Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Recently, there were two high profile suicides. One was the tragic case of Daniel Somers, a soldier simply driven over the brink by his sufferings and by the neglect of the feckless state that sent him into harm's way, ordered him to commit war crimes and then abandoned him and his injuries like yesterday's manure--and by his heartbreaking conviction that his act would be a mercy to the people he loves. To read his note is to cry for him and hundreds of other neglected troops who have killed themselves like him:
Daniel Somers was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was part of Task Force Lightning, an intelligence unit. In 2004-2005, he was mainly assigned to a Tactical Human-Intelligence Team (THT) in Baghdad, Iraq, where he ran more than 400 combat missions as a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee, interviewed countless Iraqis ranging from concerned citizens to community leaders and and government officials, and interrogated dozens of insurgents and terrorist suspects. In 2006-2007, Daniel worked with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) through his former unit in Mosul where he ran the Northern Iraq Intelligence Center. His official role was as a senior analyst for the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and part of Turkey). Daniel suffered greatly from PTSD and had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and several other war-related conditions. On June 10, 2013, Daniel wrote the following letter to his family before taking his life. Daniel was 30 years old. His wife and family have given permission to publish it.Here is his letter:
I am sorry that it has come to this.
The fact is, for as long as I can remember my motivation for getting up every day has been so that you would not have to bury me. As things have continued to get worse, it has become clear that this alone is not a sufficient reason to carry on. The fact is, I am not getting better, I am not going to get better, and I will most certainly deteriorate further as time goes on. From a logical standpoint, it is better to simply end things quickly and let any repercussions from that play out in the short term than to drag things out into the long term.You will perhaps be sad for a time, but over time you will forget and begin to carry on. Far better that than to inflict my growing misery upon you for years and decades to come, dragging you down with me. It is because I love you that I can not do this to you. You will come to see that it is a far better thing as one day after another passes during which you do not have to worry about me or even give me a second thought. You will find that your world is better without me in it.
I really have been trying to hang on, for more than a decade now. Each day has been a testament to the extent to which I cared, suffering unspeakable horror as quietly as possible so that you could feel as though I was still here for you. In truth, I was nothing more than a prop, filling space so that my absence would not be noted. In truth, I have already been absent for a long, long time.My body has become nothing but a cage, a source of pain and constant problems. The illness I have has caused me pain that not even the strongest medicines could dull, and there is no cure. All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body. It is nothing short of torture. My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety, even with all of the medications the doctors dare give. Simple things that everyone else takes for granted are nearly impossible for me. I can not laugh or cry. I can barely leave the house. I derive no pleasure from any activity. Everything simply comes down to passing time until I can sleep again. Now, to sleep forever seems to be the most merciful thing.
You must not blame yourself. The simple truth is this: During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity. Though I did not participate willingly, and made what I thought was my best effort to stop these events, there are some things that a person simply can not come back from. I take some pride in that, actually, as to move on in life after being part of such a thing would be the mark of a sociopath in my mind. These things go far beyond what most are even aware of.To force me to do these things and then participate in the ensuing coverup is more than any government has the right to demand. Then, the same government has turned around and abandoned me. They offer no help, and actively block the pursuit of gaining outside help via their corrupt agents at the DEA. Any blame rests with them.
Beyond that, there are the host of physical illnesses that have struck me down again and again, for which they also offer no help. There might be some progress by now if they had not spent nearly twenty years denying the illness that I and so many others were exposed to. Further complicating matters is the repeated and severe brain injuries to which I was subjected, which they also seem to be expending no effort into understanding. What is known is that each of these should have been cause enough for immediate medical attention, which was not rendered.Lastly, the DEA enters the picture again as they have now managed to create such a culture of fear in the medical community that doctors are too scared to even take the necessary steps to control the symptoms. All under the guise of a completely manufactured “overprescribing epidemic,” which stands in stark relief to all of the legitimate research, which shows the opposite to be true. Perhaps, with the right medication at the right doses, I could have bought a couple of decent years, but even that is too much to ask from a regime built upon the idea that suffering is noble and relief is just for the weak.
However, when the challenges facing a person are already so great that all but the weakest would give up, these extra factors are enough to push a person over the edge.Is it any wonder then that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day? That is more veterans than children killed at Sandy Hook, every single day. Where are the huge policy initiatives? Why isn’t the president standing with those families at the state of the union? Perhaps because we were not killed by a single lunatic, but rather by his own system of dehumanization, neglect, and indifference.
