Military Sociology

Veterans Critique Modern Society

city_in_iron_cage

“…the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment…. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”Max Weber

Many of us may believe that life in the military would feel like an iron cage, constraining our freedom to live the lives we want, but throughout my research I have found that Veterans often see civilian life in this way. Although the military provides a much higher level of social regulation, it’s the high level of unregulated consumerism in civilian life that feels like the iron cage, preventing individuals from living more meaningful lives.

Sociologists have been critiquing this modern phenomenon since the 19th century – Weber’s description of the spirit of capitalism, Marx’s critique of economic capital, and Durkheim’s theory of anomic suicide from unregulated consumption. Here I build on these classic critiques of modern society with the insight provided by Veterans whose experiences illuminate these theories.

The main critiques are that there is too much emphasis on trivial issues, a sense that the West is cut off from the deep suffering from injustices experienced throughout the world, and that modern capitalist societies have a lack of social solidarity based in a sense of loyalty and interdependence. Speaking to the first two issues, one Veteran states:

“It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.”

Another states:

“There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered…”

Bryan Wood mirrors this sentiment in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, his 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…”

This sentiment often creates a deep interpersonal rift between Veterans and civilians. As one Veteran I spoke with states:

“I have a really hard time connecting with people in the civilian world now, I just can’t do it.”

Another states:

“Everything’s amazing here and people are still miserable… now try making friends with those people.”

In addition to the sense of triviality and disconnect, Veterans also offer strong critiques of consumer individualism. As an individual I spoke with states:

“Once we are done our tour, once we leave, we are thrown back into our Canadian society where we are back to dog-eat-dog competition, individualism and materialism, and even if suffering from PTSD or difficulty with adjusting to life back in Canada, we would rather redeploy on a dime and get back to that balance that being in combat brings, that leveler of us all.”

Another states:

“The bond is very strong between service-people and there’s a lot of importance placed on relationships… as soon you join a team everybody will intuitively connect as much and as fast as they can with people around them, and that would actually freak out my civilian counterparts.”

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.”

Veterans often return to civilian life unable to find meaning in the modern rat-race and miss the strong interpersonal bonds of loyalty and interdependence found within their unit. Although the military may look like an iron cage, we need to consider how civilian life’s invisible constraints keep us from living more meaningful lives. When the things we own begin to own us, we lose sight of what really matters.


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18 comments

  1. This is a rather poignant and telling piece on the struggles of veterans transitioning out of military service. A problem with modern society as it is now operating is that of necessity the social fabric has broken down. I say of necessity, because Capitalist mythology has us all isolated as independent consumers of whatever is being sold. The problem is not, nor has it ever been, the particular economic structure of a society. The problem is that we as a species have not evolved much from the social structure of our evolutionary cousins the Great Apes. We organize our societies as hierarchies with those on top receiving the lion’s share of power. There is a certain comfort to this for us humans since in truth life is and always has been a very threatening proposition and we are very mortal creatures.

    Those in the military derive much comfort from the social support that surrounds them and the command structure that makes life so much easier, with only the orders of “superiors” to follow. We have organized our societies as oligarchies, where those at the top of the food chain see their roles as shearing the sheep, rather than caring for them. This promotes an every person for themselves mindset, as opposed to the team concept that pervades military life. The human question is not how to organize a society from an economic viewpoint, but how to create a human society where we feel somewhat responsible for and connected to, our fellow human beings. It is only in a society where that idea has primacy, that we can feel the comfort of being a part of something greater than its parts. A synergy. In military service that spirit is fostered and ex-military people face an obvious let down in returning to civilian life where that doesn’t exist.

  2. One of your readers commented, “Capitalistic society imposes constraints from living more meaningful lives. We have to realize we don’t really own anything…things are just borrowed for a time for our use and pleasure.” I am a mid-fifties conservative American citizen who believes wholly in capitalism and free enterprise. We have been fighting socialism for some time now. I do not subscribe to the idea that government should force successful citizens to “share the wealth” with individuals who seem to do nothing to improve their situation in life. We are struggling in America with a growing sense of “entitlement” to government programs ranging from welfare cash benefits to food stamps to free cell phones. Although it would be nice if everyone had what they needed in order to “keep up” with their neighbors, the cost of government making this possible tends to push countries to the edge of insolvency. Moreover, it creates a bigger and more intrusive government. I will never forget the words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. Creating a “nanny state” leads only to more and more dependency. People lose the need or the will to care for themselves. I read a bumper sticker recently that said, “Self-sufficient American Onboard.” I think that really sums up what I am trying to say here.

