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Towards a Soldier-Based View in Research on The Military: An Empathetically Critical Approach

Faculty of Military Sciences, Netherlands Defense Academy, 3509 AA Utrecht, The Netherlands
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Soc. Sci. 2023, 12(2), 51;
Submission received: 16 November 2022 / Revised: 5 January 2023 / Accepted: 16 January 2023 / Published: 17 January 2023


The military has long been a topic of interest in the social sciences. However, to date, military studies tend to take an overly researcher-oriented viewpoint rather than actually engaging with the ‘native’ experience of the soldier. This article intends to reorient military studies to a perspective that encompasses the lived and embodied worldviews, actions, and experiences of military personnel. Reviewing existing research on the military, it identifies two dominant approaches—a functionalist and a ‘condemnatory critical’ approach—which, despite important differences, share an ‘etic’ viewpoint. Subsequently, it proposes an alternative approach that includes ‘emic’ attention to soldiers’ lifeworlds and comprises an empathetically critical approach. This new line of scholarship also involves empirical redirection. At least five major themes merit empirical attention: military identity, boredom and thrill, humor, violence and death, and homesickness for war. Moreover, the proposed reorientation has theoretical and methodological implications, including ontological and epistemological reconsideration towards critical realism, the development of an interdisciplinarity perspective, and new methodological approaches such as basenographies, visual data, and fictional novels by veterans. These novel empirical, theoretical, and methodological venues are valuable not only for research on the military but for all fields of study that are dominated by an etic approach. They contribute to a more scientifically holistic perspective that includes and takes seriously the experiences and meaning making of the people being studied.

1. Introduction

The military has long been a topic of interest in the social sciences. Initially concerned with the armed forces as an institution in relation to society (Huntington 1957; Janowitz 1961; Moskos 1976) and human resources management issues such as cohesion, morale, and unit leadership (Caforio 2006; Ouellet 2021; Shils and Janowitz 1948), researchers have increasingly directed attention to the operational level of military practice and the personal experiences of soldiers (Brønd et al. 2021; MacLean and Elder 2007; Williams et al. 2016). Still, to date, military studies tend to take an overly researcher-oriented viewpoint rather than actually engaging with the ‘native’ experience of the soldier.
Sociological, organizational, and anthropological research on the military, although different in many respects, share a lack of serious consideration of soldiers’ life worlds. The majority of sociological and organizational research on the military departs from functionalist questions on the effectiveness and efficiency of military activities (Ouellet 2021). In doing so, it approaches military personnel as resources or assets whose adequacy can be improved with changes in military management, while the military institution and its objectives are uncritically taken for granted (McCann 2017; Ouellet 2021). Anthropological research, instead, is generally focused on exposing forces and norms in the military that are considered destructive (Lutz 2009; Price 2011), but it often fails to take seriously the personal views of soldiers who do not share the researcher’s criticism. Such research, which might be called ‘condemnatory critical’, uses soldiers’ stories as sources of insight into the military institution, which is denounced a priori, and lacks actual interest in the soldiers’ perceptions beyond this purpose (Mohr et al. 2021; Sørensen and Weisdorf 2021).
Thus, both lines of research focus on the significance of military practices in a researcher-oriented sense, while the meaning and purpose felt by soldiers themselves tend to be disregarded or readily reinterpreted in etic terms. In ethnographic terms, this would be labeled in terms of a difference between the ‘etic’ standpoint (involving the analytical explanations of the researcher) and the ‘emic’ viewpoint (life as experienced and described by the members of a community themselves) (Eriksen 2001). The emic–etic dichotomy is well-known in anthropology, introduced by Marvin Harris (1976). While a traditional distinction, it seems helpful to identify gaps in current research and embark on new frontiers.
Military personnel face existential questions and puzzling circumstances to be grasped emotionally and ethically, but in the dominant research approaches their challenges become either problems to be solved to increase performance or evidence of the military’s immorality. Our article intends to reorient military studies to a perspective that encompasses soldiers’ personal experiences and soldiers’ own meaning making of their experience, thus attending to issues that, to date, have remained blind spots in military research in the social sciences. We propose to maintain the valuable etic lens but introduce an emic viewpoint as well to produce a scientifically holistic perspective that we describe as an ‘empathetically critical’ approach.
Our research contributes to the literature in several ways. First, we distinguish two dominant approaches in military research—the abovementioned functionalist and condemnatory critical approaches—which, despite important differences, share a purely etic approach. We show how these approaches have left areas unexplored, both in terms of research topics and analysis. Subsequently, we propose an approach that centers on the lived and embodied worldviews, actions, and experiences of military personnel and thoroughly analyzes the emic meanings thereof before—or without—narrowing down the analysis to what they mean to realizing given etic objectives. This, we propose, can be made possible with an empirical focus on the lifeworlds and stories of military personnel who are working at the frontlines of psychosocially and ethically extreme contexts facing life-threatening situations, senseless violence, and intense human suffering.
Specifically, we identify five major empirical foci that can form the foundation of this new line of scholarship. First, soldiers’ and veterans’ self-images and identities during and after leaving service. Second, the daily, informal lives of soldiers in operational contexts often characterized by boredom and activities to distract from boredom. Third, the role of humor in military daily life, especially gallows humor, cynicism, dry humor, and self-deprecation, which are typical for soldiers. Fourth, the experience of constant life-threat and the visceral, existential confrontation with violence and death. For many soldiers, this is not heroic or brave, but not always disturbing either. Fifth, the experience of ‘homesickness’ for war, which may seem illogical to external observers but is widely reported. We close with a discussion of the implications and potential of our proposed reorientation, arguing that this research agenda requires ontological and epistemological reconsideration, interdisciplinarity, and new methodological approaches.

