Having experienced the intense training, sense of mission, and communal bond offered by the military, many of the veterans I spoke with during my research had some profound insights on life.
Veterans can teach us a great deal about the meaning of purpose, leadership, work ethic, community, and meaning.
Throughout my research, their insights transformed the way I look at the world, so I thought it might be helpful to pass along their messages here.
Lessons on Purpose
We need to stop sleepwalking through life and build a strong sense of purpose.
In the military, members experience a high level of communal purpose. This sense of communal purpose and belonging offered in the military is unparalleled in civilian life. As one veteran states:
“We are all in the same spot, eating the same shitty ration pack food, getting the occasional phone call home, but not minding it because we were all in the same boat, we know that it could be any of us at any time and suddenly everything is everyone’s, and for that moment in your life it’s true communal living, the closest you can ever get to pure altruism.”
Sociologically, altruism means a high level of social integration. This is common in communal contexts where each person depends on the group, taking on group identity. As another veteran states:
It’s not a job, we’re always military…. I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was…. My team kept me going.”
This sense of group identity is not simply symbolic. Members are not bound by flags, uniforms, or titles alone. It’s what these things represent that matters: how you contribute to the larger group.
Military group identity is about your role within a larger system where everyone depends upon on one another. As written in Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:
“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”
During the transition, veterans become individuals again. By this, I mean the need to rebuild a sense of individual purpose; an identity outside the group.
The difficulty here is that humans are not wired to simply rebuild an identity in isolation. We can have a sense of our own unique abilities, values, and interests, but without a way to connect these things with a larger group, we feel isolated and lost.
Veterans may have a sense of their unique individual skills, but struggle with how to apply them in a civilian context. As a veteran states:
What do I do now? everybody’s kinda sleepwalking through life here, there’s no purpose, nobody stands for anything, life seems very shallow after that.
Having experienced life in a highly altruistic military context, veterans see the world through a different lens. This lens can help us critically reflect on our social world and what it means to have a sense of purpose.
If you’re lacking a sense of purpose, feeling like you’re sleepwalking through life, consider the quality of your social environment.
Are you working in a toxic individualistic culture marked by little regard for the larger group? As Simon Sinek states:
“We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.”
We are the best version of ourselves when we connect our individual skills, values, and interests with something larger than ourselves. A sense of purpose is forged in the interaction between the individual and society. This sense of reciprocal contribution matters, but is often lacking. Rather than simply looking inward, we need to look both inward and outward.
How are your social environments facilitating or blocking a sense of communal purpose?
How can you operate within your social environments more effectively to contribute to a healthy culture of trust and common purpose?
If you find yourself in a highly toxic social environment, how might you draw personal boundaries, remove yourself, or perhaps find a better social environment?
Lessons on Leadership
Forget the outdated stereotype of the docile soldier who only follows orders. Contemporary military strategy requires leadership capacity throughout the chain of command.
The concept of the “Strategic Corporal” has been developed to describe the increased level of responsibility given to individuals on these lower levels of the chain of command in recent military operations.
In their early 20s, a serving member may be given far more responsibility than the average civilian will gain in a lifetime. They are at the forefront of implementing Canada’s foreign policy, making decisions under strict legal regulations and global scrutiny.
They must act, despite the risk and high-pressure conditions. Shirking responsibility can have fatal consequences. Civilian employers can learn a great deal from a service member’s version of leadership.
All too often I encounter the idea that the military promotes blindly following orders, rigid conformity, and a dictatorship style of leading.
This is understandable since most people nowadays don’t have any contact with the military world and likely don’t have close relationships with those who have served.
Before listening to the experiences of several Canadian Veterans throughout my research, I had similar prejudices.
Here I will dispel these myths about military leadership and highlight what we can learn from it. But this does not mean it is perfect. Since the military functions in high-pressure political contexts, it brings out the worst and the best in individuals.
