In his seminal 1995 essay Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, author and researcher Robert Putnam examined the phenomenon of civic disconnection and its negative impact on American society. In the essay, Putnam explained that past generations of Americans had a very high level of active social and civic engagement with each other and with their government.
This manifested itself in activities such as membership in service organizations such as the Masons and group activities like participating in bowling leagues. However, by the 1990s such engagement was on the decline, replaced instead with active disengagement. This disengagement manifested itself in ways such as a decline in the membership of civic service organizations, lower political involvement, and a general disinterest in social and community activities. Thirty years or so ago, according to Putnam, America started “bowling alone.”
Putnam’s essay proved popular, spawning a book published in 2000 and a later updated edition published in 2020. It was in discussions about Bowling Alone in graduate school at Yale University, which I attended as a middle-aged veteran of multiple peacekeeping and combat tours overseas, that I really began thinking about things like social cohesion and the social contract. I witnessed social cohesion completely evaporate in Iraq between my deployments there in 2004-2009, and in Afghanistan saw that any “social contract” that may have existed seemed to consist of a mix of Pashtunwali and the Law of the Jungle. I definitely did not want the social contract to unravel in my own country, especially not within the Veteran Community, which is committed so much to its preservation.
Nonetheless, it is happening. Like the rest of America, veterans are disengaging from the wider American public, and from each other, in droves. Civilian-focused service organizations such as the Freemasons and the Shriners, whose numbers once included the most influential members of America’s political and cultural elite, have seen precipitous membership declines for years. People are disappearing from churches, temples, and mosques. Even college fraternity and sorority organizations are not immune. And major veteran-centric service organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) are also in decline. People are simply finding other ways of satisfying their innate needs for fellowship, community, and belonging.
Like most things, what affects the broader American society also affects veterans. Fewer veterans are getting together socially or politically. These days many veterans refer to their fellow vets, male or female, as brothers or “bros,” and getting together with one’s fellow veterans is sometimes termed “bro-ing out.” Yet it seems that fewer and fewer veterans are getting together these days, and in a nod to Putnam, some might say that many veterans are bro-ing alone.
Why is this happening? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?
To answer those questions, we need to fast forward nearly 30 years from when Putnam first wrote Bowling Alone, to today. First, it may be useful to take a look at a few reasons why this is happening. With advances in communication technology, particularly with smart phones, Americans feel less of a need for face to face contact. This was particularly prevalent during the misguided lockdown measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, America is facing political factionalization of the kind that hasn’t been seen in at least a generation. So more and more people are doing fewer and fewer things together.
As to whether or not this latest iteration of civic and social disengagement is good or bad, I think it is unequivocally bad. It is very easy to get sucked into a digital world and have meaningful real-world relationships replaced with online chats, video games, streaming video, and pornography. And based on the high levels of veteran depression, suicide, substance abuse, and domestic violence, it appears that the veteran community is particularly susceptible to the problem of “bro-ing alone.” People have an innate need for meaningful social interaction, the kind that simply can’t be replicated digitally. And many Americans, particularly veterans, don’t seem to realize that until it’s too late.
The truth of the matter is, veterans have problems that only other veterans understand. Or perhaps it is more accurate to state that veterans are best-understood by other veterans, especially ones who have had similar experiences in the military. Those experiences can be good, such as completing Ranger School together, or could be bad, like a wartime injury or losing a comrade in battle or experiencing a sexual assault. Some people who never served in the military can certainly relate; first responders like firefighters and police officers are good examples. But it’s not quite the same.
It’s also not the same when it comes to social interactions. Even a live digital call on something like the Zoom platform doesn’t make up for physical proximity. Veterans need to stop bro-ing alone, especially in the online environment, and get out with other people. They don’t have to be veterans, either. While veterans are best understood by other veterans, there are plenty of people out there in the real world who have similar interests, hobbies, mindsets, and, yes, fears, that can help veterans establish or maintain healthy lifestyles.
I would never presume to establish a prescription to fit each and every veteran. I’m sure many vets are happy and well-adjusted in solitude. But in general, humans (and veterans) are social animals. We need that interaction to be our best selves. And as we all learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing replaces face to face contact. That’s true in business or education or hobbies or worship or family or any number of other things that give our lives meaning. And yes, it’s true when bro-ing out.
Let’s stop bro-ing alone.
Charles (Charlie) Faint is a seven-tour veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served in numerous Special Operations units over the course of his 27-year Army career. He also taught for a number of years at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Charlie is the owner of The Havok Journal and the executive director of the nonprofit Second Mission Foundation. He enjoys bro-ing out with fellow veterans and loves to help them tell their stories.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.