Meaning in military deployment

It is a beautiful Sunday. Not a cloud in the sky. Normally I would go running, or watch football, but of late I have been pondering the psychology, philosophy, and spirituality of Meaning in Life. I’ve been reading writers in Depth Psychology, mythology, psychology, religion, and more, and struggle with the usual dynamics of my desire to go macro (big picture) and micro (application in a particular instance). An elegant theory would be able to zoom up and down. In having a discussion with a treasured friend, who is currently undergoing her own PhD program, she made the comment “you’re working on building a theory aren’t you?”. I was jolted. No, I replied, my goal isn’t to devise a theory. My goal is to understand it. Right now I do not. The limitations are of my own brain in being able to zoom up and down and jump to different nodes in the web of associations. So today, instead of running in the crisp air, I am drinking black coffee and reading, and trying to use a newly downloaded tool to aid my limited brain. Thus far I am liking Scapple. I only wished it had an iOS app.

Today I’ve gone over three studies, hence why the graphic of the web diagram is so very small. But one in particular is giving me pause to ponder. That is:

Britt, T. W., Adler, A. B., & Bartone, P. T. (2001). Deriving benefits from stressful events: The role of engagement in meaningful work and hardiness. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 53–63. doi:10.1037//1076-8998.6.1.53

Granted this is written in 2001, prior to so many things happening in psychology and military deployment. I am hopeful that I will be accepted into a graduate program where I can again obtain access to research articles and see what new developments have occurred. But in the meantime, what struck me the most in this article is the influence of Contextual Experience. “The results revealed that soldiers who reported little contextual experience reported fewer benefits of the deployment“.

Elsewhere in the paper:

Page 9
“The fact that such factors as witnessing the destruction caused by the warring factions were associated with greater benefits might appear at first glance counterintuitive. For example, one might expect that being exposed to destruction would be rather depressing, leading to withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness. Mitchell and Dyregrov (1993) noted that destruction is a source of stress for many emergency workers. However, the present research showed that such exposure was in fact positively related to construing benefits from the deployment. In the context of the peacekeeping mission, destruction was likely seen as reinforcing the justification for U.S. intervention, adding meaning to the soldier’s work on the mission.”

So I am going to simply rap about the above paragraph a little, throwing caution to the wind and letting my free form go. I will flow between psychologist lingo and infantry lingo. So there will be curse words and time to time I will sum up psychology concepts into an infantryman’s simple summation. Then again, I do not see what the social disparagement against curse words are all about.  I would argue that to say ‘fornicate’, ‘make sweet sweet love’ or ‘fuck’ are all the same. If I am talking about sex, why does it matter to someone’s sensibilities if I use one term or another term? That one is offensive and another is not, to me, is utterly ridiculous.

It is not a paradox to me to see that Mitchell and Dyregrov noted destruction as a source of stress, while Britt, Adler, and Bartone noted it as a source of benefit. Imagine the life of an emergency worker, such as when I was a volunteer firefighter. You get the call to respond to an emergency. On the one hand you feel good because you are helping, you are being useful, you are protecting others. However, if it is a particularly bad event, there are casualties, and there is a ‘waste of life’ (waste: use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.), then this would be a stressor. Why would God allow such suffering and evil? Why am I scraping drunk kids off of highways? Why am I searching for remains in homes torched by dry Christmas Trees? Why does randomness bad shit happen? (note, see the influence of cohesion on perceived meaning in life).  A study on mental models of meaning and purpose of firefighters in relation to such seemingly random and/or destined events (note the two polar extremes) would be very interesting.

Regarding Britt, et al, article, I recall my own experiences in deployments. My first one was as a young Marine in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I was already in the Marines when it happened. I loved (still do) the identity of the Marine and all that it stood for and was caught up in the American orgasm of sending troops to war. As a side note, while I agree with Greenwood’s song, I am sick to death of hearing it. Desert Storm had every damn commercial, sports game, and so on playing that song. But the idea behind the song, fighting for my country’s freedom, was wholly bought into by myself.  I never questioned it.  Years later I was in Houston, going to the University of Houston (go Coogs) and I watched the movie Three Kings. It was the first time I actually considered our military actions as being for something other than protecting America. That is, we were protecting oil interests. As I looked at the bigger picture, how we had abandoned the Iraqi uprising, how we kept a puppet dictator in place that would justify increased military spending on our part (and influence in the world) and other actions, I saw it as a war to increase the rich. When I watched this movie and the wave of considerations came rolling over, which my naive belief that I was simply protecting American freedom was the damn holding the flood back, I went straight to a bar and ordered whiskey, straight, and let it all sink in. My faith in the motives of my country was shaken.

Flash forward five years. I signed up and deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. This time it was easier. There were supposed WMDs to find, an axis of evil that was bent on attacking America (9/11), and I had fellow warriors overseas continuing the fight. I didn’t harbor ill will toward the populace of the country, only those in power. I am not haunted by the images that car bombs will do to a crowded market. I saw it as a tactic used by the enemy.