When leadership fails, it fails hard; but when it succeeds, it far surpasses any Fortune 500 company in terms of its functional efficacy and capacity to create a meaningful work environment. This is particularly the case regarding life on deployment.
Besides a few horror stories I heard regarding career-obsessed officers and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, here are some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from ground-level service-members who participated in operations in Afghanistan.
“Hiring a veteran” is not an act of charity. Organizations that claim they “hire veterans” in the same way they make vague PR statements about “going green” are missing the point.
The Real Meaning of a Mission Statement
We’re all familiar with the stuffy and stale company mission statements: vague, jargon-laden, and neglected.
Barnes and Noble is another typical example with their vague aspiration: “to operate the best specialty retail business in America, regardless of the product we sell.” Mission statements need to be actionable missions, not PR statements.
Veterans know the true value of a mission. When asked about their motivation in combat, the most common answer I received was to get the mission done and to do it while keeping themselves and those around them alive.
Missions in combat are not statements of vague idealistic philosophical aspirations, they are practical, specific, are held in high regard due to the operational importance of group integration.
Mission statements should be specific, able to guide everyday practice, and function as an integrating force that a great leader draws upon an exemplifies to rally a team toward a common cause.
Rather than robotically following a mere series of orders, good missions provide an overarching sense of collective purpose that makes the smaller tasks meaningful.
Several Veterans I spoke with served in small remotely posted units, as part of the light infantry. Distinct from the old chessboard “clash of nations,” the contemporary battlefield is highly ambiguous. Fatal attacks are a constantly looming threat of landmines, IEDs and an enemy who blends in with the general population are a few examples.
In addition, Veterans have had to adapt to the extreme conditions of a military deployment. One Veteran I spoke with said that working in the baking industry afterward seemed far more rigid and uniform than his dynamic experience leading a combat unit.
The need for strategic adaptability in a constantly changing battlefield produces dynamic leaders throughout the ranks. Battled conditions and market conditions are mirroring each other to a degree. Distinct from the stereotype of perpetually punitive drill-instructor, military operations develop adaptive skills and the ability to motivate a team amidst the constant uncertainty of life on deployment.
The Value of Service
The common theme amongst the Veterans I spoke with regarding their experience with/ as great leaders is that great leaders have this pastoral quality.
Soldiers in combat don’t take bullets for one another because they were instructed to do so by senior management; they do it because of their passionate commitment to their unit. The ideal leader is someone who demonstrates passionate commitment, care, and service by example.
Veterans know about leadership at a deep level because it is so fundamentally essential in the life or death conditions of military operations. This deep understanding makes them highly valuable to civilian organizations.
Veterans are like “military alumni” who have graduated with, an MBA in enduring adversity and a PhD in resourcefulness, as Steven Pressfield states. Veterans know the meaning of a mission, the function of “strategic adaptability,” and the value of “service.” In other words, they deeply understand the attributes of a great leader.
Lessons on Civilian Life
Many of us may believe that life in the military would feel like an iron cage, constraining our freedom to live the lives we want, but throughout my research, I have found that Veterans often see civilian life in this way.
Although the military provides a much higher level of social regulation, it’s the high level of unregulated consumerism in civilian life that feels like the iron cage, preventing individuals from living more meaningful lives.
Sociologists have been critiquing this modern phenomenon since the 19th century in Weber’s description of the spirit of capitalism, Marx’s critique of economic capital, and Durkheim’s theory of anomic suicide from unregulated consumption.
The main critiques are that there is too much emphasis on trivial issues, a sense that the West is cut off from the deep suffering from injustices experienced throughout the world, and that modern capitalist societies have a lack of social solidarity based in a sense of loyalty and interdependence. Speaking to the first two issues, one Veteran states:
“It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.”
“There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered”
Bryan Wood mirrors this sentiment in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, his sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:
“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life. I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
“Everything’s amazing here and people are still miserable; now try making friends with those people.”