It leaves us to where all we have to look forward to is constant pain, misery, poverty, and dishonor. I assure you that, when the numbers do finally drop, it will merely be because those who were pushed the farthest are all already dead.And for what? Bush’s religious lunacy? Cheney’s ever growing fortune and that of his corporate friends? Is this what we destroy lives for
Since then, I have tried everything to fill the void. I tried to move into a position of greater power and influence to try and right some of the wrongs. I deployed again, where I put a huge emphasis on saving lives. The fact of the matter, though, is that any new lives saved do not replace those who were murdered. It is an exercise in futility.Then, I pursued replacing destruction with creation. For a time this provided a distraction, but it could not last. The fact is that any kind of ordinary life is an insult to those who died at my hand. How can I possibly go around like everyone else while the widows and orphans I created continue to struggle? If they could see me sitting here in suburbia, in my comfortable home working on some music project they would be outraged, and rightfully so.
I thought perhaps I could make some headway with this film project, maybe even directly appealing to those I had wronged and exposing a greater truth, but that is also now being taken away from me. I fear that, just as with everything else that requires the involvement of people who can not understand by virtue of never having been there, it is going to fall apart as careers get in the way.The last thought that has occurred to me is one of some kind of final mission. It is true that I have found that I am capable of finding some kind of reprieve by doing things that are worthwhile on the scale of life and death. While it is a nice thought to consider doing some good with my skills, experience, and killer instinct, the truth is that it isn’t realistic. First, there are the logistics of financing and equipping my own operation, then there is the near certainty of a grisly death, international incidents, and being branded a terrorist in the media that would follow. What is really stopping me, though, is that I simply am too sick to be effective in the field anymore. That, too, has been taken from me.
Thus, I am left with basically nothing. Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war. Abandoned by those who would take the easy route, and a liability to those who stick it out—and thus deserve better. So you see, not only am I better off dead, but the world is better without me in itThis is what brought me to my actual final mission. Not suicide, but a mercy killing. I know how to kill, and I know how to do it so that there is no pain whatsoever. It was quick, and I did not suffer. And above all, now I am free. I feel no more pain. I have no more nightmares or flashbacks or hallucinations. I am no longer constantly depressed or afraid or worried
I am free.I ask that you be happy for me for that. It is perhaps the best break I could have hoped for. Please accept this and be glad for me.
While we were back on the home front, defending the State for ordering guys like him to commit war crimes such as torture, guys like him were carrying out the orders and suffering the interior consequences of it. While Bush/Cheney and their apologists (including Catholics in greater percentages than the general population) were collecting fat paychecks and feeling very courageous for sending him to do their dirty work (work that continues under the present Administration), he was the one actually doing it and reaping the massive psychic damage that results from it. He was also receiving the multiple traumatic physical injuries that so many of our brave volunteer military received due to following the orders of a five time draft dodger who never served and got rich. Then when he got back, crushed in body, soul, and spirit with physical and psychic traumas, our grateful Ruling Class had this offer for him:
And that contempt and neglect eventually solved the financial problem of how to care for a tool no longer useful to their hands. For, of course, Obama cared no more for him than Bush/Cheney, which is why he killed himself four years into Obama's reign. Obama, of course, also never served and also got rich while sending others to die and kill. He even got a Nobel Peace Prize.
Some people wonder if a suicide like Daniel Somers faces the fires of hell. I wonder if the people who drove him to it can escape the fires of hell. This man's death, so full of desperation and even a sort of misguided hope of sacrifice for those whom he loves seems barely culpable to me (though, of course, I am not God). But the ones whose criminal orders and subsequent neglect drove him to this pass seem to me to fit pretty well this description:
It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:2)
The feckless rulers who sent this man to his doom and abandoned him when he returned will likely all die in their beds like Sir Richard Rich. May God have mercy on them afterwards. They are gonna need it.
Curiously, a search of Crisis magazine shows absolutely no reference to Daniel Somers. Crisis, it will be recalled, was started long ago by Michael Novak, who went to Rome in 2002 to explain to the Pope and Cdl. Ratzinger and the bishops of the world why it was vital the Church ignore just war teaching and get on the ball with the project of bombing Iraq into the bright promise of salvation through democratic capitalist militarism by any means necessary.
The Pope and all the world's bishops declined to accept Novak's new theories and Cdl. Ratzinger made clear that "the concept of 'preventive war' is not in the Catechism of the Catholic Church". But that did not, of course, slow down the fertile minds of American "conservative" sophists in simply ignoring the Church with the standard "Prudential judgment means we can do whatever we like" line of argument in imitation of the standard leftist sophist "Primacy of conscience means we can do whatever we like" line of argument. Indeed, some even managed the pretzel logic feat of claiming that *because* preventive war is not in the Catechism, it is therefore AOK, which is sort of like arguing that *because* the Catechism never specifically condemns cannibalistic murder rituals, they are just fine. Result: Daniel Somers was sent to his fate and Crisis joins in the total neglect of this man.
