Military Psychology Sociology

Military Identity, Civilian Isolation

Our identity is bound up with our sense of purpose. This sense of purpose may be strong when guided by a clear mission, but can be weak when feeling directionless...

When leaving the military, many veterans feel they are leaving more than just a job. They are leaving a vocation, a family, and a mission. They are leaving a way of life based on shared experiences, shared purpose, and a bond built on trusting others with your life. Even among those who have not deployed, the the military fosters a strong sense of identity among its members, based on this highly communal way of life.

Comparatively, civilian life does not offer the same level of purpose and bonding in its roles, often resulting in a sense of isolation among veterans in transition. This is an issue that does not get nearly as much attention as PTSD, leaving veterans feeling misunderstood or confused by the fact that they can’t quite put a name to the issue they are experiencing.

Through my research with Canadian veterans, I have proposed that the sociological concept of anomie encapsulates this issue, demonstrating how one’s social context interacts with one’s identity, creating a transitional injury distinct from PTSD. Therefore, independent of having experienced psychological trauma during one’s time of service, veterans may be faced with a sociologically anomic transition, leaving them with a sense of isolation and lack of purpose.

Anomie is a concept used by Sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe a society lacking social 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 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 enact 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 social regulation (anomie) in civilian life can leave veterans disoriented. The fact that anomie has been normalized in the West creates a consumer culture 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, directionless, and isolating.

On the level of identity, anomie occurs when an individual is unable to derive a sense of meaning or purpose from one’s social environment. According to Powell in The Design of Discord, a central area of life where individuals find purposive action is through 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.

Identity is more than our self-perceptions and our social relations, as discussed in the majority of literature on individual identity and social identity. Our identity is bound up with our sense of purpose. This sense of purpose may be strong when guided by a clear mission, but can be weak when feeling directionless.

The military provides individuals with a highly regulative social environment, instilling the strong sense of purpose that upholds the military identity. When leaving the military, the relative lack of social regulation in civilian life creates an anomic environment, leaving veterans feeling ambivalent about their identity. Although some may bolster their military identity in civilian life by fixating on military related interests and topics of conversation, there is still an underlying sense of isolation and disconnection. In the case of veterans who are holding on to the stoic military masculinity, it often affects their ability to express themselves or display vulnerable emotions when suffering.

In my interviews with 35 Canadian Veterans of Afghanistan, ‘anomie’ was a major theme found in the narratives. In order to capture the essence of this theme, I’ve thematically extracted several quotes from my interviews and pieced them together to form the following poetic style narrative. In order to reinforce the sociological nature of the issue, the final three lines is a quote from Durkheim’s book, Suicide, in his chapter on Anomie.

I also want to say thank-you to the Canadian Veterans who gave their time and insight in the interviews. Here is a compilation of their stories, woven into a single voice:

As an eighteen-year-old kid, the military gives you a sense of purpose,
It give you a sense of responsibility that you don’t usually get at eighteen.
At thirty-five I have to be my five-year-old self all over again,
“What do you want to be when you grow up?’”
Trying to find my place; who am I? Where am I going to go?
What am I going to do now?
You don’t have an answer for who you are, you’re just kind of a lost soul.

The military is like your parents,
You’re taught how to behave, how to look, how to react to things.
You don’t have that military conscience on your shoulder anymore,
Now I just have to be accountable to myself, and that’s a problem.
I found it easier to think on my feet for eight guys
than it is to organize my day-to-day here.
There were rules in the army,
there was a reason for people to do better and to be better.

Everything is so black and white when you’re in the military,
Do something wrong, you get jacked up hard,
In the civilian-world,“something got missed? Oh well, we’ll get it next time,”
To me that’s like “what? Get it next time?”
I came from an environment where sometimes there is no next time,
You do this right or that’s it, somebody fucking dies.