2. The Etic Approach of Functionalist and Condemnatory Critical Research

While the literature on the armed forces in social sciences is varied and rapidly expanding, our review uncovered two central lines of research that have a fundamental etic viewpoint in common. First, there is a line of research on the military with predominantly sociological and organizational roots that we call ‘functionalist’ because studies adopt an instrumentalist approach and view research outcomes as a means to improve military outcomes. This research sees extreme circumstances as problems to be solved and focuses on performance, efficiency, and progress rather than on meaning, morality, and experiences. For instance, there are influential studies that aim to identify the origins of military failures and disasters or instead try to unravel the building blocks of military safety cultures (Snook 2002; Catino and Patriotta 2013). By extension, there is extensive research on military effectiveness in high-stake situations, where scholars emphasize the importance of gaining an appropriate crisis understanding to ensure highly reliable operations (Weick and Roberts 1993; Fraher et al. 2017; Ben-Shalom et al. 2012). There is also extensive research on military socialization through which new recruits are disciplined and reshaped, positively affecting their organizational commitment and hardiness under fire (Caforio 2018; Dalenberg 2017). Another strand of studies in this line of research discusses the importance of team cohesion when military units operate in dangerous environments and debate how it enables collective achievements (Shils and Janowitz 1948; Wong et al. 2003; Ben-Shalom et al. 2005). All these studies, in different ways, offer insights that help to boost military effectiveness and performance during operations.
High military performance is especially challenging in the context of great societal changes that have unfolded over the past few decades. These changes have had significant repercussions for the armed forces and therefore attracted a great deal of attention from military sociologists in particular. One example of these changes is that operational contexts have evolved with the ‘end of the Cold War, the disappearance of the “focal enemy”, the emergence of the “new wars”, the transformation of the regimes in the Eastern European countries, [and] the revival of ethnic and religious differences’ (Caforio and Nuciari 2018, p. 616). Armed forces clearly had to adapt to these new theatres of war, which are widely believed to require decentralized and more flexible ways of working as well as more collaboration with private companies to acquire high-tech equipment and cooperation with civilian organizations to ensure integrated responses to complex conflicts (Rietjens and Bollen 2008; Manigart 2018). This awareness features, among others, in research on netcentric warfare, which describes organizational interventions for agile performance by military forces operating in the information age, characterized by rapid information-sharing and a radical decentralization of power (Alberts and Hayes 2003). Another significant societal change is that the ‘new military’ has seen the end of conscription and the emergence of all-volunteer forces, in which diversity of personnel is pursued to ensure operational effectiveness during missions, but in which racism and gender discrimination also remain persistent bottlenecks that need to be resolved to improve operational outcomes (Dharmapuri 2011; Heinecken and Soeters 2018). Societal change, in this line of research, is seen as a challenge to armed forces, for which consultants and scholars try to find solutions to maintain solid military performance inspired by a functionalist mindset.
Second, there is a line of research we call ‘condemnatory critical’. Whereas the aforementioned functionalist studies build on sociological and organizational research, the studies that fall in this category are usually conducted by anthropologists. Different from the critical stance that is characteristic of sound scientific research in general, condemnatory critical research denounces the armed forces invariably and a priori, as the few anthropologists attempting a more nuanced approach have signaled in their own discipline (Hautzinger and Scandlyn 2013; Mohr et al. 2021; Molendijk 2021; Simons 1999; Sørensen and Weisdorf 2021). Aware of early anthropology’s engagement in colonialism and imperialism and the discipline’s more recent involvement in military interventions, most anthropologists avoid the military altogether. The few who do not are careful to make the distinction between anthropology ‘for the military’ and ‘of the military’, referring to ‘when anthropology is on a military mission’ and ‘when it is on another one’ (Lutz 2009, p. 374). The definition of anthropology of the military as being on a mission, too, is telling. Indeed, anthropological research of the military is usually understood as ‘an engagement with and interrogation of institutionalised structures and pressures that explicitly denounces militarisation, militarism, and all things military’ (Mohr et al. 2021, p. 601). Calls to fellow anthropologists to direct more attention to the military have therefore been phrased as ‘to illuminate militarism, the source of so much suffering in the world today’ (Gusterson 2007, p. 165).
Accordingly, most critical research (although not always condemnatory) has focused on the destructive effects of military actions on local civilians, shedding light on the daily life of war for civilians (Simons 1999), the politics of violence (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004), the representation of violence (Whitehead 2004), war’s influence on everyday life in its aftermath (Das 2007), post-war collective trauma and memory work (Gusterson 2007) and communal reconciliation and resilience (Granjo and Nicolini 2006; Kienzler 2008; Summerfield 2004). The military as such—at least the (post)modern military—has long escaped the ethnographic gaze. It was only around the turn of the millennium that a number of critical scholars grew interested in violence within the armed forces. Focusing on often extreme cases—or extreme imaginations of these cases—they tried to unravel how military training transforms civilians into ‘killing machines’ (Bourke 1999; Grossman 1995; Verrips 2004; Winslow 1999). The start of the Global War on Terror increased scholarly concern with the ‘own’ armed forces, ushering in unprecedented interest in actual military operations. In particular, researchers began to critically deconstruct legitimizing discourses and power dynamics surrounding western military interventions (Gusterson 2007; Lutz 2002) and debate the use of ethnographic methods and anthropological expertise by military and intelligence organizations (Gill 2007; Lucas 2008; Price 2011). With exceptions, only in recent years, soldiers’ personal experiences have been attracting serious attention in this strand of academia. In particular, ethnographic researchers have turned to military trauma with the aim of de-medicalizing and re-contextualizing soldiers’ suffering, yet again often as a critique of western military endeavors and their devastating effects (Lutz 2009; MacLeish 2018, 2021; Meagher 2014; Wiinikka-Lydon 2017). Accordingly, military servicemembers sometimes speak with the frustration of ‘misguided academics’ who criticize ‘the conduct of operations from the safety of their universities’, while critical researchers ‘bemoan the fact that [military] practitioners often fail to fully think through the problems they claim need to be solved’ (Mosser 2010, p. 1078).

