Military Moral Injury Sociology

War is Hell, Civilian Life is Worse

Kandahar Airfield“the story does not end on the battlefield. For most, the story has just begun.” – Jessie Odom

Many veterans struggling to reintegrate back into civilian life report that although war is hell, civilian life upon return is worse. Some veterans see combat as a high point in their life, wishing they could go back to an experience that should have been their worst. This social experience is a suicide risk for the roughly one third of veterans who do not make a successful  transition to civilian life.

The social source of this suicide risk for veterans in transition can be illuminated by Elwin Humphreys Powell’s concept of ‘anomie’ in his book, The Design of Discord. Anomie occurs when an individual is unable to derive a sense of meaning or purpose from one’s social environment. According to Powell, a central area of life where actors find purposive action is one’s work:

“Man derives his identity from his action. Action is more than motion, a mere doing things; it implies purpose, the pursuit of a goal. Without some aim beyond the moment, life becomes intolerable, meaningless”.

In the book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, The authors argue that, “One of the most dangerous aspects of moral injury is the collapse of meaning and the loss of a will to live”.This perspective on ‘meaning’ can also be found in the work of the psychologist and concentration camp survivor, Victor Frankl. Frankl argues that, “suffering without meaning leads to despair”. This statement forms the basis of Frankl’s theory of the ‘will-to-meaning’.

Rather than the experience of psychological guilt or atrocity in combat, I argue that the experience of transition from combat life to civilian life can itself result in ‘moral injury’. This consists of a ‘reverse culture-shock’ whereby the loss of meaningful solidarity formed in combat compromises the individual’s ability to integrate into the social order of everyday civilian life.

In his memoir, Through Our Eyes, Jessie Odom states:

“the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition… I know the changes I see in myself are not a result of the war in Iraq. Even though those memories are still there and are traumatic, it goes much deeper than that. The changes are the result of a man who wishes he was at war.”

This same sentiment is also seen in a book titled On War by Sebastian Junger where he reports an account of an Army airborne platoon in the Korengel valley of Afghanistan. He writes:

Collective defense can be so compelling — so addictive, in fact — that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place. I think almost every man at Restrepo [the combat outpost] secretly hoped the enemy would make a serious try at overrunning the place before the deployment came to an end. It was everyone’s worst nightmare but also the thing they hoped for most, some ultimate demonstration of the bond and fighting ability of the men. For sure there were guys who re-upped because something like that hadn’t happened yet. After the men got back to Vicenza, I asked Bobby Wilson if he missed Restrepo at all. “I’d take a helicopter there tomorrow,” he said. Then, leaning in, a little softer: “Most of us would.”

He goes on to say:

…throughout history, men… [at war] have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives… they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.

O’Byrne, a marine at Restrepo, states:

“It’s as if I’m self-destructive, trying to find the hardest thing possible to make me feel accomplished…”

For these men, combat provides a heightened sense of meaning in common action, or perhaps what Durkheim calls ‘collective effervescence’.

Karl Marlantes, In his memoir titled What it is Like to Go to War, states that self-destructive behaviours, including suicides, are the result of a veterans inability to make sense of a their chaotic experience upon return to civilian life. He states that simply expecting veterans to ‘adjust’ to civilian life is not enough. He writes, “adjustment is akin to asking Saint John of the cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.” Marlantes argues that the spiritual component of combat must be recognized in order to prevent meaningless suffering in veterans. He states:

“ritual torture or ritual martyrdom can be either meaningless and terrible suffering or a profound religious experience, depending upon what the sufferer brings to the situation. The horror remains the same. Combat is precisely such a situation.”

But perhaps it is not merely about what the sufferer brings to the situation; it is about what social meanings the sufferer has to draw upon. If, as Frankl says, despair is suffering without meaning, and if these meanings that prevent despair are based in collective meanings, we must look at the problem of modern civilian life itself. We need to reassess how, in our consumer driven post-traditional era, we are going to reintegrate a population that encountered the horrors traditionally marked by protective ritual symbolism and mythic narrative.

Anthony Giddens illustrates the problem of a post-traditional era by framing identity as the ability to think of one’s life-story in terms of a coherent narrative. He argues that contemporary individuals’ life stories are becoming increasingly detached from a coherent social order; therefore, individuals are tasked with constructing their internal life-stories without reference to a stable external social order. As modernization continues, increasing instability creates a problem of moral and existential meaninglessness. Although this problem is faced by all of us, veterans in transition are particularly vulnerable. If life is as much storied as it is lived, how can one go on living when one’s story loses its narrative coherence? When a veteran’s narrative collapses upon transition to civilian life, we can understand the risk of suicide by studying the social roots of this tragic event.

Rather than treating individual psychological ailments as individual problems, we need to look at how social and cultural forces produce suicidal thoughts or behaviour in this veteran population. As Charles Taylor says, “Our highest spiritual ideals can be the source of the greatest violence and suffering.” Amidst the violence and suffering of combat, collective solidarity provides meaning and resilience. Upon transition to modern civilian life, this source of meaning collapses. This collapse of meaning is a form of moral injury, and this form of moral injury is a social source of suicidal risk.

