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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Don’t Criminalize Military Suicide Attempts



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We are experiencing a tragic epidemic of military suicides. But what if a soldier fails in the attempt? It could result in a court martial. 

Now, a suicide-surviving soldier has appealed his conviction for inflicting self harm in violation of the Military Code of Justice, bringing the issue to the fore. From the McClatchy News story:

Caldwell eventually pleaded guilty to self-injury and received a bad conduct discharge after being convicted of larceny, driving without a license and possessing the drug known as ‘spice.’ “This case is not about prosecuting suicide or attempted suicide,” Marine Corps Maj. David N. Roberts said Tuesday. “It’s about prosecuting an act that was prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

Roberts conceded under questioning, though, that even the trial judge thought self-injury was an “odd charge” for military prosecutors to levy. Pressing the point, Chief Judge James E. Baker asked skeptically whether the military would charge someone who’d developed post-traumatic stress after five combat tours.

Hanzel suggested one potential solution: telling judges they could set a rule that once a reasonable case had been made that a suicide attempt was genuine, the burden would shift to the government to prove otherwise. It might require an additional policy change, from military and political leaders, to treat suicide attempts as something other than a crime.

That sounds like a good solution to me. Self harm has been used throughout military history as a means of avoiding combat or obtaining a discharge.  That can’t be permitted, clearly.  But an attempted suicide doesn’t fall into that kind of category.  It strikes me that the suggestion made by lawyer Hanzel strikes a proper balance.

On the civilian side, many people think suicide is a crime. It isn’t. As a consequence, assisted suicide advocates and libertarians claim that the lack of criminal sanction means that there is a “right” to suicide. No there’s not.  The law still allows the use of (non deadly) force to prevent suicides. It permits those proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be a threat to their own lives hospitalized for treatment. 

Using civil rather than criminal law to combat suicide strikes the right balance between establishing a proper anti suicide public policy while not punishing those who act self destructively. Time for the military to catch up



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