Leadership & Ethics
My Spectrum of Discomfort: A Personal Perspective on a Sense of BelongingBy Nick Wilson December 19, 2019
2019 Staff Pick | Director Army Education
Emotional intelligence and self-awareness can be as important in establishing a climate of trust as any of the traditional key command tenets. This article, a personal investment by one officer about his experiences in leaving the ‘tribe’, resonated with a substantial number of our Army family – both present and past. The author has received a great deal of feedback – through email, voice, text and social media – providing support to his view and thus opening a wide and engaging discussion about the reality of transition. The outcomes have been extremely positive and I think is worthy of sharing again as we approach that time of year where many people are preparing to leave full time service.
The purpose of this personal reflection is to explore the concept of identity and belonging. It is by no means an academic essay, nor an attempt at a professional paper. However, as a personal interpretation of military sociology I am hopeful it may prepare others for what I know to be a common experience upon separation from the military. In short, this is a story of being a soldier and an identity that I am extremely proud of.
October, 2015. It’s a Thursday and I am driving home from a rewarding day at work in emergency management, my first job since leaving the permanent Army some eight months earlier. It’s a glorious day, and as the warm weather begins an assault on my home state in preparation for summer, I should be intensely happy. After all, my new job is challenging, with a degree of status, and life appears to have a stability that was elusive in my last years in Defence.
Yet happiness had suddenly employed an avoidance strategy. I didn’t have any idea what was wrong; I simply felt unsettled, lost and untethered. The lives and worries of my new friends and workmates seemed frivolous and part of me felt as if I had become a shadow of myself. The frustration I felt at my emotional reaction was palpable.
In hindsight I felt there was a black hole inside that I could not fill. It was not for lack of trying. I was in a demanding professional role, as well as being a member of the Veterans’ Review Board of Australia, a branch president with the Returned and Services League, a father and sports coach. I was busy. Yet I felt isolated and alone; as if my identity had somehow dissipated into the air. And for the next few months I alternated between having bouts of optimism for civilian life and troughs of aimless dislocation. Numerous times I recall giving myself a stern lecture – “I can beat this by sheer will”. After all, this wasn’t me! I had commanded men on operations; in East Timor, the Middle East and Afghanistan and I had a row of ribbons that proved it. Of course, these were now filed away in the cupboard where no-one could see.
I needed to understand what was happening and I distinctly recall spending the weeks of November and December 2015 reading. I consumed as much as I could google, wiki and research and in doing so formed a very clear idea that what I was experiencing as an ex-serviceman was indeed ‘normal’. Interestingly, everything I consumed brought me to the subject of tribalism. Paul James, in his 2006 paper ‘Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism: Bringing Theory Back in’, defines tribalism simply as ‘a way of being’; where kinship, understanding, cultural norms and common mythology combine to produce a very strong sense of identity. He explains that a tribe, in the traditional context of Neolithic social grouping, has hallmarks of organisation, structure, communication, exchange and confirmatory. Political differences tended to be less between individuals and there was a common feeling of closeness provided through shared experiences and understanding; where economic divergences are lessened and people feel connected. The light suddenly came on and things began to make sense.
I began to ask myself whether this concept of tribalism or belonging – something I had never investigated before – was applicable to my reaction in leaving the Army. I had yet to discover Sebastian Junger and his musing on belonging, so I had no affiliation with the ideal of a tribe, less an intuitive grasp that it was somehow responsible for my strange and involuntary emotion. Was the Army a tribe? More specifically, was Army’s culture (even character) and sense of connection responsible for promoting the ultimate sense of loss once divorced from it?
While I was satisfied that I had found a potential cause to my sense of dislocation, I wanted further proof that the sociology of service was entirely related, if not defined by, the concept of belonging. After all, belonging to a ‘group’, and feeling a sense of loss in leaving it, is one thing, but plenty of people do that with routine personal, career and life changes and appear to not suffer beyond the initial sense of isolation. Post-military life was different. It just seemed foreign; disconnection was more profound and things just didn’t ‘taste’ or ‘feel’ the same. Why was that?
