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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