Returning veterans and many “first responders” have gone through challenging experiences as a part of their service. Their stories represent an important facet of the American story as a whole, and as such are important to be heard by their fellow citizens who may also be struggling to make sense in today’s complex and rapidly changing world. With so many veterans now making higher education part of their transition to their “next mission” within the communities of our society and becoming part of the work force, we believe that the humanities and communication areas could play a crucial role for these veterans to be heard while making their way back home. America’s campuses could be a most nurturing and conducive place for them to voice their stories, listen to others’ stories and jointly generate meaning around a more secure and globally informed future for all of us. While these processes already take place at some schools, how can we make it part of the experience in higher education, on a widespread scale?
The Warrior’s Journey in the Humanities project is an effort to help align “ways of seeing” and “ways of being” between returning veterans and the communities to which they return. To better integrate this effort, we propose drawing on archetypal warrior experience from literature and the arts, framed by the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory, and informed by the stories our contemporary veterans have to tell us.
The Humanities as carrier of human experienceWhile the idea of courses that teach lessons about military history and the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by warriors of many of the world’s cultures are not new, CMM adds an innovative and safe structure within which something new for the future can be co-constructed by veterans, faculty and fellow students. Adding to the rich body of work that the humanities and the arts have captured from the past, the “lived experience” of present-day veterans are invited to join in this ongoing dialogue. Storytelling in this context can be more of an organic experience, with many of the judgmental or stereotyping overlays of social norms and professional practice removed, and the notion of separation of veterans’ culture from “the rest of us” set aside. Put somewhat differently, this “safe space” for exploring social co-construction of identities and relationships differs in significant ways from organizational structures and processes that attempt to “translate” veterans’ experiences to the civilian world, or to re-mold them into a form that fits some other pre-defined role. In the spirit of co-construction, veterans will have the latitude and support to better come to grips with their past narratives and identities, and “co-create” their future selves in safe space amidst a supportive group of people.
The “Battle Flag” Metaphor
A powerful metaphor being used to present the Warrior’s Journey project is the tattered “battle flag” of a World War II Submarine chaser pictured below. In this view, the intention, qualities and symbology are intact, but visibly damaged by contact with adversity. In real life, this may include the difficult experiences of war, crime terrorism, or other forms of violence. Despite the physical damage to the structure in these encounters, the essence of strength and purpose remain embedded in the pattern. The myriad threads that remain at the interfaces point towards what has been, and what could again be. The mission, then, of the Warriors Journey can be seen as emphasizing that strength and pattern of what remains of the tattered edges, so the whole can once again be restored. Within the context of the heuristics of CMM, the faint (but very human) pattern of the threads are borne forward in the process of story-telling, rallying once more around an archetypal model that reveals the essential qualities that may then be restored or transformed.
The project team of the Warriors Journey includes representation from many disciplines in the academic world including classical literature, folklore and mythology, communication studies; the practice of military science, history, and psychology, and philosophy and spiritual practice. The purpose for this mix is to bring together a more complete view of the veterans’ experience and consider how the things they have to tell us can help us to co-construct a better or more complete narrative of service, sacrifice, and the transformative potential for humanity of understanding this. This can also be seen as a form of “cosmopolitan” communication about these difficult subjects, which includes and accounts for the spiritual, cultural, cognitive, and psychological dimensions.
Honor, Duty, Loyalty and Suffering … and the experience of “Moral Injury”
A significant aspect of this program is the application of CMM theory to get to the roots of the patterns of “moral injuries” that often accompany military or “first responder” service. Moral injury is increasingly recognized as a distinct phenomenon that results from damage to an individual’s system of meaning-making or “worldview” caused by a powerfully disorienting experience. This can involve individual betrayal, damage of belief system, sense of personal shame or regret over actions or inactions, or some combination. The healing of moral injury is therefore not necessarily the same as recovery from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which has generally been a matter of individual therapy and treatment, but is something that must take place in the social context. For this reason, CMM and Social Construction offer tools and heuristics to assist with understanding and rebuilding the damaged “social world.”
Tyler Boudreau, a USMC veteran explains it this way: “Now, with moral injury, the kind of distinction that I think is so important is that it’s not necessarily a medical issue anymore. Now it’s a social issue. Now when a veteran says, ‘Hey, I have a moral injury or I have something challenging my moral code,’ that means its challenging society’s moral code.
And that means that it is a discussion for everyone, not just the medical community, and it’s not enough to just whisk the soldier or Veteran off to the doctor. It’s, hey, we all need to be in the conversation. And we are all, by the way, responsible for whatever … that he or she is involved in. That’s our (concern), too.”
What are we making, and how are we making it?
The Warrior’s Journey project has been submitted for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for the training of dialogic facilitators and development of curriculum. Other sources are being explored to create a film or video treatment in cooperation with noted filmmaker Terry Strauss that illustrates this process and the underlying theory, with examples from contemporary stories of veterans. Meanwhile, other channels for exploring and testing these concepts, ideas, and principles on a smaller scale are being explored with several campus communities with significant student veteran populations. For more information, contact Barton Buechner at email@example.com. Tzofnat Peleg-Baker, Rutgers University, is assisting in this process, and contributed to this article.