Throughout thirty-five interviews with Canadian veterans of Afghanistan and a review of several war memoirs and documentary accounts, missing combat stood out as one of the most common sentiments. Although this is probably no surprise to military personnel and veterans, it is something that is completely counter-intuitive in the civilian world. In civilian-life, safety, security, and comfort are valued above all else. So how can an experience characterized by danger, uncertainty, and discomfort be missed? It’s the sense of purpose that comes with the role. One Canadian veteran states:
“I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at, but you miss the purpose that comes with the combat.”
“It’s the idea that for six months or whatever, you’re really in the shit, you’re in the thick of it, you are really doing something; you’re doing something that people are talking about, you’re doing something that’s cool, you’re doing something with your friends, it’s hard, it’s crazy, and it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life, and when you come back and your don’t have that anymore, it’s hard. It’s hard to think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again, I’m never going to be able to go back to that.’”
And another who served with the British Army states:
“I wondered whether my life would be better if I were dead than alive… I wondered whether my best days were behind me.”
The thought suicide after returning to the comforts of civilian life is a reminder of Émile Durkheim’s sociological insight in Suicide when he states:
“…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.”
Rather than blaming the harsh conditions of Afghanistan for veteran suicides, we need to look at how the culture of civilian life may actually be a major culprit.
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.”
Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:
“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”
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 and dull. This is why we not only need programs for psychological traumas such as PTSD, but for reintegration traumas as well. Sebastian Junger illustrates this issue in War, stating:
“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.”
In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:
The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.
A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:
“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”
Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart. Units train together, deploy together, and should come home together. Although it is beneficial to treat individuals who suffer psychological traumas on an individual basis, we need to consider the social traumas not currently being addressed by this popular form of treatment. As Jessie Odom states in, Through Our Eyes:
“the story does not end on the battlefield. For most, the story has just begun.”
In sociological terms, the risk of suicide due to transition is called ‘anomie’. The social source of 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”.
One of my interview participants states, “I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was.” Leaving a specialized role that provided a high degree individual significance and direction through a communal purpose, “you go from a hero to a zero…” as another veteran said. 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 again illustrated by Sebastian Junger :
“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.
Victor Frankl says that 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. Sociologically speaking, we need to consider the profound effects of ‘anomie’ in transitioning veteran populations. Used by Émile Durkheim to describe a society lacking moral regulation, anomic society lacks the moral signposts that guide individuals throughout their life-course, leaving them without direction to pursue collective goals. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, Durkheim observed the diminishing role of public morality in Western capitalist societies. Individual aspirations were no longer tightly regulated by traditional beliefs, and they were set free in the limitless pursuit of wealth. Throughout the 20th century market capitalism grew to a point where consumer culture added the imperative to consume. This cycle of limitless production and consumption reminds me of the Metric lyric: “Buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car.”
With all of our basic survival needs more than accounted for in the West, the pursuit of wealth became the central guiding sign-post in our lives. This was problematic for Durkheim since it left many lives in moral upheaval, driving new urbanites to commit suicide. Although anomie is sufficiently normalized in Western society today and no longer harmful to the average individual, military veterans often experience this same sense of moral culture shock in their transition to civilian life.
In his book, Suicide, Durkheim says anomie is a problem because it leaves individuals in a perpetual state of emptiness. Free from the yolk of tradition, our desires are limitless, producing a perpetual state of unhappiness:
“Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture… since this race for an unattainable goal can give no other pleasure but that of the race itself, it is one, once it is interrupted the participants are left empty-handed.”
Interrupted by existential shock in the reality of war, veterans often come back unable to find pleasure in the civilian rat-race. Having experienced life or death decision-making and the necessity of clear focused attention, civilian life appears loose and actions appear inconsequential. In War, Sebastion Junger writes:
In the civilian world almost nothing has lasting consequences, so you can blunder through life in a kind of daze. You never have to take inventory of the things in your possession and you never have to calculate the ways in which mundane circumstances can play out — can, in fact, kill you. As a result, you lose a sense of the importance of things, the gravity of things.
The relative lack of moral regulation in civilian life can leave veterans disoriented. The fact that anomie has been normalized in the West creates a general environment of decadence, where the pursuit of wealth/ the consumption of goods seems like the only game in town. Having faced one’s mortality surrounded by a tight-knit mission oriented group, the production/ consumption game looses its luster, appearing meaningless. In order to prevent suicidal ideation in individuals whose lives have lost meaning during the transition to the civilian world, veteran programs need to consider the important existential component to civilian transition.
Solutions may include veterans groups focused on the pursuit of a common purpose such as Team Rubicon, Squadbay, expeditions with Canada’s True Patriot Love Organization, or peer-support groups provided by Canada’s Veterans Transition Network, and Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program. Missing combat is a symptom of anomie. For most veterans it is manageable and they are able to move on, finding meaning in civilian occupations. For others, it is the most difficult thing they may face. Recognizing this reality is the first step to understanding the types of interventions we need to consider in order to combat the problem of life after combat.
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