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Richard Falk: U.S. Military Suicides and Palestinian Hunger Strikes

What do the suicides of U.S. military personnel have in common with the food strikes put on by Palestinian detainees?
Image from Flickr via expertinfantry

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

There is some awareness in the United States that suicides among American military personnel are at the highest level since the Vietnam War. It is no wonder. The sense of guilt and alienation associated with taking part in the Afghanistan War, especially multiple postings to a menacing war zone for a combat mission that is increasingly hard to justify and almost impossible to carry out successfully, seems sufficient to explain such a disturbing phenomenon. These tragic losses of life, now outnumbering battlefield deaths, about one per day since the start of 2012, are not hidden from the American public, but nor do they provoke an appropriate sense of concern, or better, outrage. This contrasts with the Vietnam years, especially toward the end of the war, when many families with children at risk in a war that had lost its way and was being lost took to the streets, pressured their Congressional representatives, spoke at anti-war rallies, and supported their sons’ unwillingness to take part. Now there is a stony silence in American society, which seems to be a confirmation that we now are ‘citizens’ of or ‘patriots’ in an authoritarian democracy, or more urbanely, ‘subjects’ of a constitutional democracy. We are less than ever cognizant of the Jeffersonian imperative: the health of this democracy depends on the conscience and vigilance of its citizens.

It is a monumental expression of insensitivity to the wellbeing of our youth that we put them in a war effort that has long been drained of meaning.

Anthony Swofford, a former marine, seeking to comprehend what Newsweek in a cover story (May 25, 2012) acknowledges to be “an epidemic” of suicides among combat veterans, takes note of the resistance to self-scrutiny on the part of the governmental branches most involved. In his words, “the Department of Veteran Affairs and the military shy away from placing blame directly on the psychological and social costs of killing during combat.” There is some attention given apparently to improving the screening process so that potential suicides are not inducted, but no sensitivity to the deeply alienating experience of being assigned to kill in an utterly unfamiliar human environment, as is the case with Afghanistan and Iraq, that is naturally hostile to such an occupation by a distant country with an entirely different cultural orientation. If you have seen pictures of heavily armed American foot soldiers on patrol in an Afghan village, feelings of surreal misfit seem inescapable. And yet, there is no national sense of responsibility associated with sending young Americans into situations where the harm done to themselves not only puts their lives and wellbeing in jeopardy as a result of being exposed to enemy weapons but also subjects them to invisible traumatic wounds of the assigned combat duties that rarely heal totally, even many years after leaving the war zone.

These wounds are far more widespread than even the high incidence of suicide suggests, often expressed in less dramatic and terminal ways. It is a monumental expression of insensitivity to the wellbeing of our youth that we put them in harm’s way to carry out a war effort that has long been drained of meaning, and that our leaders are at a loss to explain.  True patriotism in this century should produce an angry uproar and public debate before acquiescing in such a cruel indifference to the fate of our young warriors, who are disproportionately poor and frequently members of a marginalized minority. This insensitivity is, of course, far less pervasive than when the victims are ‘others.’ This is illustrated by the national failure to raise questions about the state terror associated with drone attacks on village communities in foreign countries that undoubtedly spreads acute fear and feelings of vulnerability to the entire population, and not just to those who might imagine themselves to be selected by an American president as a kill target.

The relationship of these suicides to the recent wave of Palestinian hunger strikers objecting to Israeli practices of detention without charges or trial and to deplorable arrest and prison conditions is worth commenting upon. The hunger strikers are arousing widespread sympathy among their population, and a growing commitment to protest their confinement and celebrate their courage, embracing their acts as essential expressions of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to occupation, annexation, and apartheid conditions. Unlike suicides among veterans, which are lonely acts of desperation because the conditions of living have become endurable, the hunger strikers are willingly and knowingly engaging in a punishing self-decreed refusal to accept food as the only means available to call attention to their severe grievances. Their acts express an intense desire for life, not death, but their statement to the world is that when conditions become so dreadful it is preferable to die than to be further humiliated by intolerable mistreatment.

We are informed, but not enlightened, and thus are caught in the headlights, supposing that these military suicides are an unfathomable mystery.

