With its ‘different ways of communicating and relating to others, different living arrangements, […] and different standards of behaviour, dress, and bodily comportment’, a career in the military is often described as more of a life than a job.
This life and work environment can form a ‘self-contained social world‘, involving commitment far beyond the traditional eight hours a day and five days a week. It often also means working, sleeping and socialising with the same people, in far flung places and for lengthy periods of time, sometimes at short notice, in extreme and potentially lethal environments, and away from family and friends.
To create the conditions for this, the ‘total’ nature of military life begins with basic training, during which recruits are stripped of their personal possessions (including civilian clothes and haircuts). This, in turn, creates a veneration of the uniforms, badges and symbols recruits are eventually allowed to wear – but only once they earn that right.
Aside from the removal of personal effects, an individual’s decision-making is also limited by the lengthy and physically and emotionally demanding days, while practically all communication with the outside world is cut off, in part designed to reduce family bonds to home while replacing that with a new ‘military family’ and identity.
This provides an opportunity for ‘rapid acclimatization to an institutionalized lifestyle’, with military standards, behaviours, ethics and values designed to transform these former civilians into military personnel who are ready and able to ‘fight and to kill and to die‘, both for each other and for their countries and allies.
Why the difference?
The primary purpose of an armed force is to train, equip and prepare people to fight, kill and die.
It is this possibility of sacrificing one’s life that is perhaps the biggest difference between military and civilian life and work. But it is not only armed combat that can expose military personnel to risk of harm.
A range of other hazardous duties can also expose military personnel to ‘severely traumatic and sometimes unique, life-threatening situations’, as can the training required to prepare them for these possibilities.
To reduce this risk, military organisations provide as much order as possible. This sense of order, security, safety and community is reinforced by the provision of a built-in social life, accommodation, schooling, medical care, shopping and other facilities and amenities, both for the individual members of the military and, often, their families. Hence, military establishments, in many cases, can take the form and size of towns, whether they be physically located on land or in the form of floating towns on naval vessels.
Additionally – given the need to ensure these military establishments are secure, as well as provide the required space for training areas and aircraft runways for example – they can be both isolated in terms of their locations behind protective fencing and other barriers, but also in isolated locations (naval vessels as well are frequently extremely isolated, particularly when at sea).
Consequently, these isolated and immersive settings can become totalising military worlds, thereby forcing and forging bonds between members that are unlike anywhere else. Furthermore, these bonds are necessarily encouraged, strengthened and further forged in adverse conditions, including amid the stresses of combat in extreme environments.
The civil-military gap
Central to this bonding process is the development of an individual and collective military identity that requires the (partial at least) ‘deconstruction’ of earlier civilian identity. By virtue of this, military organisations operate under a ‘culture that revolves around interdependence, conformity [and] cooperation’ to a much greater extent than exists in non-military organisations.
Necessarily so given its role, military life is also ‘governed by a separate set of laws, norms, traditions and values’. When this is combined with the tight personal bonding that occurs between members of the military, many veterans consider there to be a huge ‘civil-military cultural gap‘ between what they experienced in the military, and what they see in the civilian context.
These bonds — ties that ‘transcend all others‘ in the minds of military personnel — can foster a sense of a seemingly unbridgeable civil-military identity gap between them and the civilian world they came from and will return to. This perception of a civil-military gulf can persist long after their initial return to that civilian world.
Reverse culture shock
Given such experiences of intense enculturation, some (but by no means all) military leavers can experience a form of reverse culture shock when returning to the civilian context.
This might present a dilemma for policy makers, as, on the one hand, the creation of that gap is designed to allow a nation, state or other entity to field an effective fighting force; and this takes time and resources.
However, on the other hand, once individuals approach the end of their military careers, it is argued that the time and resources dedicated to preparing them to return to civilian society, particularly in terms of a shift from military to civilian identity, are not nearly as substantial. Former US president Barack Obama remarked in 2011 that ‘we spend months preparing our men and women for a life in the military, but we spend much less time preparing them for life after they get out’.
Consequently, some veterans can find themselves lost in the civil-military identity gap as they are no longer officially members of the full-time military, nor do they see themselves as civilians.
This sense of loss can be exacerbated by one or a number of other losses, which can include those triggered by the death or injury of colleagues, or injury caused to the individual in question. This, in itself, can provoke a sense of bereavement and guilt – and potentially be further complicated by a sense of shame, remorse and regret arising from failing to prevent or witnessing death and injury of others (defined as moral injury).
Moreover, any or all of this can be incurred not only because of direct engagement in military operations, but while, for example, taking part in training and other military activities designed to replicate the rigours of combat, or simply engaging in more routine military work.
Identity and disorientation
As previously mentioned, providing as much control and support as possible amid the potential chaos and stress of military work and life is crucial, and the bonding between military members if part of this. However, such a tightly organised and controlled environment can lead to an over identification with it, and sometimes a dependence on the support structure it provides. When this is withdrawn upon leaving the military, some veterans ‘can experience adjustment problems upon reentry into larger [civilian] society’.
The ensuing reverse culture shock can bring with it a sense of ‘disorientation, change of status, and search for identity and meaning’, which can endure for months or years after leaving the military due to the ‘deeply engrained’ military traits and experiences. Indeed, recent US research indicates that up to 72% of veterans there ‘experience high levels of stress during the transition to civilian life‘.
The loss of professional and personal status, structure, purpose and excitement can be sorely missed, yearned for and mourned once an individual leaves that environment. Additionally, altered family dynamics (in terms of a previously ‘busy’ military member’s newly increased presence in the domestic environment) can additionally be stressful and problematic for all concerned; and family members might also be finding the changes they undergo hugely challenging also, particularly if they have been living in and enjoying the military environment.
Furthermore, when military provision such as medical, accommodation and educational support are withdrawn at the end of a military career, those leaving can find establishing replacements in civilian environment a significant challenge.
Bridging the gap
The British Army has produced an information guide which explains these potential challenges to its members (click on the image below to access the full information sheet):
While it is no means all military leavers and veterans that struggle with a transition to civilian life and work, it is evident a significant number do. However, it is emphasised that even those that do experience challenges should not be construed as being ‘mad, sad and bad‘: any form of transition can be difficult, particularly if that effectively involves a cross-cultural shift. Just as in any sector of society, former military personnel can —and do — bring a great deal of positive skills and experience to their civilian roles. It is therefore a question of ensuring that this experience can be harnessed, and any potential problems mitigated, an effort that the UK and allied governments are aware of and engaged in supporting.
However, many also acknowledge that more can, and must, be done to address the estimated £110M that poor transition might have cost the UK in 2020; costs that only cover the more easily measurable health, welfare and other quantifiable costs associated with the 2 million-strong veteran population in the UK. What is less easy to measure are the emotional costs that individual military leavers, veterans and their families might also be trying to cope with when undergoing challenging emotional and practical shifts from military to civilian life and work.
While the information guide above talks of transition planning, as well as ‘breaking with the old life’ and ‘building and committing to a new life’, it does not offer a structure for doing so.
This site aims to fill that gap…
© Graham Cable