3. The Blind Spots of the Etic Approach

The studies summarized above are all valuable in their own right. Yet, the two lines of research both leave—and produce—one major blind spot. When a soldier tells a story about their military deployment, research ‘for’ the military readily refracts the story into analyses of issues such as recruitment, unit cohesion, and combat readiness, while research ‘of’ the military tends to refocus to the wider historical and political context of the soldier’s experience. In neither case is the story central to the study.
To be sure, the division of research for/of the military is simplified and thus inevitably unsatisfactory, as Lutz, who coined the division, admits herself. Nonetheless, at least in part, it seems to have become real in its consequences. Researchers ‘for’ the military have to be careful not to sabotage future research activities with too critical analyses (given that many militaries already are difficult to access), whereas researchers ‘of’ the military constantly have to make sure they are sufficiently critical to avoid charges of military co-optation (Gray 2018; Mohr et al. 2021; Pedersen 2021; Sørensen and Weisdorf 2021). In any case, despite their differences, the two approaches share a preoccupation with pre-set etic propositions, preventing soldiers’ emic viewpoints from really entering the researcher’s frame. Soldiers’ actual, personal experiences are considered interesting only insofar as they offer insight into the issues predetermined by the researcher.
As a result, ‘the social scientific study of militaries-in-action seems to be “stuck” with tools developed in the heyday of conventional wars’ such as ‘cohesion and leadership, communication and unit dynamics, or discipline and motivation’ instead of attending to the dynamic realities of today’s operations (Brønd et al. 2021, p. 3). More generally, current military research keeps itself oblivious to soldiers’ minds and experiences. The studies referenced below are examples of insights researchers gather when taking seriously soldiers’ lifeworlds. In many etic-focused studies, instances of violence are readily interpreted as extreme and distressing, while emic research shows that soldiers, as long they can justify the violence, may experience these instances as ‘another day at the office’ and, in fact, as motivating rather than demoralizing (Eikenaar 2023; Molendijk 2021; Neitzel and Welzer 2012). Additionally, when soldiers talk about their combat experience as a source of pride and honor, from a condemnatory critical standpoint, they would be seen as ‘bearers of a false consciousness, as victimized, exploited, or duped by the state’ while emic researchers ‘try to understand their agency and the complexity of their motivations’ (Kanaaneh 2005, p. 263; see also, e.g., Dyvik and Greenwood 2016; Grassiani 2018). At the same time, in functionalist research, trial-and-error activities in operational settings are usually only analyzed in terms of their importance for learning, while they may traumatize soldiers when experienced as profoundly senseless (Molendijk 2021). Besides disregarding emic interpretations, current research excludes emic topics. Consider sensory confrontations with the sight, sounds, and smells of death. Or simply, the daily life of military deployment. These are significant topics in soldiers’ personal stories (De Rond and Lok 2016; Gray 1959; Neitzel and Welzer 2012), but they receive marginal attention in current research on the military.
