doctrines may be publicly expressed. We are no longer permitted to ask whether something said is true; only whether anyone might potentially be offended by hearing it. And nothing is as taboo as harshly judging almost any action. Even worse, not only did the general harshly judge military suicides, he denied one of the gods of our times — the god of compassion.
The American military is a revered institution. Its members rightly constitute the most universally admired group in American society. Every soldier who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) must be helped in every way. But helped is not the same thing as patronized.
If the general’s comments lead to one less suicide, those comments embodied true compassion. Moreover, the first purpose of the military is to produce men who will be able to better fight and win wars against the least compassionate people on earth. And transforming generals into therapists will not accomplish that.
— Dennis Prager, a nationally syndicated columnist and radio talk-show host, is author of Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. He may be contacted through his website, dennisprager.com.