Military service as a transformative experience

In Transformative Experience, philosopher L.A. Paul grapples with the dilemma of how to make decisions about life-changing experiences when the nature of that experience can’t be understood until experienced, and when the experience itself might change the very values upon which one would make such decisions. She offers several running examples of transformative experiences, such as the choice to have a child, or for a deaf person to get a cochlear implant. It is a philosophy book, but accessible outside of academic philosophy and has struck a chord with a number of readers outside the discipline.  I haven’t been able to let go of thinking about how the transformative nature of military service sets veterans up for real dissonance when they leave military service. Paul’s interest in the subject lies in how we make rational and authentic decisions in the face of transformative choices, but my own engagement with her ideas leads me to think about the consequences of one such choice–the decision to join the military.


In a volunteer military, the decision to enlist seems to exemplify a transformative experience. Paul offers enlisting in the military at the outset of the chapter “Life Choices” but only briefly considers enlistment in the book. We are surrounded by books, films, television shows, and other popular documentary and creative works of art that portray military life. But until and unless you have yourself experienced bootcamp, SERE training, deployment, combat, and myriad other military experiences, one simply doesn’t and can’t truly understand what it is like to be in the military. This is what she refers to as an epistemically transformative experience (the only way to know what the experience is like it to experience it yourself.)  Anyone who knows someone who has served also knows these experiences are often described as “life changing”, and as experiences that “made me who I am”, “made me a man”, or somehow fundamentally altered how that person views and experiences the world. This change in who you are is what Paul calls a personally transformative experience. When something is both epistemically and personally transformative it is then considered a transformative experience.

I never served in the military and have not experienced that transformation. I have some glimpses into how it transforms others through teaching at West Point, as a military spouse and after nearly 2 decades of research in the area, but I don’t know what it means to enlist, and I don’t know how that experience of serving changes you first hand. I have had my own transformative experience as a military family member who saw deployments, long training missions, institutional demands, and other features unique to military family life. And that experience did change me, and it altered how I understand some things about the world. I can imagine then that serving, deploying, and fighting in combat might be even more profoundly life changing for those who experience it, but I cannot truly know how.

One reason serving in the military is a transformative experience is that it is designed to force personal change. The military socialization process is intended to change how those who serve think, respond, and interact. The formal rank structure, legal codes, normative expectations, manner of dress and military “speak” all interact to intentionally create a different experience than found in civilian society. Military service often involves living, socializing, and working together in segregated worlds, apart from civilians. Erving Goffman describes total institutions as “forcing house for changing persons, as a natural experiment on what can be done to the self” (p.12, Asylums) and characterizes bootcamp, barracks, ships, and similar military experiences as a total institution. Whether the whole of the military experience is a total institution is debatable, but Goffman highlights a key aspect of the initial entry into service—namely the extreme initial socialization of persons into a new social order. Bootcamp or basic training are the places where new recruits go to learn how to be in and of this new social world. Military service is transformative from day one by design.


Although many naïve civilians imagine daily military life to be like the on-screen depictions of bootcamp, much of everyday military life can be quite similar to life working in any large bureaucracy. But the ranks, uniforms, weaponry, and large vehicles like tanks and fighter jets are constant reminders of the separation between military and civilian worlds. Before 9/11, many military installations were open for the public to drive on or through. Now military communities are true fortresses. The physical gating off of military from civilian worlds reinforces those differences on a daily basis. This separation applies even for those who live in civilian neighborhoods, they still must enter base with a military ID, showing it to an armed guard for admittance. Even after initial entry socialization, military service involves constant reinforcement that military service separates one from civilians. Others have argued the reinforcement of the separateness of military service leads to a self-conception of specialness and superiority further driving a wedge between the two worlds (for example Tom Ricks’ book, Making the Corps). But the cultural life of military “work” and life does set it apart from civilian society.

But some military experiences, such as a deployment overseas or to a combat zone are a special kind of transformative experience, distinguishing those who have and those who have not had it. The mark of a combat deployment is worn permanently on the uniform, front and center. A patch worn on the right shoulder marks the insignia of the unit with which one was deployed to combat. Featuring this experience so prominently reflects its importance. Among those who deploy, there are the fine distinctions between those who go “outside the wire”, or those who work within the safe confines of the administrative base or FOB. Among those who choose to enlist and are transformed by initial socialization, there are even more potentially transformative experiences embedded with the military experience. Is it “transformative experiences all the way down”? I would suggest that enlistment and becoming a military servicemember is one kind of transformative military experience, while deployment to a combat theater is another, and actual combat exposure—firing on or being fired upon by an enemy is a third. These are the experiences that from my study seem to lead to both epistemically and personally transformation.

So what happens when people leave military service?  If enlisting and serving is a transformative experience, and fighting in combat and even further one,  what happens to individuals who then leave the community of people who understand their transformative experience and return to a world where few have that experience? Not only is the transition out of the military a potential career change, and a loss of structures and benefits, it is also the loss of understanding and being understood. In Paul’s book, the canonical example of becoming a parent is a transformative experience that many choose to undertake. The experience of choosing to hear for the first time when you have been unable to do so also situates the choice as one that moves an individual into a larger community. It puts them into a category seen as socially normative, if not also statistically normative. Even the fictitious example to become a vampire is described as one in which all your friends have done it and say it’s great. But having made a choice to enlist places an individual among a relatively small subset of the population (around 1% of the adult population is actively serving in the armed forces).


Voluntary military service means undertaking a transformative experience to join an increasingly small community of others with that experience. Conversely, leaving the military community returns a veteran to a world s/he chose to leave. But everyone eventually must leave military service and return to the civilian world they chose to leave (unless they unfortunately do not survive.) Unlike a deaf person choosing to get cochlear implants to join a larger hearing community, those who enlist are more like a hearing person who chooses to become deaf. But they make that choice knowing they must at some point rejoin the hearing world. How do people who experience something transformative return, and re-integrate with those who haven’t? What does it mean to be a person who has experienced transformation in a world that can’t possibly know your experience? When leaving the military world, the individual has to depart from the community of people who understand their experiences to one that doesn’t, a world of individuals who chose NOT to have that experience. It is this dissonance that seems to present a problem for so many veterans, and something that the public doesn’t pay much attention to. In the next post, I’ll describe some of the results of a longitudinal qualitative research project that involves interviewing individuals before and after their exit from the military to illustrate the challenges veterans face when trying to re-enter civilian life.

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