I will state here that I am antagonistic against fundamentalism of any kind, any religion. I hold fundamentalists all in the same category of distrust. Whether they are fundamentalists Muslim, Christian, Libertarian, Socialists, or whatever, I distrust you. Anyone who is willing to kill for their belief is intellectually lazy and a danger to everyone else. I will not kill for my beliefs, because beliefs are emotional states of ‘certainty’ in regard to wishes and paradigms. As such, they can be, and often are, incredibly wrong no matter how you feel about it. However, I will kill in defense. The astute observer will note here the thorny problem in the philosophy of ethics between relativism, nihilism, and other ‘isms’, to which I welcome such debate. This openness is the opposite of fundamentalism. No fundamentalist is truly open to respect of other’s opinion, nor the possibility of self growth or virtue. Not a one. Eventually you will get them to state “that is my belief, let’s agree to disagree”, even when given insurmountable evidence of their jackassery.

Back to the point. In recent years I have worked with helping veterans reintegrate. The majority of veterans will do so just fine, however a minority have hangups. It was often the case that I would work with an individual with legal, financial, family, social problems. In talking with them and their units, I would hear the sentiment “but we didn’t do shit on this deployment. We just rolled up and down MSR (military supply route) or pulled guard duty. We never got shot at.” The picture painted by these were a boring deployment. They were surrounded by a populace that was burdened by a poor economy, a lousy political system, little opportunity for upward mobility, a harsh environment, who were war-weary, and tired of seeing Americans, tired of seeing no improvement in their lives, tired of seeing futility. Interaction with the locals didn’t increase a sense of ‘helping them’ but instead a sense of ‘we’re in the way’ or ‘we’re not welcome’. So it was a shock to many returned soldiers when members of their units showed reintegration issues. They were using the same simple formula that our movies and pop psychology has given them… ‘war = hell = fucked up soldiers’. The formula of ‘war = boring = fucked up soldiers’ did not compute. There is generally a lot of confusion about this. To make matters worse, every reintegration powerpoint by well-meaning, but utterly out of touch therapist, perpetuate that war = hell, that violence shatters lives, that exposure to bad shit increases the chance of a fucked up soldier.

But if the above formulas were true, and I completely reject them, then the Britt et al, article is interesting because it shows something that counters it. That is, ‘exposure to fucked up shit = increase in meaningful deployment’. Going back to my second deployment, I remember walking down some alley. We were a single squad of soldiers on a waking patrol. An old woman came out with a pan of very chewy dates (like eating a mixture of tar and peanut butter). Though tactically stupid, I ate one as a sign of good faith. She was crying and giving us blessings and telling us stories of her family being taken away by Saddam and killed. She was very thankful for Americans in toppling Saddam. Now, the debate about why America went to Iraq is a big one. Personally I do not for a second believe (again that word ‘belief’) that President Bush sent us over because of Freedom. However, that IS why I went. The years since then the case has been made on the shoddy evidence for WMDs, the billions made by Halliburton on our war (I strongly dislike Dick Cheney), and so forth. Yet still, I recall this old lady, and many more civilians who came up to me on patrol, with tears in their eyes. Regardless of our crappy National politics are, it was a good thing to rid Saddam for the Iraqi people. Seeing the poverty and abuse that ten years of war, no fly zones, sanctions has done to the country, much of it our fault, I am happy to see the people of Iraq hold more autonomy in their hands. It is messy now, filled with inept and corrupt politicians, but it is a start.

This backdrop of the people of Iraq was a potent source of suffering for me regarding my combat actions. One cannot fight a war with high powered weapons within a densely populated area without it hurting others. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Calling it ‘collateral damage’ will not lessen it, because in your heart you know that ‘innocent people get fucking killed’, which carries more weight than the cognitive ‘collateral damage’. I guess this is the difference in curse words (see above) in that they emote the more/less emotional/cognitive appraisals. Emotions are generally regarded as ‘dirty’ and reason as ‘pure’. I need some whiskey and a philosopher of language to aid me here.

What about the current troops deployed? What purpose is in their deployment? I know from talking with some that they are on a ‘clean up mission’ where much resources are being taken out of the region and they are holding down the fort while the withdrawal process occurs. This ‘locking up the store’ is not welcomed by some of the soldiers that I know. Personally, it was this that kept me from going over. I wanted to ‘seek out the enemy’, not pull tower duty all day. But just as looking at the thoughts in one’s workout that help push further, so too might looking at a deployment aid. Some call this ‘spin’ (politics) but we spin everything in our lives and the nature of our spin colors our emotional reactions. Spin isn’t good or bad, it just is.  I know how to spin cold, wet, training to enable better performance, how would one spin a boring deployment?

Just some thoughts… and looking at the clock I must ready myself to go to Portland for an event. So I will end it here.


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