We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought.
– Chris Hedges in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
Going beyond Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, psychologists have developed the concept of ‘moral injury’ to describe issues related to the moral conscience of individuals who experience morally transgressive events in combat. In my sociological research, although I’ve found these types of traumatic events to be problematic, I’ve found that an additional moral trauma often includes the transition to civilian-life itself. By using a sociological definition of morality, I’ve focused on morally injurious cultural transitions, demonstrating how the risk of suicide in the veteran population is tied to this cultural phenomenon. Rather than focusing exclusively on individual disorders, it is important to look at problems in the social environment.
This perspective on morality and the social environment is based on Émile Durkheim’s sociological definition of morality as social regulations that contribute to functional social integration. In other words, morality binds individuals into meaningful social groups by compelling them to sacrifice their individual desires for the greater good of that group. For example, the military promotes this type of behavior in its institutional practices, and combat solidifies it in its ability to foster intense love relations among comrades in arms.
Morality compels altruistic behavior, but it also produces a sense of meaning and purpose in individuals, allowing them to overcome the most challenging obstacles without falling into despair. As Sebastian Junger states:
Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up… to a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake…. These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not most alive… the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again.
Durkheim, in Suicide, illustrates the necessity of a strong integrating social force when he states:
Society is the end on which our better selves depend, it cannot feel us escaping it without a simultaneous realization that our activity is purposeless… In this case the bond attaching man to life relaxes because that attaching him to society is itself slack.
Upon return to civilian life, the bond attaching individuals to collective life needs to be rebuilt.
The need to reintegrate veterans back into a meaningful moral community is addressed by U.S. Marine Corps veteran Lu Lobello. He returned from Iraq feeling he had lost a sense of community. The corps had represented a safe sacred social space where individuals came together to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The sense of mission and tight-knit bonds provided resilience in the face of an enemy; but loosing this community upon return to civilian-life can make fighting the battle of returning home more difficult than combat.
Ten years after his return, Lu found an answer to the problem he and many others face. He created a corps community called ‘Squadbay’ – a non-profit group that deploys to assist in humanitarian relief missions. Squadbay’s website states:
For the veteran volunteers suffering from PTSD, Moral Injury or TBI, Squadbay provides a much needed mission, so the vets feel as though they are once again part of something bigger than themselves.
The group has recently commenced their first deployment to provide disaster relief in the Philippines, and it has proven to be a great success. Squadbay offers veterans a new mission where they can “bring life, instead of taking it,” and “carry a hammer and shovel instead of a rifle and ammo.”
Focusing on benefits and individual treatments can only go so far. Although veterans in transition are vulnerable, they are not broken. As Steven Pressfield states:
The returning warrior may not realize it, but he has acquired an MBA in enduring adversity and a Ph.D. in resourcefulness, tenacity and the capacity for hard work.
Their vulnerability is the result of a broken social environment. Veterans need a social median to apply their skills in order to reconnect in life after combat. Lu’s organization, as well as others such as Team Rubicon and the Canadian Treble Victor Group are examples of valuable organizations reconnecting veterans to communal life after military service.
*This post is a brief version of my recent presentation at the 2014 Canadian Sociological Association Congress in a panel dedicated to a “Durkheimian Analysis of Vulnerable Persons” organized by Dr. Paul Datta.