I first learned about the 22 push-up challenge on Facebook. Several of my 2,300+ Facebook friends are doing 22 push-ups a day for 22 days to commemorate the fact that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. The idea is to complete the 22 days and then challenge someone you know to do the same, all in memory of the 22 veterans added to our suicide rolls every day.
This morning I began seeing news stories on the 22 push-up challenge, about 127,000 in all in a Google News search, which is a relatively small number. The most prominent of the mostly minor media to cover the fad are Fox News and Inc. Most of the coverage focuses on the celebrities who have decided to drop and give 22. They include Kevin Hart, Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, Kevin Bacon, Ludacris, John Krasinski and Dwayne Johnson.
The 22 push-up challenge was devised by 22kill.com, which looks like it’s a for-profit group with the lofty goal of raising awareness about the high rate of suicide among veterans. The website mostly sells a variety of rings, clothing and headgear with 22kill.com branding. Unlike the typical awareness-raising event such as a walkathon or last summer’s ice bucket challenge, the 22kill.com people aren’t trying to use the challenge to raise money, although I’m fairly certain they would be delighted if the campaign led to an uptick in the purchase of their merchandise. 22kill.com does try to raise money on its website, which it says will be allocated to a wide range of nonprofit organizations helping veterans. Donate a minimum of $22 for four months and you get a free honor ring. Two questions remain unanswered: 1. How much of your donation does 22kill.com keep and how much gets funneled to the real nonprofits? 2. Why can’t you cut out the middle man and give directly to these other organizations?
While many things about 22kill.com sound fishy, I am not going to condemn or accuse the group, as I don’t know enough about it. Besides, whether or not the group is legitimate does not affect the viability and potential impact of the campaign, which I view as a complete waste of time.
Over the next few days and weeks it is possible that the 22 push-up challenge will blaze across the Internet and the mainstream media, much like the ice bucket challenge did last year and twerking did in 2013. But so what? How does that greater awareness help veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder?
Only two things will reduce the incidence of veteran suicides:
1. Spending more money to provide services that help soldiers adjust to the aftermath of war.
2. Not sending soldiers to war.
In that context, doing 22 push-ups a day for 22 days with no donation is pretty meaningless. At 10 minutes a day, the total time spent doing the push-ups works out to more than 3.5 hours. The same time could be spent staffing a suicide line or at a table outside Walmart soliciting contributions for one of the many organizations that help veterans in trouble. Perhaps the best use of the 3.5 hours would be to send letters to our elected officials exhorting them to spend more on veteran’s mental health and psychological counseling. The 3.5 hours could also be converted into a contribution: For example one person I know who is doing the challenge makes in excess of a half million a year; instead of doing push-ups, this person could contribute $875, which represents 3.5 hours of a $500,000 salary for a 2,000-hour work year.
While the 22 push-ups does nothing for veterans, it helps the participants in several ways. Obviously doing 22 push-ups a day improves the fitness of most healthy people. But doing the push-ups also makes the participants feel good inside in three ways: 1) They think they have helped an important cause; 2) They get to bond with other participants; 3) They enjoy the approval of the circle of their friends and associates who know about the challenge.
In short, doing something makes people feel good because they feel they are doing something. The premise is that people who participate in challenges, walkathons, marathons or dinners will give more money and be more committed to the cause than if they just wrote a check. People also like getting the various pins, water bottles, hats, tee shirt, mugs and other paraphernalia they typically receive when participating in nonprofit events. Many of my readers may not know that at the most expensive of these fundraising activities—formal dinners and cocktail parties for which the price of admission can be $150, $350 or even $1,000 a ticket—the gifts can be quite expensive and include vacation trips and spa memberships as door prizes. Like participants in the 22 push-ups campaign, those who walk, run or dance and those who sponsor them could give the money and donate their time directly to the nonprofit. But it wouldn’t feel as good.
In short, most fund-raising events and challenges appeal not just to our altruism, but to our inherent self-centeredness. In America, it can’t be good for someone else unless it’s also good for me.
Besides the typical self-centeredness I find in all of these challenges and events, I object to the 22 push-ups challenge for another reason. It does nothing to address the broader question of how we can help prevent veteran suicides. The answer, of course, is very simple: Don’t go to war.
War has always victimized a goodly number of soldiers. Anyone who has read any battlefield literature knows why: Seeing people wounded and die. Having to kill and wound others. Sleep deprivation. Living in ditches or other uncomfortable quarters. The regimentation of your life. The sound of bullets. The smell of blood and rotting corpses. The fear of bombs. Questions about the justness and fairness of the war. The guilt that you survived when comrades didn’t. The frustration of dealing with injuries. No wonder every war destabilizes the mental health of many soldiers.
At this point, we could broach a philosophical question: Is any war ever necessary or just? But in the United States, the issue of a just war has become moot. We have fought at least five wars in my lifetime that were absolutely unnecessary: Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq I and Iraq II; we could also make the case that our incursion into Afghanistan has also been a complete waste. From the standpoint of the home front, churning out PTSD-affected soldiers seems to be an American growth industry. (And let’s not forget the millions of people we killed or injured in the countries we invaded.)
Thus, the best way to reduce veteran suicides—which is the sole goal of the 22 push-ups campaign—is to not fight wars. Those who are doing push-ups would be better off working for and giving money to peace and disarmament organizations. And all of us should make sure that the next time a president or Congress wants to go to war and our territory has not suffered attack by an armed force that we send emails and letters against the war to elected officials and the news media and participate in anti-war demonstrations.