The Peculiarities of Military Sociology
I found the answer through an investment in the study of military sociology. Military sociology is derived from the concept of tribalism but is rather more definitive in its approach. It attempts to apply a systematic method of studying the military as a social group rather than an organisation. As a contemporary theory it is primarily a result of studies emanating out of the Second World War. It includes concepts of dominant assumptions held by military members and maintains a central theme of accepting that service in the military is a profession and life choice, not simply an occupation. Ultimately, I assess military sociology to be a discussion and theory based on the evolution of character.
Theorists have identified six key elements that differentiate the military from other professions and ultimately shape the character and expectations of its members:
- The military has a defined view of competence based on expert knowledge.
- There is a system of continual education and professional development to maintain competence.
- A sense of service to society is imbued from the outset which incurs an obligation.
- It has a values-based ideal that perpetuates professional character and legitimate relationships with other areas of society.
- There is an institutional framework in which it operates.
- The profession has control over a system of rewards and punishments and is in a position to determine and re-assess the quality of those both entering it and serving within its ranks.
Sound familiar? And at the very root of these factors is the nucleus of transition – not out of the military, but rather on entry. No other institution places as much emphasis on procedures, systems and behavioural modification for assimilating new members into its fold as a military does. The recruit, officer cadet, staff cadet or other must learn new and difficult skills, and often in a very short period of time. Remember ‘O’ week, Kapooka or your first Single Service Training? However, the culture shock is less about the “like this, do that” and more about the introduction to an elaborate code of professional behaviour, etiquette and ultimately entry into a discrete and very special community.
These lessons are then fostered and shaped through years of institutional investment in courses, deployments, training, barracks life, professional development, social recognition and ceremony. Culture is ingrained on the character of those who are part of it; in turn, the characters of those who serve progressively build and adapt the culture. Once assimilated, rules become convention and behaviours are embedded with an understanding of social and professional structures. Knowing one’s place is simple; extending one’s network and standing is a defined method and conformity is rewarded with promotion. It feels safe, known and definitively understood.
But what happens when it ends?
The Spectrum of Discomfort
For the majority of service personnel, I assess there is no single answer, nor a fix. Separation ultimately becomes intensely personal and from a limited, but contemporary, insight I expect each individual will have a different experience on what I’ve come to call the ‘spectrum of discomfort’. However, it is clear that common factors are present in most transitioning service personnel. For my part, I came to understand these as stages within that spectrum of discomfort. Based on my experiences throughout 2016 I believe these stages are as follows:
1. The Honeymoon Period. Everything is new and shiny. The sense of challenge that may have been evasive in the final years of service is back with a vengeance and it is time to once again step up to the task of proving one’s self. Conforming is not only not required but openly derided. Regardless of vocation or job, settlement location, remuneration or condition, this stage for me was characterised by choice. And for the first time in perhaps my entire working life, every choice was mine to make. In hindsight, many if not most of these freedoms are expressions of individuality rather than serious life choices – a decision to grow a beard, or not wear a tie. Perhaps drinking from a bottle versus a glass, determining that you might dare to walk on the grass or even wear jeans on a plane. The expression of choice – perhaps freedom even – was liberating. Looking back, it is perhaps instructive that I never did choose to do either of those last two.
2. Identity and Crisis. The honeymoon period ended for me after approximately six months. I looked into the mirror each morning and started to question the reflection looking back. It didn’t feel like me. I wanted people to see me as I felt myself to be; and that, regardless of competence in my new field, was as a soldier. I missed my uniform and I missed the feeling of identity and pride that it provided. I missed my friends too, and the privilege of walking through any given military establishment without having to justify one’s presence or acceptance. I also missed soldiers, especially their laconic humour and selfless approach to task, which was so very different to the ‘real world’ of enterprise bargaining, industrial relations and clock-watching. But more than anything, I missed the honour of being part of something uniquely special.