  3. I think that perhaps the focus on materialism could be that it is an obvious, physical example of the difference they feel exists between them and the world they have returned to. Having lived a life so dramatically different and unexpected compared to their home life in Canada, regaining a perspective that aligns with our and their old society would be very difficult. Each war or battle zone, brings soldiers back with this disconnect. They fought and saw things no one should have to see, survived and then probably assume the rest of the world will have somehow come to understand the magnitude of the soldiers’ experiences and what has gone on in other parts of the world. That lack of comprehension by the folks back home appears as frivolity and shallowness to them. It is the big disconnect. How does a soldier who survived Ypres in the trenches, the Battle of Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, and so many other battles relate to a place and people who continued living the life the soldier had left? Time and help will only determine who realigns and then tries to go forward, some making a major difference, some making a ‘normal’ life once more. Some look for a way to maintain the high they felt in battle, like Mallory and friends, Challenging themselves with dangerous occupations and cheating death as long as they can. Others end up dependent upon drugs and drink like our Billy Bishop. No less a hero, no less a man. Just pushed past an invisible limit. They don’t see the real world as that real.
    The bond that existed between soldiers goes way beyond friendship I believe. These are the people who had your back, and you had theirs. Coming home from daily duty was a sign you had been there for them. Only they understood what you had seen, experienced and felt. I don’t think there is another bond like it, built under such conditions and for such sustained periods of time. 9/11 built ties between some of the survivors and their fellow ‘victims’. Based on their shared experiences. No one else can understand that bond. So no wonder soldiers want to hold onto their circle of friends and see those relationships as so important to their being.
    For many, returning home must be the beginning of another battle involving family and friends this time as all of them try to develop, not reestablish new personal links and relationships.
    I can’t imagine what it feels like to return after combat. I can only intellectualize about it.

  4. Lots of food for thought in this one. It’s so easy to get sucked into the materialism thing. My husband and I are seeing the need for down-sizing and de-accumulating and it is a challenge. Much of the “stuff” we have has been given to us as gifts, but even though these things have emotional or friendshiip value, we just don’t need it. It’s a bit overwhelming how much we have that we don’t really need or would not even miss if we get rid of it. I don’t even know all that is in our closets. Maybe we should join the military?

  5. I believe the military provides a training ground for cooperation and obedience to a higher authority, with the common purpose of fighting a common enemy. The chain of command is crucial in life-0r-death decisions. However, when the leaders are misguided, they can take everyone else down with them.

    In civilian life, things are not so clear-cut. The individual must rely on her own decision-making powers, including who or what to trust–if anything–for guidance. The search for meaning or relevance is an internal one. The quality of one’s relationships (with other people or with life in general) then becomes a measure of a person’s self-esteem.

    It saddens me that so many vets miss the camaraderie of shared purpose in the military yet cannot translate that into meaningful activity in civilian life. For instance, a grass-roots campaign to support homeless vets, or bring soldiers home to work on the dilapidated infrastructure–or revive passenger rail–could do a lot to rebuild faith in America and Americans that we seem to have lost. We have abandoned our own to fight everyone else’s battles.

  6. “Veterans often return to civilian life unable to find meaning in the modern rat-race and miss the strong interpersonal bonds of loyalty and interdependence found within their unit. Although the military may look like an iron cage, we need to consider how civilian life’s invisible constraints keep us from living more meaningful lives. When the things we own begin to own us, we lose sight of what really matters.”

    As a grandaughter, daughter, sister (x3), and mother of american servicemen who’ve all seen combat, I find your closing paragraph, as quoted above, true and not true. I’ve listened to their stories my whole life, and most of these stories begin and end the same…reminiscing about the men they served with, the impact they had on their lives, the laughter, the sorrows, the one-mindedness, and what they each wouldn’t give to be able to reunite with them. The desire for that is very strong, and lifelong. So, that is absolutely true.

    I don’t agree, however, with the generalization that they often cannot find meaning in the modern ‘rat-race’ as civilians…I can say from a long line of family experiences, there’s way more to that than just leaving military service…and as one of your commentors shared…a lot of vets went on to do some incredibly meaningful things in civilian life. And with one exception, the servicemen in my family went further in their civilian lives than they likely would have had they not learned the skills necessary to succeed professionally and personally, in the military.

