When War Comes Home: Societies’ Risks and Strategies in Dealing with Their Veterans

Social reintegration in history

The problem of reintegrating combatants into society arises wherever wars have been and are being waged. Even prehistoric tribal societies practiced shamanic spiritual healing rituals which cleansed the warrior and allowed him to return to the community. Similar spiritual reintegration measures are still practiced today in West Africa and Mozambique.

Philoctetes, the ancient Greek play by Sophocles dating from 409 B.C., was the first artistic rendering of the problem of reintegrating veterans. In ancient times, the Roman state in particular developed complex programs to care for and reintegrate legionnaires returning from military service; the founding of veteran colonies, the allotment of tracts of land, and financial assistance were measures implemented over decades.

In the late Middle Ages, the establishment of the first standing army under Charles VII of France at the end of the Hundred Years’ War can be seen today as a job creation scheme for unemployed mercenary groups whose marauding veterans were threatening their former masters.

Starting in the early modern period, modern states increasingly began to approach the problem from a sociopolitical perspective. The first modern state policy on reintegration can be traced back to the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. Governments attended to their veterans after the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, both world wars, and the Vietnam War with increasingly complex integration programs.

As can be seen from the approach of international organizations implementing so-called DDR programs (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration), this evolution had, by the end of the twentieth century, led to the emergence of an international body of research dealing with the reintegration of combatants and the pacification of societies.

Research interests

Despite the scope of reintegration problems as an element of universal history, there is little comparative and systematic literature on the subject, whereas in contrast a large number of individual case studies exists that deal especially with the societal role of veterans of both world wars. Research desiderata are thus the investigation of reintegration as a historical phenomenon of structure, its categorization and typology, the development of an analytical framework for its study, and its connection with the emergence and differentiation of social orders and statehood. The research project presented here aims to close these gaps and to answer a number of specific research questions related to the conditions required for reintegration measures to be successful, their historical prerequisites and needs, and their interaction with the increasingly differentiated social orders and forms of statehood.

The project involves two phases:

I. First, a theoretical model for analyzing reintegration processes will be developed. This model will incorporate different types of risks that can arise when measures to reintegrate veterans are lacking or are unsuccessful. These will then be linked to a set of basic strategies that societies have developed in the past to deal with these risks.

II. In a second step, six historical case studies from modern times focusing on various (national) societies from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries will be analyzed in the model.

I. Analytical framework: reintegration as a historical problem of structure

Regardless of the period to be studied and other variables, such as culture and political systems, the following questions about how organized communities (which in this context generally means states) treat their veterans can be formulated.

Historically speaking, what types of danger were posed by veterans who were insufficiently reintegrated or not reintegrated at all? What kinds of strategies were developed in the past by governments and political rulers, but also by society as a whole, to address this problem?

Solely on the basis of secondary literature and a cursory survey of the case studies, without detailed scrutiny of the latter, five types of risk can be identified as dominant and recurring over the centuries:
•    risks for governments
•    threats to the (state’s) monopoly on violence,
•    economic risks,
•    the risk of crime, and
•    the risk of establishing cultures of violence.

Reintegration strategies can be understood as answers to these threats and have effects at various levels. They can make use of spiritual-psychological, socioeconomic, political-military, and cultural means. At the same time, a set of basic strategies that communities apply in dealing with their veterans can be perceived in historical examples. One might refer to “reintegration paths” taken at certain times, which often overlap and are not mutually exclusive. These basic strategies include a range that extends from treating the issue as a taboo to externalization/remilitarization, appeasement, transformation, assimilation, and glorification.

With its extensive and trans-epochal approach, this analytical framework raises a number of key questions that are relevant for the entire research project.

How did historically dominant problems and the “reintegration paths” taken by societies mutually influence one another? What was successful, and when? Do societies tend to use certain reintegration strategies depending on their culture and political system? And last but not least―do societies learn from past reintegration experiences?

II. Case studies: the reintegration of veterans in modern states

In a second step, the proposed model will be utilized and reviewed in the context of several modern case studies. Restricting the research to modern times will serve to ensure a certain comparability of the units of analysis (states or nation-state societies). Beyond the key questions already mentioned above, which initially are seen as being of broad and universal historical relevance, several other aspects are of central importance for the case studies, and are expected to yield insights that are primarily relevant for modern states.

When and why did governments begin to implement systematic and large-scale reintegration programs in the early modern period? Which deficits and emergency situations needed to be addressed in this regard? How were they related to the strengthening of the state’s monopoly on the use of violence, the differentiation and professionalization of administration, and finally, the development of civil society (for example, in connection with organizations for veterans and disabled veterans)?

With respect to the twentieth century, these questions are also linked to a key argument in recent research on the veterans of both world wars, which connects policies on veterans to the emergence of the welfare state.

The case studies have been selected to cover not only a wide range of the dangers and risks listed above and the strategies for dealing with veterans, but also several revolutionary innovations and turning points in reintegration and veteran policies in the modern era. They include:
•    the English Civil War (1642–1649),
•    the American Revolution (1776–1783),
•    the Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815),
•    the American Civil War (1861–1865),
•    World War I (1914–1918), and
•    World War II (1939–1945).

The analysis of these historical case studies should make it possible to retrace developments extending from the first attempts in early modern times to implement veteran policies to the scientification and internationalization of reintegration in the context of peacebuilding and DDR programs in the late twentieth century. Furthermore, the study should facilitate transferring lessons learned from the history of reintegration to modern conflict management and peacekeeping policies in post-conflict societies.

(Last modified November 2013)