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*Originally Published by Psychology Today and used with the explicit permission of the author*

 

Recently, The Hollywood Reporter featured a cover and article entitled “The Triumph of the Beta Male,” at the same time Men’s Health featured a cover of a man in battle dress uniform with the caption “Soldier Strong!”  The juxtaposition of the two is a neat summary of the current civilian-military divide and an unanticipated commentary on the significance of masculinity in both worlds.

The Hollywood Reporter; Men's Health
Source: The Hollywood Reporter; Men’s Health

While alpha and beta males are not necessarily empirically derived monikers, the construct of masculinity (link is external)is well-established.  Traditional masculine/male traits include competitiveness, protectiveness, aggressiveness, assertiveness, sexual appetite, appreciating truth over feeling, confidence, self-reliance, and independence (to name a few) which appear to fall neatly in line with the socially recognized alpha male designation. There are few professions, if any, that ascribe more value to these qualities than the military.

In a past address to the graduating class of the United States Naval Academy, the current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, remarked to future Naval and Marine Corps officers that “we need cocky, macho… young men and women” leading our Nation’s Armed Forces.

Our military system explicitly and implicitly places a premium on the masculinity of our warfighters.  Outside of our fair share of “man up” jargon, we persistently use effeminate, pejorative adjectives as a form of irony to build camaraderie, diminish feminine traits, and highlight the inherent masculine nature of military tasks.  Moreover, the use of “brotherhood” and its various diminutions is commonplace.  The names of most military units are masculine in nature and all military equipment is designed with the average man in mind.

Bottom line: modern day and historical warfare and masculinity are undeniably intertwined and nearly inseparable.  The ancient Greek word for courage, andreia, literally meant manliness. Virgil opens his epic poem, the Aeneid, with “I sing of arms and a man.” And the Latin word for man, vir, strongly related to courage on the battlefield, is the origin of the English word virtue.

Yet, our culture is shifting away from the embrace of such qualities and calling into question their relevance—with some labeling them as toxic.  With the rise of feminism, we seem to demand a declination in masculinity.  In the progressive empowerment of women, we’ve disempowered masculinity.

From a martial perspective, this became apparent when the Pentagon released a report (link is external)that approximately 71% of the 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds would not qualify for military service.

In 1997, over two decades ago, The Atlantic (link is external)published an article regarding this divide.

“At various times each of these new Marines seemed to experience a moment of private loathing for public America. They were repulsed by the physical unfitness of civilians, by the uncouth behavior they witnessed, and by what they saw as pervasive selfishness and consumerism. Many found themselves avoiding old friends, and some experienced difficulty even in communicating with their families.”

With the Global War on Terror occurring during those intervening 20 years and approximately 1% of Americans serving, it stands to reason that the gap is now a chasm.

While there is no concrete data to indicate disparity rates between the civilian and veteran experience, a cursory internet search returns articles like: The Civilian-Veteran Survival Field Manual (VAntage Point, 2011); Veterans Employment Toolkit: Common Challenges During Re-adjustment to Civilian Life (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs); The Case For Sticking Close To Your Veteran Community (Task & Purpose, 2015) suggesting that the veteran community feels at increasing odds with the civilian community at large and vice versa.

The transition from active military duty to civilian life may be further compounded by the profound differences in how these two spheres of existence are understood—the masculinity disparity being a potentially large portion of this.  For transitioning service members, the shift from a military environment that universally promotes stoicism and expects such behavior from its members into an environment that does not value such attitudes may be a considerable source of dissonance.

Until recently(link is external), there has been a failure to appreciate the collective complexity of the transition into and out of the military.  Soldiers and veterans are undeniably resilient, both by selection and by training. But they are not superhuman. The process of transitioning and reintegrating back to civilian life is often stressful and can generate lasting psychological difficulties.

With half (link is external)of Americans reporting the wars have made little difference in their lives, 40% of Veterans report ‘getting socialized to civilian culture(link is external)’ as a key transitional challenge.  How do we reconcile the two?  Is it possible that it’s society that is ‘broken,’ and not our warriors?

This is not to discount the immense difficulties that veterans with PTSDmight face. However, work with traumatized veterans is impeded when the distinction between PTSD-related symptoms and other broader transition difficulties and stressors is blurred.  Even more importantly, although the serious and often debilitating nature of PTSD is beyond question, the available empirical evidence shows that PTSD typically occurs in only a relatively small population of returning veterans.

In other words, PTSD explains only a small fraction of veteran mental health issues. We as providers, and as a society, need to move beyond our narrow focus on trauma related symptomatology. To borrow a play from someone else’s playbook: It’s not PTSD. It’s the transition, stupid.

 

References

Addis, M. E., & Mahalik, J. R. (2003). Men, masculinity, and the contexts of help seeking. American psychologist, 58(1), 5.

Mobbs, M. C., & Bonanno, G. A. (2017). Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans. Clinical psychology review.

Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends, The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era (2011): 13: http://www. pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/10/veterans-report

Ricks, T. E., The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. New York: Penguin, 2012.

Roach, M. (2016). Grunt: The curious science of humans at war. New York: Norton, 2016.

Zoli, C, Maury, R., and Fay, D. (2015). Missing Perspectives: Servicemembers’ Transition from Service to Civilian Life. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

 

Meaghan Mobbs, M.A. is a West Point graduate, Afghanistan Veteran, and former Army Captain who is currently an advanced Clinical Psychology doctoral student at Columbia University, Teachers College.  Mobbs is also a David O’Connor Fellow, Tillman Military Scholar, and a Noble Argus and National Military Family Association Scholarship recipient.