Thus, while an etic viewpoint is useful in itself, current research on the military is overly etic in its functionalist and condemnatory critical approaches. It begs the question: What would we find if we adopted an emic perspective? Neitzel and Welzer, who analyzed unique covert recordings of German soldiers in World War Two, put it as follows. ‘The brutality, harshness, and absence of emotion of war are omnipresent, and that is what is so disturbing for us reading the dialogues today’ (Neitzel and Welzer 2012, p. 20). Yet, they add, ‘in order to understand the world of these soldiers, and not just our own world, we need to get beyond such moral reactions’ (Neitzel and Welzer 2012, p. 20). In a similar vein, Vietnam veteran and novelist O’Brien observes that a ‘true war story’ does ‘not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it’ (O’Brien 2015, p. 68). It is worthwhile, then, to seriously direct our attention to soldiers’ actual experiences and the questions they start asking themselves during deployment or never ask at all, instead of—or at least before—reformulating their experiences as issues of combat performance or institutional oppression.
An emic perspective enables soldiers to tell their own stories, so they can share what is important to them rather than to us as researchers. It will improve our understanding of how soldiers experience and attribute meaning to their work and actions, as well as how they shape and view their daily lives in contexts that seem to defy normality and order (Morey and Luthans 1984). This is particularly important because soldiers are burdened with one of the most elementary tasks of our society: we expect them to intervene when crises and wars threaten our lives and what we hold dear. Even so, genuine interest in soldiers’ own stories is rare, so it is doubtful to what extent scholarly treatises describe the actual experiences of ordinary soldiers themselves. In other words, the emic perspective requires researchers to step away from popular preconceptions and their own assumptions and prejudices and let soldiers tell them about their own lives. It is scientifically unfortunate, therefore, that the emic perspective has been overlooked or even explicitly denounced. Notably, there is no such thing as ‘the’ soldier’s emic perspective. On the contrary, national militaries and their personnel are highly heterogeneous in terms of their demographic characteristics, social positions, and viewpoints (as is the case for all ‘communities’). In fact, this is a major insight researchers gather when seriously delving into soldiers’ lifeworlds. An emic perspective will reveal the heterogeneity of the military populations that researchers investigate and shed light on the specific ways in which they are heterogeneous.
To be sure, we do not propose to replace the etic with the emic approach. Quite the opposite. As is the case for the distinction between the research of/for the military, the emic/etic-division is a heuristically helpful opposition, but in practice, an undesirable dichotomy (Morey and Luthans 1984). Demanding researchers to choose between the two would be presenting them with a counterproductively false dilemma with fallacious interpretations of critique and empathy. A critical etic study of military behaviors is not only possible from an antagonistic stance towards the military, nor does empathic interest in the emic worlds of soldiers automatically imply uncritical absorption of their views.
Following Mohr, Sørensen, and Weisdorf, we maintain that ‘the critical potential of an ethnography of things military lies precisely in its insistence on empathic engagements with things military’ (Mohr et al. 2021, p. 606, italics added). That is, thorough scientific examination of the military necessitates ‘empathic engagements’—which are not the same as sympathy or compassion—that are ’attentive to the complexities of military lifeworlds’ (Mohr et al. 2021, p. 610). At the same time, a thorough scientific examination requires a critical attitude. This is not an attitude aimed at ‘freeing the subject from supposedly unjust forms of governance by resolving pre-identified ills and wrongs’ but an approach of ‘moving in and out of [soldiers’] frames of reference’ (Mohr et al. 2021, pp. 610–11). Doing so can lay bare dissonances between different frames of reference and thus enables understanding and an informed kind of critique. An empathically critical attitude, then, requires a combination of the etic and emic approaches.

