“…those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most. Rather it is too great comfort which turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.” –Émile Durkheim, ‘Suicide’
Civilians often misunderstand the fact that although war is hell, civilian life can often be worse for veterans in transition. Although it may sound counter-intuitive, the clear sense of mission and communal purpose produced amongst the chaos of combat actually contributes to greater psychological resilience. Rather than blaming the harsh conditions of Afghanistan for veteran suicides, we need to look at how the ease and decadence of civilian life may actually be a major suicidal culprit.
This post builds on a recent National Post article by Shaun Francis – chair of the True Patriot Love Foundation. He States: “To suggest the suicides are caused by Afghanistan and PTSD is not only inaccurate — it’s harmful on several levels.” Focusing the discussion the hardships of Afghanistan and PTSD is counterproductive because it paints broad strokes, perpetuating the stigma that most veterans are wounded or unfit for employment upon return home. Rather than reinforcing the wounded-veteran stereotype, we need to look at the problem with civilian-life itself. Many who return from Afghanistan look back on it as a high point in their lives, finding civilian-life dull, decadent, and lacking any depth. Rather than the difficulties of war, it is often the ease of civilian life that produces the greatest suicidal risk.
In his memoir, Through Our Eyes, Jessie Odom states: “the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition.” Bryan Wood mirrors this sentiment in Unspoken Abandonment:
“Going from war to everyday life turned out to be much more complicated than it was for me to go from everyday life to war.”
After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states, “I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important. Mike Akpata, a combat veteran of the Canadian Army describes his experience with Western civilian decadence in this video (starting at 1:30):
Mike Akpata, like many others, experienced the reverse-culture shock when returning to civilian life and has made a successful transition by reintegrating back into a strong support-system and meaningful employment. Although this is often the case, many veterans – especially the younger ones – fail to make a successful transition because they no longer feel like they can connect to a dull shallow life back home, surrounded by civilians who they feel can never understand them. The isolation produced by this inability to reconnect is the suicidal risk.
The hardships of combat are often not as traumatizing as the cultural shock when returning to civilian life because the individual in combat is protected by a highly integrated and regulated group. Tight-knit, mission oriented, and getting regular doses of adrenaline, the combat unit produces a high degree of psychological resilience in its members. Keeping each other alive provides a sense of purpose that allows individuals to function effectively, despite a mission’s extremely harsh conditions. As Victor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Civilian life often fails to provide combat veterans with a ‘why’. After witnessing the profound tragedy of life in Afghanistan and experiencing high degree of purpose-driven action, our way of life in the West can seem frivolous, dull, and decadent. This is why we not only need programs for psychological traumas such as PTSD, but for reintegration traumas as well.
Here are some organizations that bring veterans back into harsh conditions, providing them with a chance to regain a sense of mission and common purpose:
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