Not that Crisis is completely heartless about suicides, of course. For example,here is a piece expressing not merely pity for suicide, but something like a defense of it.
The mainstream American right has remained almost entirely silent about the recent suicide of the French historian, Dominique Venner. The reasons for this, I do not know—perhaps it is a squeamishness about the symbolism of his final act, or a lack of understanding of it. Perhaps it is a refusal to see what the people of France already see, and are rising up against.
Venner shot himself on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame on May 21st, 2013. The image of this act ought to make us pause in awe. The American left immediately dismissed him as a discontented right-wing Catholic crank, simply angry at the recent legalization of gay marriage in his country. None of them examined his last article, or his suicide note, which tell a different story: and one which ought to be heeded by the rest of the West.
The Christian mind has long rejected the possibility of suicide as a good, ever since Augustine’s prominent discussion of it in the first book of The City of God. In Chapter 22 of that discussion, Augustine denies that men who commit suicide can ever be admired for their greatness of soul. Given that Augustine’s prime task was to write “against the pagans,” this line of argument is understandable; he wants to discourage any admiration of individual pagans. I would like to suggest that this restriction be revisited. A Christian may admire the heights of pagan virtue without condoning its sinful aspects.
In short, because Venner shared the author's fretting about conservative culture war hysteria over Muslims, we should all "pause in awe" and overlook the fact that an apparently perfectly healthy Dominique Venner, being of sound mind and body, committed both self-murder and a profound act of narcissistic sacrilege due to his mortal sin of despair about current trends in European demographics. Daniel Somers killed himself in physical and mental agonies as his government abandoned him after his sacrifices and left him in utter desperation. Venner killed himself because he had a hissy fit about the new neighbors and chose to petulantly throw away God's gift of life. Guess which suicide Crisis cares about?
And then, in the comboxes, you get about a 60/40 percentage in favor of this blasphemous act of cowardice and self-murder from people drinking deep of the "conservative" Catholic anti-charism of discernment. Turns out that for not a few of the readers of this article, cowardly acts of suicide and sacrilege are morally indistinguishable from noble acts of self-sacrifice. Some guy that blows his own head off at the altar of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because he's mad at Muslims moving into the neighborhood is morally indistinguishable from a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies.
The more "conservative" Catholicism comes to identify itself totally with the values of pagan post-Christian "conservatism", the more obvious it becomes that this is just another way of selling one's birthright for a pot of message. There is nothing to admire or "pause in awe" over in Dominique Venner's cowardly and narcissistic act of sacrilege. It was not an act of "sacrifice". We can and should pray for the soul of the man since he was guilty of a great sin (albeit perhaps not culpably, which is why we leave it to God to judge). But for Pete's sake, for a Catholic to try to celebrate this, and other Catholics to chatter stupidly about the "heroism" of somebody blowing their own brains out--and for this petulant excuse--what is the matter with these people? Chesterton was absolutely on point about this shameful enthusiasm for suicidal political theatre:
Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen, an argument arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder one's self. Grave moderns told us that we must not even say "poor fellow," of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was an enviable person, and had only blown them out because of their exceptional excellence. Mr. William Archer even suggested that in the golden age there would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which a man could kill himself for a penny. In all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man's crime is different from other crimes -- for it makes even crimes impossible.
Chesterton (who himself felt the pull of the temptation to suicide, and who had a heart as big as all outdoors) would feel the tragic pity of Daniel Somers' agonies and not dare to judge him. But for those in the Ruling Class who neglect the Daniel Somers of the world, or who celebrate the narcissistic political theatre of a Venner, Chesterton has stern words:
Elegy in a Country Churchyard
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.
We are coming up on the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a real Catholic hero who endured actual torments in Auschwitz. Had he met Daniel Somers, he would have done all in his power to help and heal him, not treat him with utter neglect until he ceased to be a burden on the system by killing himself in torments. And when faced with neighbors who were a far greater threat to him than Dominique Venner's Muslim convenience store operators, St. Max did not engage in the selfish political theatre of narcissism and sacrilege by petulantly slaughtering himself on the Holy Altar. Instead, he loved and forgave even his Nazi butchers and laid down his life in gratitude and not in self-pitying despair. Look to him, not the pathetic likes of Venner, if you want to pause in awe.
May men like Daniel Somers, so profoundly hurt and betrayed by rulers deeply unworthy of his patriotism and sacrifice, yet find peace in the merciful arms of Jesus Christ. May Dominique Venner find mercy for his sacrilegious act of self murder. And may all the members of Christ's Church listen to the voice of the Spirit in Holy Church and stop listening to the voices of this world as we discern how to obey God, care for the most vulnerable, and stop worshipping party and state.