Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Why do men who have been in war struggle to re-integrate into civilian life and long to be back in the war they just survived?
Perhaps I am sensitive to this issue because my grandfather, Col. Dwight Kuhns, was in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and served in both World War II and the Korean War. We were very close, and he passed away a long time ago, so I cannot ask him, but I have a hunch that in his day he understood the meaning of this question very well. Whatever the reason for my interest may be, I found the answer in this:
Very few have had a stronger experience of purpose and community than those who have served their country in combat.
Jesse Odom, a Marine infantryman that marched into Bagdad, recounts in his book "Through our Eyes" the following: “The most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition… I know the changes I see in myself are not a result of the war in Iraq. Even though those memories are still there and are traumatic, it goes much deeper than that. The changes are the result of a man who wishes he was at war.”
Karl Marlantes, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam war in his book "What It is Like to Go to War" says that it is hard for veterans to adjust to civilian life after war. He writes that it is like "asking St. John of the Cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald's after he's left the monastery".
Restrepo is a documentary about a platoon in Afghanistan that chronicles the lives of the soldiers from their deployment to the time they return home. Sebastiaan Junger, the maker of the documentary, states in an interview:
“Soldiers come back from a very unified experience where no one cares if you're gay or straight, or Republican or Democrat, or Harvard educated or your dad's in prison. No one cares, right? And then you come back to America where we're completely politically divided and economically and racially divided society, and I think it's appalling to soldiers who encounter that back home when it didn't exist in the front lines.”
Fortunately there are now organizations that give veterans a renewed sense of purpose, like Team Rubicon and Squadbay.
Having a sense of purpose, unity and community is what these young men miss most. Combat provided them with that. But as Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust, writes it is a very common, human need:
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” and " Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'."
The experience of purpose and unity is something that is very powerful and that we are all capable of creating and experiencing. Combat is not a necessary prerequisite.
Finding a common purpose is the fundamental principle behind developing high performing teams because it is the only way the individual differences in personality can be united. The only other thing that can unite people is fear, but the problem is it unites people against something instead of for who they are.
You can also find a sense of purpose for yourself, as an individual. You can start with asking yourself questions like: - What kind of world would I like to create? What change would I like to see? - What do I care so deeply about that I will do almost anything to change it? - What could I do to make these changes happen? - What unique capabilities do I have that could make a difference in this respect?
After finding your purpose you can experience the power of it by following the advice of Ghandhi to "Be the change you want to see in the world.". That is ultimately the most fulfilling venture you can undertake. It is the one that Joseph Campbell, Jungian author on the Hero's Journey, writes about when he says
"Follow your bliss and don't be afraid. Doors will open where you didn't know there were going to be any.".