In addition to the sense of triviality and disconnect, Veterans also offer strong critiques of consumer individualism. As an individual I spoke with states:
“Once we are done our tour, once we leave, we are thrown back into our Canadian society where we are back to dog-eat-dog competition, individualism and materialism, and even if suffering from PTSD or difficulty with adjusting to life back in Canada, we would rather redeploy on a dime and get back to that balance that being in combat brings, that leveler of us all.”
“The bond is very strong between service-people and there’s a lot of importance placed on relationships as soon you join a team everybody will intuitively connect as much and as fast as they can with people around them, and that would actually freak out my civilian counterparts.”
Veterans often return to civilian life unable to find meaning in the modern rat-race and miss the strong interpersonal bonds of loyalty and interdependence found within their unit.
Although the military may look like an iron cage, we need to consider how civilian life’s invisible constraints keep us from living more meaningful lives.
When the things we own begin to own us, we lose sight of what really matters.
Lessons on Self-Actualization
Abraham Maslow said self-actualization is “to become everything that one is capable of becoming,” which sounds very similar to the old U.S army recruitment slogan, “Be All (That) You Can Be.”
My interviews with Canadian Veterans of Afghanistan support the idea that the military can facilitate self-actualization; the problem is that this can often contribute to issues among individuals leaving the military who are unable to maintain this high level of self-actualization due to the relative lack of self-actualizing institutional supports in civilian life.
The concept of self-actualization has been overly individualized and we need to recognize that it can only be achieved by engaging with the world rather simply thinking and reading self-help books.
Do an image search of “self-actualization” and you will see a common theme of solitary individuals, usually on mountain peaks. Distinct from the image of liberated mountain meditators, the military is a prime example of an institution that can facilitate self-actualization, particularly among those who were able to put their training into practice.
The regimented communal structure of the military contributed to an elite mentality that tested personal limits, pushing individuals to expand their skills as they took on high levels of responsibility. A former service-member told me:
“There were rules to the army, there was a reason for people to do better and to be better.”
Another characterized this elite mentality in the following statement:
“I was just another loser. I went from being the guy who the governor of Kandahar calls when he needs to talk to people who are important on our side to being another schmuck who likes to throw his socks next to the hamper, puts his feet up on the table, and kind of wants to sleep and just do nothing while he’s on leave.”
The military not only motivated individuals to do better and to be better, but it also provided a mission and a sense of purpose often lacking in civilian life.
Self-actualization requires more than solitary introspection. Self-actualization happens by doing.
Lessons on Adversity
The phrase, “don’t sweat the small stuff” really takes on a new meaning to someone who can say, “at least I’m not being shot at,” when they’re having an off-day.
Enduring the constant risk of mortar attacks and IED strikes, witnessing extreme poverty, and having to perform at peak levels for long hours in 140°F heat are some of the adversities serving members face.
In the civilian world, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” is a book people keep in their drawer to remind themselves that the world is not going to end when the copier gets jammed.
Despite the daily reminders, it is difficult to truly internalize this maxim unless you’ve seen adversity. Serving members coming back from Afghanistan have witnessed more adversity than most individuals in comfortable developed Western nations can ever imagine.
Civilian employers can learn from the impact of adversity on the veteran’s ability to focus on what matters. As Steve Pressfield states
“The returning warrior may not realize it, but he has acquired an MBA in enduring adversity and a Ph.D. in resourcefulness, tenacity and the capacity for hard work.”
How does a veteran successfully reintegrate into civilian life? One answer to this question may lie in the warrior ethos.
The warrior ethos is an existential outlook that embraces the warrior virtues of selfless commitment and perseverance in the face of adversity. The U.S. Army embodies these virtues in its Warrior Ethos creed:
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
In The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield defines the ethos as a sense of honor gained through the virtue of selflessness, toughness, and the desire to excel. Selflessness, he says, is the absolute core of the warrior ethos. He illustrates the virtue of selflessness in the following story:
Plutarch asked, “Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the warrior who loses his helmet or spear but punish with death the warrior who loses his shield.” Because helmet and spear are carried for the protection of the individual alone, but the shield protects every man in the line.
