There is a disconnect between those that have served their country and those who have not. Between veterans and the civilian population. I recognise there are many other ways of serving your country, but I’m a veteran so I choose to only speak from that perspective.
There will always be a lack of understanding of veterans and the Armed Forces amongst the civilian population, it is in fact the point of what our job entails. We are the barrier between the civilian world and the other side of life that exists for them normally on the news and nowhere else. The moral issues of why the barrier is required are largely irrelevant and for discussion elsewhere, we are animals and we compete. When civilians catch a glimpse of this world through an intelligence leak or through the extremely rare occasions that a failure in the barrier means they are harmed, it shocks them and understandably so. This is the way things are and will always be, as we must continue to uphold the barrier and in doing so their ignorance. Genuine, honest ignorance in the true sense, not wilful ignorance, at least not in the majority of cases.
This lack of insight into our profession and the reasons it is required is supported by the media. Though this never used to be the case to such an extent, we live in an age of clickbait and a desperate fight for ratings as various forms of traditional media die. Who buys newspapers and watches TV anymore? The result of this is that journalists (and we must at times use this title loosely nowadays) have been forced to pander to fashion and trends in case they say something to rock the boat and lose their careers. On a human level it’s understandable, I’m certain there are many journalists who despise this situation themselves but lack the impetus to do something about it. War will never be fashionable and we must realise that we cannot expect those who see micro-aggressions in speech to understand that some people, through their own choices and resultant actions, simply aren’t needed. The jump is just too large.
Traditionally the arts and media are more left leaning. So we find that those who are responsible for shaping the view of the military and veterans in the public eye are perhaps the poorest choice to do so. I’m sure I’m not alone in my frustration in that every veteran character portrayed in dramas and soap operas is either your standard hard bloke moron or a ticking time bomb of PTSD. You can be sure their service will be what defines them as a character. Perhaps for creators this is all they know of us. Perhaps it’s an agenda to dissuade people from the service life. We must remember that most of the population do not have any experience with the military whatsoever and so have no reason to question what they see on the BBCs’‘Our Girl’! (US readers I’m sure it’s available online somewhere if you want a good laugh at us. Nightmarish) They may believe we have been tricked into joining or had no choice through circumstance or because we are too stupid to do anything else.
This is not a poor me, this is just the situation. How we handle it is up to us and I believe we do so very badly.
You’ll notice I have referred to the civilian population as ‘they’ a lot through this piece, which gives the impression that there are two opposing tribes that make up this problem, I don’t believe this is the case. There is one tribe with a sub-tribe, the tribe is civilians and the sub-tribe is veterans.
From birth you were a part of this civilian tribe and still are, serving or not. You were indoctrinated in its rules and languages, understood what was expected of you in order to function as a member of the tribe and be successful. You had at the very least 16 years in order to do this before you then chose to join a new tribe, the military. Over the next 6-12 months dependant on trade, you learnt new rules and languages, social norms and expectations of you. Some would be different entirely, some would be rules you were already following as a civilian, but given new emphasis. At no point did you leave your old tribe, you could move freely amongst them at weekends and when on leave. Any new lack of acceptance of these civilian rules was entirely wilful in order to show your proud status as a member of your new tribe. Pride of membership is to be completely expected as this new tribe did things that the other tribe could not or chose not to do. There is no danger in this unless it becomes arrogance and herein lies the problem.
A bit of introspection and honesty required at this point. We are keen to point the finger at civilians for not understanding us, but we look down on them. We do, be honest. How many ‘I don’t know how they do that 9-5 shit, maaan’ conversations have you had? How many times have you watched the news about the developing conflict you’re praying you get deployed to and berated the public for not even being aware of it because they’re too interested in the Kardashians? How often do you listen to your civilian friends complain about an issue at work only to tell them you could solve it by taking the dude in question to one side for a ‘chat’? How often have you laughed together because you’re moaning about having to complete some training serial for the hundredth time that would be the most exciting thing some civilians do in their lives! I’m not saying this stuff isn’t true to some extent, I’m just trying to point out that we are as guilty of misunderstanding them as they are of us. The interactions we have with the civilian world during our service shape their view of us. A negative view doesn’t really affect us during service because we have our fellow tribesmen and women to retreat back into. Some of us actually thrive on maintaining the divide through our actions, we take pride in it. There’s an argument that this ‘breed apart’ tribal attitude is what makes us so effective on the battlefield. I know my own sub-tribe, The Parachute Regiment would say exactly that and it’s absolutely useful in context but damaging if not.
Unfortunately although membership of both tribes is for life, our active membership of our sub tribe only lasts around 25 years if we choose to stay that long (maybe circumstance forces your hand sooner). At this point we are forced to become integrated full time with a tribe we’ve spent years looking down on and ridiculing, whilst knowing our old sub-tribe life carries on without us. The knowledge that the dream is over and the resulting feeling of loss can be hugely damaging if not corrected. For those with a highly kinetic background it can develop into something coined as LTSD, Loss of Traumatic Stress Disorder, the yearning for that meaningful, high stress, dangerous environment.
Too often we fail to recognise that the relevance of the life we had with our sub-tribe is virtually non-existent in the civilian world. To defend our hurt pride we retreat into clinging to remnants of that previous life. In doing so we ostracise ourselves more and more. We become bitter about our situation and push blame outwards where we have no control over changing things. We blame our old military tribal hierarchy for not caring about us, not doing enough to help us and preparing us for returning to ‘civilian life’. Let’s be honest, in no other job and it may be a very special job, but I stress job, voluntarily entered into, does the previous employer have responsibility to help you find new employment when you choose to leave them. I think we get a very good deal if it’s taken advantage of. I’m not saying that transition isn’t a difficult process, we saw in the first few paragraphs of this piece that there is a genuine ignorance of veterans and military life. I’m saying that we give in to the general publics’ perception of us as dysfunctional, PTSD ridden outsiders and expect them to do all the work to change that. Our attitude is damaging, hypocritical and completely at odds with the rules of the sub-tribe we hold so highly, except now we’re choosing to ignore those rules because we’re on our own and it’s hard. Poor us.
Unlike civilians we are members of both tribes. We can move freely in both if we choose to. We can adapt to any new situation with the benefit of both sets of tribal rules. The experiences we have had during our service lives are advantages over our new civilian colleagues earned through hard work and sacrifice, it’s just a matter of correct application. Most veterans would likely say they thrive in chaotic, demanding situations, why not see the civilian world as just that? It’s about changing your old thought processes to your new, but very familiar environment. Transition and of course PTSD require much more in depth discussion than we have had here, but that’s for another time. The honest discussion of PTSD, it’s correct diagnosis and subsequent treatment will certainly upset some.
The disconnect is real and I believe instead of giving in to what’s expected of us as veterans, regardless of the unfairness of how that perception has come about, we should use our experience of both tribes as an advantage and work together with civilians to change things. Unfair odds have never bothered us before, why start now? We need a return to a time where service is just part of your life, not all that you are. Where civilian colleagues are surprised to find out you served, we should be proud but humble. There’s a reason that the Hanged Man logo is so superficially vague in it’s appearance and that the definition of Sin Eater refers to actions taken by more than just veterans.
Personal responsibility for your actions applies not only to your current situation; you are here because of your previous choices, but to how your actions affect others. Meaning your actions as a veteran whilst in and out of service create the perception of us ALL and not just you. You’re either doing it right, or you’re making life harder for yourself and the rest of us. The choice to do it right is yours and if you admit it to yourself, you’re well aware of what right is.