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  1. Steve- Great article! I am still in the Army, but at 21 years into the career I know it will come to an end at some point and I dread it. I completely agree with the search for meaning–particularly like your analogy of St John of the Cross being asked to flip burgers! Thanks for this–

  2. Steve,
    Very great post, and meant a lot to me. Was actually referred to my by my VA Therapist. I know you are all talking about the Middle East Theater, but I offer another variant to this. I served in the Army attached to NSA/CSS from 1983-1993 as an intelligence collector and analyst in the Cold War. You guys that faced combat, I could never imagine, and don’t discount it at all; but so many times my brothers and sisters are overlooked in the mental health system and transition to civilian life process.

    Our’s is comfounded by oaths, binding legal agreements, and executive orders never allowing us to tell of what we did. Missions that were world changing, those of us that supported Special Ops, Air Recon, and many others, and the meaning and power we held in our hearts. Then we come home! I went from developing National Intellegence Estimates to working in a factory spraying glue on kitchen counter tops. I later got into Law Enforcement and felt meaning again, but local politics lacked that trust in the buddy next to you. Then I went into the tech industry and went well during the wireless boom, again, that feeling of meaning and purpose, and now since 2008 and the economic collapse. I sit a 52 year old Vet once again fealing no purpose wishing I could get back into the game!

    Thanks for the article, it helps to know I am not alone!

    1. Unfortunately this goes for non combat Veterans as well. After 13 years of faithful military service I was forced out in 94 due to military cutbacks and had no clue how to adapt to civilian life. I was use to structure honor pride, having my Army brothers and sisters at my side watching out for me and I for them.
      I fell into a deep depression no one in civilian life cared about what I did in the Army and being a 05H I could tell them very little. All the awards I’d received were just pieces of paper. It took me quite a while to become adjusted to the ways of civilian life. All the required classes that we took to prepare us didn’t cover the most important thing and that’s reality.
      I feel for all the combat vets what they must go thru and pray they get taken better care of. I would also suggest that the military have a veteran who’s made the transition come in and speak during the ets phase so those who are getting out aren’t shell shocked as I and many many others were.
      Thanks to my brother Sam for posting this great read and one that should be shared get the word out.

      1. Thank you for comment. I agree that having former Veterans talk to those who are about to transition is a highly valuable practice. In Canada we have a program that was designed for that exact purpose. I spoke with a Veteran who had a very difficult transition and was hired to talk about his experience with military personnel in transition. Not only did it help others, but it also helped him regain that sense of purpose and contribution to a worthy cause.

    2. Thank you for this comment! I am honored to hear that it helps. I have personally never served in the military, but many of the Veterans I spoke with, intelligence officers in particular, had a similar experience. The extremely high degree of regulation prohibits many from even being able to discuss their issues with a psychologist/ therapist. Getting security clearance for more therapists would help quite a bit. In addition, if more Veterans become therapists themselves, this would also help. As for missing the military and the lack of purpose in civilian life, I think you might like another article I’ve written that has quite a bit of overlap with this one, but has additional content:

      I wish you the best in your future endeavors. Stay in touch and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

  3. Great article Steve. I love the term “moral injury” – it is isn’t it – a fracturing of values and beliefs.
    You nailed it here : ” When a veteran’s narrative collapses upon transition to civilian life, we can understand the risk of suicide by studying the social roots of this tragic event.”

    I think what may be equally interesting is to study what compels people to become soldiers and what links lay their in the family system and the quest for meaning.

    Life is a kind of chaotic narrative that forms around a kind of gravitational center of meaning (I’m thinking here of the strange attractors of chaos theory). I think ALL trauma disturbs and reshapes that sense of meaning but no so greatly as war. WHO AM I now ??? Seems to be the great silent war cry of veterans who struggle to adapt to civilian life and maybe all veteran. Hence the movement towards addictive behaviours that have the potential to set up transgenerational trauma, loss and grief and further addictive behaviours.

    Soldiers and veterans are part of family systems – their comrades and their actually families. And I suspect that war creates a new set of dynamics in the family system, that reshapes meaning for everyone touched by the intimacy of leaving home and fighting.

    Maybe what matters most is finding ways to translate our ideas about changing meaning into support mechanism for veterans. Especially those who despise official help and groups and go at it alone. The one’s most at risk of suicide !

    Keep up the great work Steve !

    Bright. 😉

  4. I also have been out for 5 years, I find myself on YouTube and liveleak watching firefights.. just wishing I were there.. what makes it worse is i’m still young enough to reenlist, but i have type 1 diabetes. So my body and very existence feels like a prison.

  5. It’s completely true. As I’ve been “out” almost 5 years now there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish to go back to the place where everything was known and simple even if the situation and elements weren’t.

    1. I completely agree, its been a long time and I would leave my (“successful”) career in a heartbeat to return to Iraq with my buddies.

    2. Im in the same shoes as all you guys. War is hell, but my life without war IS HELL… For some of us you get that edge of combat and it is always programmed into our soul. We will never forget our fallen battle buddies.

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