On Missing Combat

military

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.”

Another states:

“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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32 thoughts on “On Missing Combat

  1. I read the entire piece, my third of yours today, but one part of this one has truly caused me to take note. I, myself am being treated for PTSD now at the age of 57 for problems derived from 3 separate attempts on my life between the ages of 6 and 8. My treatment for these problems only began recently, because I had left the home where these attacks occurred by the time I was 10-11, and never received any treatment then. But one of the things in the article by a soldier coming back could be the exact story of my own life and why I remained completely anti-social for over 40 years. I just couldn’t relate to what other people thought was “important” or significant in life. It always seemed so silly to me. Everything about life was always so boring, and when I read his statement that he missed combat, it just suddenly hit me, “I think I miss the danger I grew up in in that house!” How silly is that? Anyway, I had to tell somebody that, and I’m not scheduled to see the doctor for a few days. Sorry about the length of the comment, but thanks for the article.

  2. I have a son in the military and had never understood his unhappiness of barracks time as against active service. Your article has made me think differently about this conundrum.

  3. Very interesting and enlightening. I never realized soldiers could actually miss combat. My dad was in the Army almost 30 years and saw combat in Korea. Wish he was around to discuss this with him. Well-written!

  4. “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.”

    How true. I will address my ‘readjustment’ from a solders combat environment to the hum-drum boring live of a civilian in a soon to be written post.
    Thanks for taking time to visit my humble little blog.
    Happy Holidays

  5. This is sort of an eye opener for me. I normally don’t participate in many conversations about life as a veteran because as a Navy veteran, frankly, it seems like people don’t think we suffer anything at sea. Anyway, that’s a different topic really, but this post was interesting because it described a lot of feelings I’ve had since leaving active duty. I didn’t know other people missed the military like I sometimes do.

    Interesting blog, from what little I’ve read so far.

  6. First off, I’m going to apologize for being an American with a case of “specialness”. Some prefer to call it “American Exceptionalism”. I’ll be very honest, many of us have a mental image of Canadian Soldiers riding horses wearing funny red uniforms, which in fact are really police. But that’s not reality. Can I just blame our media? I have learned so much through blogging, but this is by far the biggest eye opener for me. I had no clue this was an issue in Canada or Britain. I see the effects of war through my husband, and I’m very aware of how my American society isn’t what it used to be. Not many Americans seem to understand our own soldiers, and unless they live near a military base, they’re not even aware that war is still raging on. They’re oblivious, and it bothers me. But I was oblivious to Canada. Thank you for opening my eyes.

  7. Wow. I learned so much from your article. I had similar experiences after leaving my job in the inner city. It was my purpose and there was such a sense of urgency in my work. It also increased my PTSD.
    Thanks so much for giving me a perspective of what veterans go through. I will enjoy following your well written blog.

  8. Thanks so much for this post. I’m a child abuse survivor, as well as a survivor of divorce from someone with an addiction, and I frequently don’t understand the little things that others worry about. If I catch myself complaining about “small” things, I feel guilty. Lately it seems to be a huge part of learning about myself, forgiving others, and thus overcoming (hopefully) more aspects of my PTSD. I appreciate it, and your service.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you can connect with this post. I just want to point out that I have not served in the military; rather, I am conducting research on the experiences of Canadian veterans in transition to civilian life.

  9. That was a fascinating (and unexpected in its complexity) perspective. I think anyone who has spent significant time with their life in danger (regardless of why) could relate to this post even if not to the “missing combat” aspect. Or maybe it’s a difference in how we’d define that phrase… i don’t know. I do know that i can easily relate to “the cultural shock when returning to civilian life.”
    Yes, a brilliant post indeed. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment! I have actually noticed people from diverse backgrounds are able to relate to this post, which was quite a surprise. Other individuals who have commented have shared similar sentiments.

  10. Brilliant post. I think men need that sense of purpose, and to feel that their role in life is defined. After training to be a solider, doing the job, and then returning to a disinterested or apathetic society is utterly devastating. There was a TV show aired in the States where returning vets starting walking the streets of troubled neighborhoods as law enforcement auxiliary. Slowly the people learned to trust and rely on the vets for safety and security.

