How Veterans Experience Anomie

“…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.


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24 thoughts on “How Veterans Experience Anomie

  1. Today’s society, at least in the West, enables a person to lose their ability to tell right from wrong. And, in war time, it can get even worse.

    I spent a year and a-half in Vietnam; however, I was not a grunt. So, I didn’t have to endure the true horrors of war. But, is that a reason to loose once sense of humanity–or an excuse?

    Since “those people” in the War Zone–enemies, friendlies or civilians–look and act differently than us, why do they have to be perceived as different, of lesser quality or not human?

    The untold attrocities in war are quickly forgotten, at least by the soldiers who committed them–and oftentimes by the vey countries they represented, as well. Yes, “War is Hell!”; but, so is murder, rape and other abuses!

  2. Another excellent post, I feel like I’m learning a lot from your blog about what it’s like to be a veteran. Of course simply reading about concepts like anomie and actually feeling them are completely different things.

    I find it intriguing that you connected the meaninglessness of modern society to the limitless pursuit of wealth. This is because I’ve come across social psych research that ties this same phenomenon to the widespread apathy towards the environment. Apparently the same values that underlie the pursuit of personal power and wealth make us less likely to care about other people and the environment.

    I’m not sure if this means anything, but to me it’s interesting that limitless consumerism is connected to both environmental degradation and the anomie veterans experience when they return from war.

  3. I found your article quite interesting as well, but don’t understand how war could be a spiritual experience, but I do see how being spiritual could help a soldier deal with such dire and devastating circumstances. I haven’t served overseas or ever joined the military, but I have had several clients who are veterans – of the Vietnam War and also Iraq and Afghanistan. My grandfathers served in WWII, and I have a friend who suffers from severe battle injuries, he is one of the few to open up much about his experience, as society expects our soldiers to not share with civilians as it may be traumatizing.
    His perspective is that our society is attempting to blow everything up, and he served until retirement. He’s got his master’s in history, and some of his ancestors were killed in the massacre at wounded knee.

    One of my earliest memories are that of my mom showing me photos from Life Magazine of soldiers and Vietnamese people of all ages, most suffering from all sorts of terrible injuries. By the time I was in second grade I thought that perhaps a bomb would be dropped on my home while I was at school – I didn’t understand how far away Vietnam was.

    I completely agree that the ills of our consumer driven, media led society are one of the biggest factors leading to anomie for returning veterans. And the safety net for injured vets is terrible here in the USA. A large portion of our homeless people happen to be vets. And for people struggling with poverty, addiction, disability, chronic illness, homelessness, and unemployment, anomie can be an enormous contributing factor as well. Especially since the media brainwashes people to look down on the disadvantaged, to even hate them, and to believe that everyone has an equal opportunity, when that just isn’t the case.

    Some people believe there will never be peace on earth. That’s how efficient the brainwashing machine has been. However, I truly believe that things are changing. It may not seem apparent on the surface, but that’s because this change is beginning within the hearts and minds of millions, even billions of people who are meditating and praying for this change. I recently saw a photo of one million children in Thailand meditating simultaneously, and now some schools are teaching meditation here with amazing results.

    I was blessed to be a part of Hands Across America, and to join hands in a line of six million human beings was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. Once our hands were joined, where my family and I were standing, hundreds of us began to sing, “We Are the World.”

    And we are. Each of us is a tiny hologram of the Universe, which is why this new revolution is beginning within, and will be a revolution of peace, not of war. Your article is quite thought provoking, as are the comments below. I have the deepest respect for all veterans and for soldiers, and am praying for that day when peace is finally not just a dream, but a reality.

  4. Steve, thanks for another interesting and thought-provoking article.

    Like Urbansimulator, I take issue with the following:
    “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.”
    ~ To liken war with a spiritual experience gives reign to the dark side of our humanity. It brings to mind hate groups bonded by a common “guiding purpose” to threaten and kill those they deem as the enemy.
    ~ We don’t have to go to war to face our mortality. It stalks us at every turn in our day-to-day lives.
    ~ When we come together in the service of the common good, without hate and violence, ‘anomie’ loses its grip.

  5. “Although anomie is sufficiently normalized in Western society today and no longer harmful to the average individual”
    Eh what? Look at the growing depression in civil society. I’ve never been a soldier and I have experienced and suffered from that “anomie” for most of my life. All you have to do is realize what’s going on, and that can be accomplished either by experiencing it as an outsider through a ‘culture shock’ like experience or by just being intelligent enough to figure it out from within.
    This TV show scene speaks from my depressed soul, spot-on:

    1. What a great clip! Thank you for all of your insightful comments. I agree that anomie is a widespread problem. Although it is normalized, it still affects many individuals who don’t buy into the anomic values and institutions.

    1. I did that all my life and looked at society and that’s why I see the problem with war. But also that it’s society that leads to war. Veterans need to realize that what they experience when they enter the civilian life (the futile ‘rat race’) is what they are expected to risk their lives for.
      The idea of doing something that matters in war then crumbles, too, and war is seen as a mere symptom of the problem. In root purpose, soldiers are pretty much like the many meaningless employees in a greedy corporation. They are in a different branch, but serve the same purpose.
      It has been said that the best experiences soldiers have is helping locals build their society, so with the character tools that they have practiced, veterans should consider careers in social functions, because what we desperately need in social engineering is courage and character. It is plagued by convenience, egotism.

  6. War is is not a spiritual experience, it is a bloody business which turns out to be today also a new virtual reality with drones etc. pp. where people sitting in the USA are killing others in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Your article is completely misleading and ignoring the physical, material and immaterial damages committed also by these poor veterans whereever. And when you talk of missing moral: I am missing in this article a clear value and aim: PEACE ON EARTH. And what about the millions of traumatized refugees from the Middle East – those collateral damages in the language of the military? Why don’t you write about them? These are the real victims.

  7. Interesting article, and I can say I felt very adrift coming home. But I can say I felt plenty of “anomie” while in uniform. Shoddy training, dishonest leaders, dangerous but pointless missions, baffling command directives and regulations, and the toxic it’s-never-good-enough leadership environments drove a lot of us crazy.

  8. Wow – I did t realise there was a name to the emptiness left by commercialism. Thank you for teaching me new information that is fresh and educational. It certainly makes me look at at myself and make a change.

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