    The last statement brings to mind thoughts I’ve often had over the years having lived with and around military installations a good part of my growing up years…I’ve never seen people spend money on ‘things’ like a military man/woman. Cars, motorcycles, boats, toys, toys, toys. And it hasn’t changed. But, in the context of what you’re stating here…I can’t help but wonder if the penchant for buying buying buying is in some way, filling a hole in their lives. I used to think it was just because they were, more often than not, kids when they joined, so spending was the thing. But since, (and I see this with my own son who is now in his 30s) the spending increased exponentially when he was medically retired. He wanted to be a lifer, but after injuries in combat, that was no longer an option. He suffers PTSD but I think the worst thing he suffers is survivor’s guilt and separation from his brothers in arms, to which I feel he tries spending his way out of. And his toy of choice is guns…it connects him to like minded men…not quite the same…but I think it’s a substitute.

    Sorry for the long comment…I just dropped by to thank you for the follow and honestly, I wanted to ask what it was you saw in mine that made you want to, knowing what your field of study is. I’m happy you did, but was just curious. I look forward to reading more of what you’ve written, and the comments that follow. I’d just like to say I’m glad there is an interest in what happens when they come home…and I hope the research you share leads others to becoming more educated or even, getting involved. So, thank you for that….R

  7. While it was only a brief period, the social transformations the occurred in the aftermath of WW II are a fascinating support for these statements. The elite actually went to war, and discovered a great solitary with the men that saved their lives. As described in “The Guardians”, they came back and established the Veteran’s home and college programs, they opened the gates of the Ivy League colleges, and many of them entered public service. In part, it was their egalitarian attitude that facilitated the flourishing of the American middle class.

    Contrast this was our 43rd president, who while in college apparently claimed that his father’s generation had “betrayed their class.”

  8. This has been one of these best articles I have read in awhile. We refer to each other (Vets) as…”They Get It”. The hard part is finding that sense of purpose and accomplishment again.

  9. I don’t know if we can judge people that easily. You or I might find what “civilians” are striving for is silly and vapid, maybe a lot of veterans do as well, but that is just our opinion, not an objective fact. For someone, a Jag or o Porsche might bring true joy, for me, it would still be a car. Vets might think they have a better angle on life and what’s important because of what they went through, but that is their opinion. Value for most, if not all, things isn’t intrinsic after all.

    1. True that it is not good to be judgemental!

      Buying a Porsche and buying a Ford is indeed the same when considered alone, done for pure transportation or pleasure and assuming the Porsche owner is ok to downgrade to a Ford where the need arises.

      However, could it be that it is the outcome/process that instead determines value?

      That is, if the saved money is deployed for a useful outcome e.g. in investing for some future good, or in using the savings to help a present circumstance e.g. aiding the elderly poor with their daily meals. then of course, I may be wrong… : /

      1. But that’s judging them again, isn’t it? To me every car is the same, to a friend his Jaguar is sheer bliss. He bought it because it made him happy, another person is happy feeding the poor by the score every Saturday. Since everyone is working for their happiness, why should we judge them for what makes them happy? Two exceptions I can think of though. The obvious ones are the person who is happy making someone miserable and the one who thinks getting some material object would automatically grant him bliss. Everyone doesn’t buy a Porsche because he/she is a car nut, the company would have folded up a long tie ago if that were true. Many buy it because they think it’s the epitome of a flamboyant success story. People with an external focus of validation. they can buy and buy and buy but might never be truly happy.

    2. Thank you for the critique. This is intended to be a critique of the external validation that comes with consumer culture, rather than a critique of the specific interests of individuals.

  10. I’ve heard these statements many times and understand how they can feel that way, but not in a way like they do simply because I have never served in the military. There is a great bond there that lasts forever. My husband served in the Marine’s and I know that part of his life will always be a part of him and the bond never broken.

  11. Unspoken Abandonment as quoted by one veteran I think sums up the frustration experienced by veterans who view their new life in assimilated capitalistic society.
    I like the thought the veteran had from his experience of a supportive social environment with cohesiveness and social network he’d ever experienced. Interestingly he felt his suffering wasn’t b/c of what was bad but missing what was good.
    A reintroduction of a rat race style of capitalistic living. I for one totally agree. Strong interpersonal bonds of loyalty and interdependence. Capitalistic society imposes constraints from living more meaningful lives. We have to realize we don’t really own anything…things are just borrowed for a time for our use and pleasure.
    The military is not the iron cage, civilian life creates it’s own form of a conformity cage!
    Final Thoughts from quotations above in alignment with the above critique:
    As Weber says; his description of the spirit of capitalism, Marx’s critique of economic capital, and Durkheim’s theory of anomic suicide from unregulated consumption. Here I build on these classic critiques of modern society with the insight provided by Veterans whose experiences illuminate these theories.

    The main critiques are that there is too much emphasis on trivial issues, a sense that the West is cut off from the deep suffering from injustices experienced throughout the world, and that modern capitalist societies have a lack of social solidarity based in a sense of loyalty and interdependence.

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