  11. Thanks for such an awesome post. I’ve read Frankl before, and I have a family member suffering PTSD from Iraq/Afghanistan, but I’d never put the two together.

    Just curious: does your study mainly focus on the men who come back from war? Or do our women soldiers/doctors cope with the transition differently?

    1. Hi Anna,

      Thank you for your comment.
      My study only focuses on men. I chose to do this since including women would require a second study in order to do justice to their unique experience. Upon doing research in this area I found that some women actually don’t think of themselves as veterans and don’t receive the same amount of recognition as their male counterparts. Because of this, it would be valuable to do a full study on this experience to do a gender comparison.

      1. Wow, that’s really interesting. My family member is female, and my impression is that she’s more bothered by the bloodshed she saw than by missing the camaraderie. Which makes me wonder if adrenaline-based wartime bonding occurs more in men than in women. But in any case, this is a really illuminating post. Many thanks!

  12. I am a marine grunt and saw combat in Fallujah. I feel like I was meant to read this article, I feel like this article was written about me. It couldn’t be more exact and this past week was having thought of suicide and I want to get help. Does the VA know how to treat this problem is that where I should go to get help for this

    1. Hi Johnie,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m happy to hear this article connects with you.

      If you are having thoughts of suicide, you should seek help immediately. The VA can for sure assist with psychological counselling and therapies that are backed by a great deal of evidence and shown to be effective. Go to the VA to get properly assessed by a psychologist to determine your specific psychological state.

      Since I am a sociologist, I am not in a position to give advice on individual treatment beyond what I said above. My research on the concept of ‘anomie’ is a social problem that manifests as individual issues. The concept is meant to highlight a dysfunctional transition. As a society, we need to develop better systems for transitioning individuals, but on an individual level, you can look into some of the examples of valuable existing programs that can help with this specific type of experience. Team Rubicon and Squadbay are valuable U.S. programs. In addition, I can put you in touch with a like-minded marine who has been advocating for this issue. Feel free to send me a message at s.rose@queensu.ca if you want to discuss this further.

      But before looking into anything in this area, I for sure recommend getting an assessment at the VA as soon as you can.

  13. YES. I have felt many of those same emotions. I found that investing myself in non-profit pursuits was the key to feeling a similar sense of motivation, purpose, and direction that I had found in my time with the military. Ecologically-focused community was perfect for me, and I imagine it could be a great fit for other veterans as well. Great job!

  14. War is hell and Frankl said if you find meaning in something, a purpose, suffering ceases.

    To add to your well researched, well read, well written post, 23 of them are committing suicide daily, now. PTSD peak incidence is two decades maybe three away. many will find something bothering them the rest of their lives, only to have it explode in later life under stress, a death, an illness etc.

    Funny that research has shown even those in battle, the closer you get to the enemy till you can see his eyes the rate of trauma increases.

    An artillery soldier or pilot does not get PTSD at a rate close to infantry.

    Coming back home, fitting in is difficult after real war and destruction.

    We have the same incidence of PTSD as the Brits until we get to redeployment.

    The Brits deploy units as one, keeping them together.

    We do not. PTSD spikes during our redeployments. We have soldiers who have been deployed over ten times now. PTSD has exploded. 23 casualties on the battlefield would illicit change immediately. 23 a day for this whole year are dying and little response.

      1. I think it was in frankels book, he describes asking for medical assistance from a nazi soldier. The soldier reluctantly let him see the doctor then followed up to see if Frankl asked for more help than originally requested.

        Frankl described those who pleaded with the nazis for basic humanity and decency and when the nazis refused they collapsed.

        The soldier saw frankl only asked to get his arm repaired and did not try to receive service for other needs. The soldier seemed to respect frankl for not begging or whining.

        Frankl also said those that survived did not look away or deny the abusers but looked it squarely in the eye.

  15. I normally don’t find time to read longer articles but that flowed so easily it was a pleasure to read. I was struck about how many things in this post strike a chord with how I feel about parenting. I have not had the time yet to think through and understand why your writing struck such a chord, but what I do know is that this post will stay with me a long time, and I am sure it will inspire some of what I write in the future.

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