“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”
Anomie is a concept used by Sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe a society lacking moral regulation. An 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 desires 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 is illustrated in 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.
In a sense, war is a spiritual experience. It binds individuals into tighter bonds than they can experience in any religious congregation, gives them a clearer sense of guiding purpose than any sermon, and makes them face their own mortality head on. In What it is Like to go to War, Karl Marlantes says that simply expecting a veteran to “adjust” to civilian life, “is akin to asking Saint John of the Cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.”
The relative lack of moral regulation in civilian life can leave veterans disoriented. Anomie has been normalized in the West, creating an individualistic environment where the pursuit of wealth and the consumption of goods dominates our lives. 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 reduce the risk of suicidal ideation among individuals whose lives have lost meaning during the transition to the civilian world, veteran programs need to consider this important existential component to civilian transition. Civilians need to stop blaming every issue on war and take a look at themselves. As started by a Veteran who commented on my previous post on combat withdrawal:
The deployment was the easy part. What it seems these experiences have done to us (in my opinion) has opened our eyes to the failings of our society, our communities and our collective.
To receive email updates when new articles are published, insert your email address below.