The first hunger striker, Khader Adnan, since his release in April tells of why he engaged in such extreme violence against his body despite a deep attachment to his family and village life: “The reasons behind my hunger strike were the frequent arrests and treatment received when arrested and the third was the barbaric methods of interrogation in prison—they humiliated me. They put dust of their shoes on my moustache, they picked hairs out of my beard, they tied my hand behind my back and to the chair which was tied to the floor. They put my picture on the floor and stepped on it. They cursed my wife, and my daughter who was less than a year and four months old with the most offensive words they could use.” The hunger strikes have finally brought to light such patterns of humiliation long imposed on imprisoned Palestinians. What Adnan did inspired many others among Palestinian prisoners, and at present there remain at least three Palestinians risking death to abide by their plea for life and dignity, and these include a prominent member of the Palestinian national football team who has been held as an ‘unlawful combatant’ since July 2009, Mahmoud Sarsak, now ninety days without food (the two others are Akram al-Rakhaw, seventy days, and Sunar al-Berq).

These dual, sad sets of circumstances both involve fundamental wrongs associated with the violence of states. The American suicides are essentially sacrifices of lives at the altar of the Martian god of war, while the Palestinian hunger strikes are struggles to survive in the face of state terror imposed in darkness on those who show any signs of resistance to an occupation that has gone on for forty-five years and has become more and more oppressive with the passage of time. As Adnan said of his experience of arrest in the middle of the night and release: “… they are trying to hurt our dignity … and released me in the dark, late at night … they only work in the darkness.”

Despite this darkness, we should be able to see what is happening, and respond with whatever means are at our disposal. In America we are mostly kept in the dark with respect to Palestinian suffering, and as for our Americans victims of war, we are informed, but not enlightened, and thus are caught in the headlights, supposing that these military suicides are an unfathomable mystery rather than realizing that they are inevitable byproducts of wars fought in strange foreign lands for no credible defensive purpose.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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3 comments for Richard Falk: U.S. Military Suicides and Palestinian Hunger Strikes

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on June 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    The sainted Khader Adnan is a member of the Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization, and can be seen on the utube encouraging suicide bombings. The fact that he may have been only a spokesman is irrelevant. So was Goebbels.

    It is a little hypocritical to criticize administrative detention, when you also believe that convicted Arab murderers should be released, as freedom fighters no doubt.

    Israel currently holds around 300 administrative detainees. Most of the hunger strikers were convicted terrorists, not administrative detainees, striking under orders from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The deterioration in conditions they were protesting against was the removal of all the little perks they receive over and beyond what is required by international law, including canteen privileges, cable TV, and external academic studies. This was done in view of the conditions under which Gilad Shalit was being held. No more haflehs. Isn’t that a shame.

    As for the United States, it is perfectly true that it has no business being in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it had no business being in Vietnam, for the simple reason that it couldn’t and can’t prevail there, and that is reason enough. America’s stumbling block since World War II has been irregular warfare. To defeat Germany and Japan it was enough to understand the art of war. To defeat terrorists and insurgents you have to understand entire cultures. This the United States has never been able to do, and certainly not the language, religion, culture, politics and history of the Muslim East.

    Though the United States has had at least 20 years to understand that the next world threat was going to be Muslim fanaticism, it has done nothing to prepare for it. I mean to say that the United States has done nothing to develop a military and political doctrine suitable for fighting terrorism and insurgency, or developed a cadre of Arabic speakers who understand the Muslim world, which is the basis for developing such a doctrine. The ultimate threat, if it isn’t clear to your readers, is that one of these terrorist organizations will obtain a nuclear weapon, and will not hesitate to use it. That may not trouble people who are busy characterizing the United States as a “totalitarian democracy” but it should certainly concern the rest of us.

    The world needs a policeman. The natural candidate would be the United Nations, but unfortunately all too many of its members are criminals themselves. This leaves the United States, by default, and we would be wise to encourage it to prepare itself for the unimaginable horrors that global terrorism will inevitably unleash, irregardless of how well we behave.

  2. Comment by Majd on June 15, 2012 at 6:04 am

    Very well said. I wish to take issue with one point only. The ongoing occupation of Palestine started well before 1967. What is called the ‘State of Israel’ was formed on the ruins of the land of Palestine. If we truly want to be on the side of ‘justice’, we can’t really pick and choose.

  3. Comment by Fred Skolnik on June 15, 2012 at 10:03 am

    To set the record straight, there is no historic Palestine that has anything to do with the Arabs, nor is there an “indigenous” Muslim population there. “Palestine” was the name given by the Romans to the province of Judea after they conquered it and was revived by the British during the Mandate period. The Arabs came out of the desert and conquered the Land of Israel, which was in turn conquered by the Crusaders, Turks and British. They have as much right to it as they have to Spain, which they also conquered. All of this is of course irrelevant to the issue of peace, as Israel accepts the principle of a two-state solution in its ancient homeland.

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