The military is an F-1 racecar in comparison to the company I am at now,
Going from working in a high-performance team to working in a B team or a C team.
I would walk out of meetings going, “that was two hours of god-damn time wasted,”
I work really long hours, but that’s our commitment, that’s our dedication.
I find meaning working with a bunch of people that are motivated, driven, and ambitious,
That’s what I had in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life,
There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered.
I felt like that was the pentacle of my life,
And now you’re supposed to find something else and find new meaning?
I wondered whether my life would be better if I were dead than alive,
I wondered whether my best days were behind me.

The most difficult thing is knowing that I can’t go back.
I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at,
But I miss the sense of purpose that comes with combat.
Beyond your paycheck, you get paid psychologically in the military,
…a sense of purpose, focus, comradare, mission, and all those kinds of things,
There’s a lot of people that would just do it for the psychological payoff but no money.

You’re used to doing things that mattered,
Now suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead.
“Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…
…this race for an unattainable goal can give no other pleasure but that of the race itself,
Once it is interrupted the participants are left empty-handed.”

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  1. Thanks for bringing attention to this important topic. My boyfriend is an infantry sergeant twice deployed and this is probably very close to what he struggles with:

    “Having experienced life or death decision-making and the necessity of clear focused attention, civilian life appears loose and actions appear inconsequential.”

    He often expresses that sometimes he’d rather be in Afghanistan because there was only one thing to worry about over there (“not getting dead”), whereas civilian life presents all sorts of various stressors and uncertainties.

  2. I had a rough time with this when I left military service in 2012 shortly after my second combat deployment. Not saying that I don’t still struggle with some issues, but finding a career in emergency services has been a good outlet for me. The best way I can describe feeling in civilian life, after combat, is under-stimulated. Civilian emergency services doesn’t bring the same level of “stimulation” that Afghanistan did, but it helps keep anomie in check.

  3. Thanks for sharing this insight because it puts things in civilian life i to perspective. I agree that our lives is based on following money and consumption. Some peopl find purpose when they are actually living their passion. However the majority of people walk aimlessly through life with no clear direction. I beleive if you look for what makes you really happy without considering the money factor as number will find your purpose and life will take on a whole new meaning. The money will be an afterthought which will come in pursue of your ultimate purpose.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I found this very much in line with my own research, personal experience and conversations. This to me means that more focus should be spent in this area of research for PTSD. PTSD has been used to give a blanket response to any issue that a veteran has to deal with. The worst part is that when you lump everyone together and medicate them the same it doesn’t solve anything and could cause worse issues. Thanks again!

  5. Good article Steve. For me – the first five years post retirement from the Canadian Forces, were the worst. The thing I missed most were my peers.

  6. Steve, a slightly unrelated question: In reading “Shoot like a girl”, the author who was a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan–three tours–suggested that women are more prone ti having PTSD. She also said they she had “checked it out”, and confirmed it.

    Now, I believe that women are more emotional, for the most part, than men, perhaps due to the motherly instinct. But also, as they tend to be more socially-oriented than their male colleagues, they tend to re-adjust to civilian life more quickly.

    Now, she hadn’t mentioned any had injuries. Do you have any feelings whether women are more prone. Thanks, as always.

    1. According to a new study: “A study of U.S. Navy healthcare personnel has shown that when comparing the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women and men who had similar deployment experiences, and especially combat experience, the risk of PTSD was significantly higher among women.”
      This finding had been also found in other studies, including this one:

  7. Great, as always, Dr. Rose. I’m wondering if you have looked at the role of intersectionality when analyzing your interviews with veterans? I was thinking how that might provided more ways to think about the connection between their experiences and identities and the theory of anomie.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Pegoda! Always good to see your feedback. You are right that intersectionality could help make sense of identity, especially the role of masculinity. This seems particularly relevant for its impact on emotional regulation. Although anomie is about social regulation, distinct from emotional relation, it does seem to have an impact on it. In the case of veterans who are holding on to the stoic military masculinity, it often affects their ability to express themselves or display vulnerable emotions when suffering. This is comparable to the part where I stated, “Although some may bolster their military identity in civilian life by fixating on military related interests and topics of conversation, there is still an underlying sense of isolation and disconnection.” Continuing to hold this militarily functional masculinity does have an individually regulative function, but it is dysfunctional in the context of civilian transition where it becomes a mask of masculinity. It becomes an individual way to cope with anomie rather than a solution to it. Canada’s Veteran Transition Network is doing a lot of great work in this area:

