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.”