UK’s army is ‘too small’ says Tobias Ellwood
British military deployments around the world are scaling down and deaths are following suit. The conflicts since World War 2 reveal a changing profile of combat fatalities, with most having nothing to do with combat at all. Suicide, however, remains a persistent and growing issue, for the Army in particular. As fewer and fewer servicemen are faced with the horrors of war, the source of their mental health issues has been found to lie elsewhere.
In the decade between 2013 and 2022, there were 676 deaths of Armed Forces personnel, of which just 12 were attributable to hostile action by an enemy.
These figures reveal an undiscussed and hidden reality of modern warfare. Combat was found to be only the eighth-most likely reason for death – far behind cancer, which claimed 165 lives alone, almost a quarter of the total.
Members of the UK’s regular military are now in fact at a statistically lower risk of death than the civilian population, thanks to the reduced dangers of conflict and the services’ selective recruitment of the able-bodied and healthy.
There is, however, one cause of death that stands out from the rest: suicide. Over the past ten years, 131 servicemen took their own lives – making suicide the second-most common cause of death in the military, responsible for 19 percent of the total and over ten times more than hostile action.
Joe Glenton spent six years in the Army with the Royal Logistics Corps. He is now Communications Officer for ForcesWatch, an organisation that investigates military ethics. Speaking to Express.co.uk, the age disparity between Army and civilian suicides was the first thing that stuck out to him.
Whereas 45 to 54-year-olds are most at risk among the general male population, 20 to 24-year-olds are worst affected in the Armed Forces. He said: “In civilian society, the risk factors seem to be things like divorce and unemployment and illness. And when I think about these young lads, such as myself at 22 in the Army, none of those things most often apply.
“Generally they’re single and very fit, and they’re in a job, and so our suspicion is there’s obviously something very specific going on in the military – particularly the Army, they [the suicides] always seem to be higher in the Army.”
Research by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) suggests “moral injury” as a likely factor, referring to the “psychological distress [often guilt, anger, shame or disgust] experienced after events which violate one’s moral or ethical code.” Such lived experiences have been linked with increased rates of PTSD and suicidal ideation.
However, this doesn’t explain rising suicide rates in the past few years because the number of personnel in combat has dropped.
Eight members of the Armed Forces per 100,000 took their own lives on average in 2016, rising to 12 in 2020.
By 2022 – in part thanks to the complete withdrawal from Afghanistan – 96 percent of all regular Armed Forces personnel were stationed on UK soil, and as a result, not a single member died from hostile action the whole year. Suicides, however, numbered seven – all of whom were in the Army.
“A lot of the damage, a number of people theorise, is actually not done in operations,” Mr Glenton said. “The training and military culture is itself traumatising, and by design. You could argue that’s necessary because it’s going to build a certain resistance to the austere environment of operations, but you can make another argument that they go too far.”
He says a number of American and British psychologists in the field agree that “the training process is itself dehumanising, often more so than a brief experience of violence.”
Specific allegations of this nature have surfaced in the past, but Mr Glenton said most never see the light of day because of a directive to “keep it in-house” — put simply, to never let it leave the barracks. He added: “The bullying is just endemic — that’s just how the military works. It’s an authoritarian organisation whether we approve of it or not.”
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The recent increase in Armed Forces suicides has been predominately driven by young Army males. Mr Glenton said: “In this country we recruit unusually young people in their mid-teens, and from 15 and seven months you can sign up and then join at 16.
“The counter to that is always that they don’t go on tour until they’re 18, but my point would always be that the training and culture are themselves damaging and traumatising and they change who you are.”
The UK is the only country in Europe which routinely recruits minors into its military. “What we would like to see is more about the kind of pre-service lives of these men, which are often rough and tough working-class kids from the poor end. We know that the military targets those areas in its recruiting campaigns.”
A large proportion of these younger Army recruits end up in the Combat Arms – that is infantry, artillery and armoured divisions, according to ForcesWatch. Knowing the unit of each individual who decides to take their own life would be “very useful” in determining root causes, the group says.
Moral injury also comes into play outside of theatres of war. Mr Glenton said: “It can also come from a sense of betrayal from your superiors or a sense of letting people down, and there are accidents that happen. I’m imagining in the longer term, for example, we’ll see it with NHS nurses who worked through COVID and couldn’t do their job fully and feel betrayed.”
Despite being in this way exposed to morally injurious situations in training and in combat, military personnel are less likely to seek professional help. There is the stigma attached and the fear of being labelled. On the other, according to KCMHR, the preference for Armed Forces members to “deal with their own problems themselves is a bigger barrier to care.”
An Army spokesperson told Express.co.uk: “Any death is a tragedy, and our sympathies are with the families and friends of those affected. Whilst there are many factors that can sadly lead to suicide in any part of society, the Army offers health and welfare support, tools and mandatory training, and ensures personnel are aware of the Defence 24-hour mental health helpline.
“We are absolutely committed to supporting the mental health and well-being of our people and do not tolerate any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination.”
Combat Stress provides mental health support to serving personnel via a 24/7 helpline which can be called on 0800 323 4444. Samaritans are also here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at [email protected], or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch. Anyone in an emergency situation should call 999 first.
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