  8. This is helping in understanding my time with my former husband who served as a nuke on subs for 6 years in the Navy, often in unfriendly waters. I suspect he always harbored trauma from those duties, at least 320 days a year in an underwater can. He also suffered an abusive home life as a child with significant trauma there too. It was when serving at Ground Zero of 9/11/2001 for 4 months that his trauma ramped up into overdrive and made itself known, especially when he had followed up his Ground Zero service by serving an additional 3 years afterwards as a federal officer chasing down nukes, dirty bombs, and terrorists. In ‘civilian’ life, he detached from our social circles.The only place he found any relief mentally and emotionally was at the local VFW in the company of military veterans, which is also to say that he found tremendous refuge in the bottle. After working Ground Zero and after engaging in too many years of anti-terrorism work afterwards, he hit a breaking point and suffered severe panic attacks and severe episodes of PTSD. Eventually, he detached from me too. He could not relate to the meaningless daily lives of our friends and family, and maybe it was that he eventually could not relate to me as well, because we eventually divorced (loved each other immensely, I know for sure, and yet divorced). I felt a similar detachment from society after 9/11 by virtue of being so close to him, recognizing the immense importance of his work, and witnessing him deteriorate. It was us against the world then. He became chronically ill from working Ground Zero at the WTC towers and died at age 58 a little over a year ago. Can’t say I’ve reconnected with society since 9/11, probably BECAUSE of my experiences with him. I kind of regard him as ‘my’ 9/11. I’ve read somewhere this can regarded as a sort of secondary traumatic stress. Whatever it is, I related tremendously to your article.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Sue. It sounds like your former husband has been through a lot difficult things throughout his life. I am glad this has resonated with you. Thanks again for taking the time to read and share.

  9. Happened to my dad back in 1967 when they “young up” the military and booted out those that had been in 20 years. Dad was 47 and too old to start civilian life during that era…took a downward spiral with alcohol. What a shame.
    Thanks for this post.

    1. I am sorry to hear about your father. What a tragic experience. It’s systemic problems like these that create highly preventable health issues. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Thanks for a very useful article on transitioning from military to civilian life. I’ll find it helpful as a psychologist when I work with veterans. Every person has the challenge of creating meaning and purpose in life. The additional difficulty for those leaving the military or even just leaving combat for noncombat duty is that war is abnormally intense in almost every way on top of the unusually tight organization, structure and control of the military. The challenge is to help veterans create their own life meaning and purpose where it was provided for them or forced on them by the military.
    I was in my mid twenties with a Master’s degree when I served in combat, so I already had direction and purpose to transition back to. I did not have the difficulty transitioning that I might have at age 18 right out of high school.
    Thanks again for a thought provoking article.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It looks like you had a lot to come back to, given your educational standing. You are right that the issue disproportionally affects those without higher education, particularly those who are older and served longer, as well.

  11. I recently took a course on suicide intervention and one of the participants, a veteran herself, is working with veterans. They are using social media to keep that connection alive. They do regular check-ins and if someone doesn’t respond one of the group was immediately calling them. Not ideal but apparently it’s working.

    1. Very good to hear! Which course was it? I recently did the ASSIST training for suicide intervention. We hear so many negative things about how social media isolates us, but often forget how it connects us in positive ways. I agree that it is not ideal, but glad to see it’s working.

  12. Just logged in to say, YES! And I think there’s an odd chance that I used to have a military identity because of how this resonated with me. It’s something I have to think about more though, and/or find information about.

