On Memorial Day I watched a very moving documentary titled “The Homefront”. It examined the impact of the military careerist’s life on one’s family. For me two things stood out because of issues I have been studying and writing about in my most recent book, “Our Quest for Effective Living.”
One: The military career is a Closed Moral World of its own — for the individual warrior and for the family of the warrior.
“First and foremost, I am a soldier” is the sort of identity statement one heard. It is not only a statement about the military careerist’s personal identity. It also announces a Moral Compact with one’s family. This justifies subjecting the family to one’s long periods of absence — during “deployments” in war zones — as well as accepting frequent family moves from base to base, where every two years or so children have to attend a new school because their parents have moved to a new community. Each time they have left friends behind in their previous school. Each time they have new teachers, who do not know them. In the course of their years of schooling, this happens over and over again.
All this, I say, is part of a Moral Compact that claims that these upheavals are justified — for the military career-individual as well as the family with whom one is entwined. Most commonly — but not always — it is the man who has the military carer, and the wife who thereby becomes the principal family manager, nurturer, organizer, risk taker — to mention just a few of her responsibilities. All this, I repeat, is accepted as part of what I sometimes call a particular “Closed Moral World” — which has its own rules, its ways of organizing life, its own sense of justification on conviction that one stands on moral ground which give meaning to one’s life. It is sometimes passed on from generation to generation. Many a military careerist is the child of a parent who, too, had a military career. It is a distinctive way of life — with its high level of patriotism amid willingness, indeed eagerness, to commit one’s self and one’s family to service to country.
Two: A battlefield can produce a unique bonding among soldiers. You will risk your life to save your buddy, just as your buddy will risk his life to save yours. Long after the battle is over, this battlefield bond remains your very closest link to other human beings.
This primacy of the military bonding can have repercussions on one’s family — not only in accepting the military careerist’s distance from spouse and children and not being engaged in their daily life. Nowhere did this show up more clearly, in the documentary, than when the soldier returns home. One’s family members had eagerly counted the days and hours of one’s return. They yearned for you to come home. One’s arrival was greeted as the most glorious event.
BUT the euphoria did not last! In the documentary this was demonstrated starkly from one family’s experience — but it surely applies to many families. Within a few days and weeks it became frightfully clear that the soldier was a stranger to his family. He did not fit into the family’s own culture, its own routines of how members were conducting their life. The wife reported that the few weeks after the husband’s return was THE LONELIEST TIME OF HER LIFE. She felt he was not connected to her and the family. He was here, but he was there, somewhere with his military unit. He was not really here. She could not reach him. She was competing with his battlefield bonding that seemed to dominate his life. For him, it seemed, his bonding memories were sacred and untouchable by the wife’s efforts.
In the documentary the participants in one family finally succeeded in understanding one another and begin to work things out. But this does not mean that for many returning soldiers and their families the primacy of the battlefield bonding phenomenon has been solved. I do not have a neat solution, except to say that understanding the phenomenon is a necessary first step.