“…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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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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