      1. I managed to skim through the book you linked, and I think the idea of stoicism in some form was very relevant to certain factors in my life. Growing up we weren’t allowed to cry, raise/dis-regulate our voices, and in essence had to act with “Comportment”. Things had to be done “Right” the Absolute first time. Hence a reason why this probably resonated with me (even as a civilian).

        In a sense, it probably sounds like a harsh childhood growing up in a stoic household where children aren’t allowed to cry…etc, but in hindsight it makes sense. Father went through military training, and that’s probably what saved him from going to jail during his youth. He probably figured he needed to be a sort of Authoritarian figure to minimize such developments in his kids.

        Nowadays I find myself more ambitious, and driven than my current peers with a penchant/desire for perfection. A part of me wonders how often that happens to people though that aren’t affiliated either indirectly, or directly with the Military.

        In essence, how divergent are life paths if a person has a rigorous (stoic) upbringing over a complacent upbringing? Does a “family/generation” need occasional service in something like the military to keep the “family/generation” going upwards? I mean I can easily see non-rigorous developments leading to complacency/decay if there isn’t a occasional shock to promote “Order/Discipline” (both in individuals, and at a societal scale).

  13. Steve, another great piece. Personally, I believe that the psychological factors that effect a person, post-military duty. depends on: why you went in; what you had expected to accomplish; whether you accomplished it; what you returned to and also your personal outlook on life, and expectations.

    When I read “Tribe”, which discusses a number of variations on this same theme, I recall that the people who were in the middle of the stress: war; London Blitz, they seemed to have come through without the problems, as compared to those on the sidelines. For me, in Vietnam, I was not in the “combat arms”.

    As a young boy, I had uncles and knew men who had been in WWII and Korea. I never sensed any mental anguish. They returned home, married, raised families, none were wealthy, and they never spoke about it.

    I realize, however, that there are men, and perhaps now women, who are somewhat fixated on what they did, back 10, 20, 30 years ago.Maybe, something is lacking in their lives, and re-living the past. Perhaps, there are a few who were likewise superstar athletes back “in the day”.

    And maybe, I’m just philosophic. I never resented going in, accomplished what I had wanted, and returned to civilian life, finishing my education, raising a family, and now retired into a comfortable life.

    1. Oddly, I can agree with the element of fixation. I’m not sure, but I think it feels like I’ve lost entire years, and I can’t recall if I served or not. It just seems like certain “Times/Years” are Blank, and I can’t recall anything of it. I’d like to, for it is elements of my Overall Identity, but I don’t know how to recover them. I want to say I was “Spec Ops”, but I can’t verify any of it. Mentally, or physically….which is troubling. I keep finding myself in “certain sections” of Youtube/Online that relate to Military Life, but I don’t know why.

      Spiritually, I just want to say, “Yes, you did Serve”. There’s just no proof, so it’s all Faith.

    2. Thanks again for all of your support on each post and for your well considered comments! I agree that individual factors are very important. I like your list: “why you went in; what you had expected to accomplish; whether you accomplished it; what you returned to and also your personal outlook on life, and expectations.” All of these things bolster psychological resilience since they prepare an individual both existentially and cognitively for the experience of service and transition. Glad to hear you have transitioned successfully in to a comfortable civilian life.

  14. Very useful Article here outlining the often overlooked and often under acknowleged | misunderstood challenges of “transitioning” from Military service. Thank you for posting this Steve as I am certain it will assist many in understanding and now recognizing that Transitioning is a phase and not neccessarily a “life sentence”.

  15. I’ve heard similar comments many times in my life coming from a large family with more than a dozen veterans. My son and son-in-law both currently serve.

    How can we best help members of the military re-acclimate into the civilian world? I’ve volunteered with community-based groups, but it’s like throwing a cup of water on a blazing inferno. We need systems in place on a scale much larger than our government seems interested in addressing.

    Excellent commentary!

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