Christopher Frueh and Jeffrey Smith recently attempted to estimate the military suicide rate during the American Civil War. (sub required, sorry! See here for a shorter version that doesn’t require a sub) They did this, in part, because the current military suicide rate has been going up rapidly during the last decade of constant war, and there is little historical data to which to compare it:
Suicide rates and post-traumatic psychopathology among U.S. military personnel have risen dramatically since 2001. We have little understanding of historical context to indicate whether this is a typical outcome of war, apart from Durkheim’s (1951) conclusion from 1897 that suicide rates tend to decline during the active phases of war. Data gathered by the U.S. Government during the Civil War provide a conservative estimated suicide rate among active-duty Union Forces of 8.74–14.54 per 100,000 among white troops during the war. In the year after the Civil War ended, the suicide rate for the small percentage (17.6%) of white forces that remained on active-duty climbed to 30.4, though it is unknown how representative these troops were to the larger group that had been discharged from military duty….In the final year of the war, when casualties were the highest, the suicide rate for white and black troops combined was 10.35. This is comparable to the rate of 11 among U.S. forces in 2001 at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, although quite a bit lower than the current rate of roughly 20.
Thus, any way we view it, current suicide rates in the U.S. military are probably two to three times higher than those documented during the Civil War.
The authors acknowledge a few data problems, including collection issues and a 19th century naivete about depression and suicide, but miss a few other problems. For example, when they talk about racial differences in suicide rates– “Among black troops the suicide rate in their first year of official duty (1863–1864) was 17.7, dropping to 0 in the next and final year of the war” –the authors show no sense that it is quite likely that black suicides were tracked and recorded at a much lower rate than white suicides because of racism. Instead, they argue that it fits with “Durkheim’s (1951) conclusion that whites generally had much higher rates of suicide than blacks during the Nineteenth Century.” Possibly, but a suicide rate of zero for black troops in 1865 seems highly unlikely. The other issue is that the Civil War lasted a much shorter time than have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with shorter enlistments (add in the difference between the current long-service force and the Civil War’s mix of volunteers and conscripts), and many of the Civil War soldiers may have been out of the service when they committed suicide and thus were not caught in the official tally that Frueh and Smith used.
Having said all that, however, even if the Civil War rate was substantially higher than Frueh and Smith have found and might even have been near the current rate, it’s not good news that American soldiers, sailors, and marines are killing themselves at such massively high levels. Wars aren’t limited to battlefields, and casualties aren’t, either.
[Update: see also this.]