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.
As stated in my previous reflection on self-actualization, the concept has been overly individualized and we need to recognize that it must be achieved by engaging with the world rather than from over-introspection or 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:
“If you’re around army guys, every civvy is a dirty, long haired, bone-idle, slack, dope smoking civvy, every one of them… he can grow his hair, he can be fuckin’ bone idle, smoke dope… perfect example of freedom, that`s for sure… he’s idle, fuck is he idle, and he’ll never be as badass as me, but shit is he free.”
Many Veterans I spoke with said that their service was a high point in their lives. As one stated,“…when I feel like that was the pentacle of my life, for good and bad, and now you’re supposed to find something else and find new meaning?” Another characterized his deployment as a peak experience due to the high levels of responsibility combined with intense action and group cohesion:
“It’s the idea that for six months or whatever, you’re really in the shit, you’re in the thick of it, you are really doing something; you’re doing something that people are talking about, you’re doing something that’s cool, you’re doing something with your friends, it’s hard, it’s crazy, and it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life, and when you come back and your don’t have that anymore, it’s hard. It’s hard to think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again’ I’m never going to be able to go back to that.”
Coming home, he stated:
“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, it also provided a mission and a sense of purpose often lacking in civilian life. As a Canadian Veteran stated:
“Once you’re out of that environment you realize, okay what do I do now? How can I possibly top that? Where do you go from here? You’re at the top of your game, you were doing something meaningful, relevant, you had a focus, you had direction, you had support, you had comradery… it’s like god, 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.”
This lead to the common sentiment that,“it’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.” This apathy needs to be addressed and Veterans need to feel like they still matter and that their highly developed set of skills are transferable to civilian occupations. As an individual I interviewed stated, “…if you don’t give them something to live for after the army, like school or a new career… that’s a huge issue.”
To conclude, self-actualization requires more than solitary introspection. The military facilitates self-actualization through regimentation, group-cohesion, and an elite mentality based in a high degree of responsibility. The transition to civilian life may be fraught for those whose sense of self-actualization is taken away due to the a cultural and institutional gap between the military and civilian life. Career counseling, retraining, and education are among the supports that must be ensured to former service-members to help prevent this issue.
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