3. Emotional Disorganisation. The shortest stage, but one where things got slightly messy for me. Intense yet inconsistent feelings of sadness and dislocation. I experienced problems sleeping and was in constant conflict with myself about what I did and did not want. I never once questioned my decision to leave the Army during this period; perhaps because I struggled to quantify what exactly was wrong. But during this phase I think I departed from an ambition of progression within my new field and instead sought solace in Army through the Reserve. I still took great pleasure in my new freedom – my choices – but I also began to look at my new life a little differently. It was still very promising, but it was also small. I enjoyed my civilian occupation, and the friendships I had formed outside Defence, but increasingly I felt the need to reach out into my former life - to maintain contact and relevance and profile.
4. Stabilisation and Realisation. Eventually a relative calm descended. My work-life balance stabilised and I saw my future mapped out quite clearly; and to any reasonable individual I suspect that would have appeared bright, safe and meaningful. Admittedly, my journey had been fruitful in convincing me I could do something else. It had given me new challenges and skills, friendships and networks, and I had loved much of it. But regardless of the infinite positives, every part of my sub-conscious reasoning told me that I would not be truly happy until I finished my journey as a soldier. It wasn’t my time yet and I felt the journey was incomplete. Clearly here things could have gone either way, and frankly there would not have been a right or wrong answer. I suspect it was with a degree of selfishness that I chose the path that I knew would make me happy, though it was not without consequence. Yet, of all the decisions over the two and half years I spent in the wilderness, the choice to return to SERCAT 7 was the easiest.
Some parting thoughts… I have purposely chosen not to reference Sebastian Junger in this muse, though I freely admit that he had influence over my topic choice. My reasoning was a want to explore my own journey – my own spectrum of discomfort – in relative autonomy. Sebastian is a gifted and influential writer, so in the context of this paper I have stayed away from his persuasion until now. However I would like to use his mind for perhaps one line of reasoning that will assist in tying these threads together.
In his article on PTSD, produced for Vanity Fair in 2015, Junger explains that there are ancient human behaviours in war – loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation – that typify good soldiering and can’t be easily found in modern society. He further reasons that once war ends, soldiers don’t miss the danger or loss, per se, but the closeness and cooperation – the sense of purpose – that such environments engender. Personal interest is oft subsumed into group interest, so to go from this close-knit situation to the life of a civilian, where one works outside the home, where children are schooled by strangers and where personal gain often eclipses the collective good, is intensely difficult. In other words, whatever the advances of modern society, transitioning to an individual lifestyle can be deeply brutalizing to the [military person’s] spirit.
I would extend Junger’s reasoning beyond the veteran to incorporate the service person in general. Transition can be daunting, but it is certainly not insurmountable and life outside Army has many advantages in both lifestyle and fulfilment. I could have stayed out and I have absolute confidence that I would have continued to succeed. But that was not my path yet: ‘they’ are not my tribe. At present, my place is where I derive the most value and satisfaction and where my values are nested within a culture conducive to service and achievement above and beyond the individual. I came back to the Army for many different reasons, but above all I returned because I felt it a calling. It is a part of me, and I am intensely proud to be a small part of it.
In closing, I simply wish to acknowledge the strength of our tribe and the notion of belonging to it as something very real and indeed very special. The inevitable reality is that we all must leave our Army, and that has great benefits to the individual and society. Most I expect will prosper. However, it is not without challenge and, if nothing else, I hope these thoughts at least cue a recognition of such for those who are considering transition. For my part, I have returned a different person; slightly less focused on the ‘five-year plan’ perhaps, but more aware of the incredible privilege it is to be a part of something bigger than one’s self. When I look at the reflection in the mirror each morning now, it seems entirely right. It’s me again.