Along with the virtue of selflessness, the willingness to embrace adversity is also a central virtue for the warrior ethos.
In The Unforgiving Minute, Crag Mullaney illustrates this virtue in a chant he recalls from his training at West Point:
“If it ain’t raining, we ain’t training’; you gotta love being cold wet and miserable. Love the suck men, love the suck.”
Civilians often don’t understand why anyone would want to plunge themselves into such harsh conditions, especially since military service is completely optional.
The civilian world—far from a warrior culture—values luxury and comfort, the pursuit of individual goals, and success is measured by one’s monetary achievement.
Although monetary achievement is a key marker of civilian success, the warrior’s salary is not strictly monetary. Steven Pressfield states:
There’s a well-known gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who explains to his young Marines, when they complain about pay, that they get two kinds of salary; financial salary and a psychological salary. The financial salary is indeed meager. But the psychological salary? Pride, honor, integrity, the chance to be part of a corps with a history of service, valor, glory; to have friends who would sacrifice their lives for you, as you would for them, and to know that you remain a part of this brotherhood as long as you live. How much is that worth?
The military cultivates the warrior ethos in its individual members through elaborate training methods and ritualized behavior.
Once an individual leaves the military institution, the external constraints of a warrior culture no longer direct their behavior.
So how can one regain a sense of purpose and belonging in civilian life? The warrior ethos must be internalized and applied to new endeavors. Pressfield writes:
“As soldiers, we have been taught discipline. Now we teach ourselves self-discipline.”
When one’s war is over, the new battle of civilian transition begins. The virtues of the warrior ethos make veterans highly valuable employees or entrepreneurs.
Although these lessons are learned in the military, they give veterans insight into virtues that are often neglected in civilian life.
Are you sleepwalking through life? Or do you have a vigorous sense of purpose?
Are you trying to “self-actualize” by overthinking it? Or are you getting out into the world and trying things?
And next time you’re going through a bit of adversity, perhaps you can take solace in the fact that at least you’re not being shot at.
These are some of the lessons that stuck with me during my conversations with Canadian veterans.
I’m going to be reading and rereading this for a while. Lately, like in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, “tribalism” has been on many lips, but I think what you write here is much closer to the mark. Not to mention — I just sat down to blog about my own recovery, which involved leaving a cherished community that was blowing itself apart and eventually finding a group, a network of groups, that managed to hold itself together. Thank you.
Thanks Susanna! Glad you connected with this. Partisan tribalism has for sure been on the rise in recent years. Although tribalism benefits in-group members with a sense of identity, purpose, and belonging, it often comes at a cost when it occurs in reaction to political out-groups, particularly when dehumanization is involved. This kind of toxic tribalism prevents national unity and open political discourse. The kind of “tribe” I’m referring to here is perhaps more akin to Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribes”. Thank you for raising this concept. It is something I’ll need to differentiate further in a future post.
Hits home to me. I spent 26 years in the Navy, half on active duty. I still keep in touch with several through groups on FB, The purpose, drive, camaraderie, and concern for veterans now is important to me. I have a lot of close friends yet it is with military veterans that I can find near-instant ‘connection’. Thanks.
Thanks for the comment! Glad you were able to remain connected with these close friends throughout the transition.
This has been my struggle for years – trying to fit into a society where people are just so far apart from each other. Not only after transition from leaving military life entering civilian life has its challenges, but years later, trauma ensues even the long separated Veterans. This article should be as a subject class for any transition team; whether in the military, prison release, parole or other organizations that requires a mental change of environments. Thank you for the enlightening on this obscure subject. Appreciate it.
Thank you for the kind words! From what I’ve heard, the transition programming is lacking quite severely. Any social transition could benefit from specialized training focused on how to cope with the social and cultural realms.