4. Five Empirical Foci to Move towards Including a Soldier-Based View

An analytical expansion to the emic perspective needs to be accompanied by an empirical focus on the soldiers ‘on the ground’. Military personnel working at the frontline, in particular, operate in psychosocially and ethically extreme conditions involving life-threatening situations, senseless violence, and intense human suffering. Specifically, there are five major empirical foci that can help build a soldier-based field of study. The studies cited below are examples of the kind of emic research we advocate.

4.1. Military Identity

First, soldiers’ identities undergo profound changes at different moments: when they first join the armed forces and are subjected to socialization processes, when they have their first battle experience and engage the enemy in combat, and when they leave military service and attempt to transition back into civilian life. From a functionalist perspective, military identity influences perceived military competences and skills, so it serves as a predictor of military performance (Johansen et al. 2014), but it also predicts post-military reintegration success (Kleykamp et al. 2021). Yet, this view on military identity does not do full justice to how military personnel conceive of themselves. In fact, military identity constructions and transitions to different self-conceptions often feature prominently in books of veterans and are heavily charged with emotions (Hunniecutt 2017). Based on his Navy experience, Herman Wouk (1951, p. 483) writes that the ‘old personality didn’t fit; it seemed as odd as an outdated fashion’. More dramatically, Remarque (2013, p. 92) concludes that being a soldier is tragic: ‘We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost’. Military self-conceptions shift in salient ways during service and come to fully define personnel. Only a few studies do justice to identity struggles and the multi-dimensionality of soldiers’ identities, even though this topic is of major importance to soldiers themselves. These studies demonstrate soldiers’ arduous attempts to become true soldiers, enabled by military rites of passage (Thornborrow and Brown 2009; Winslow 1999), how their embodied experiences create particular brotherhoods and other intimacies (Adey et al. 2018; Dyvik and Greenwood 2016), the ways in which new military identities may come to battle with previous civilian self-conceptions rather than replacing them (Bica 1999; Finley 2011), and the post-military transition to civilian life and related reconsideration of the military identity (De Reuver 2022; Grimell 2015; Wilson-Smith and Corr 2019). Involving research ‘close encounters with military institutions and the people who inhabit them’ (Basham and Bulmer 2017, p. 60), these studies also show that soldiers’ identities are multifaceted and their creation always includes the production of new others as well, including complicated distinctions between soldiers and civilians, men and women, tough combat soldiers and inferior ‘armchair warriors’, dedicated military veterans and ‘whining’ victims, the political department of defense and the military brotherhood, and enemies and non-combatants (De Reuver 2022; Grzebalska 2021; MacLeish 2013; Molendijk 2021). These identity struggles and changes touch soldiers to their core and are often deeply felt.

4.2. Boredom and Thrill

Second, the daily, informal lives of soldiers in operational contexts are primarily characterized by boredom and activities to distract from it. While high-intensity, dangerous operations are spectacular and anticipated, soldiers spend most of their time waiting and training (Mæland and Brunstad 2009). To some soldiers, their deployment to mission area may lead to disillusion, not because of the tragedies of war, but the absence of combat, shattering their warrior dreams as they wanted to be ‘tested’ in battle and sought the thrill of the fight (Pedersen 2017). In the absence of military engagements, soldiers continue their training and exercises but also search for alternative sources of entertainment. This includes fitness, tanning, exchanging stories about sexual conquests, playing games such as poker, and reading books or watching movies (De Rond 2017). Often, these distractions are of an escapist nature and have nothing to do with the war (Laugesen 2016). Importantly, the absence of military activities does not just produce boredom but also affects soldiers’ experiences of meaningfulness and self-conception. The long periods of waiting make intermittent situations of combat even more shocking and frightening. As O’Brien (2015, p. 33) formulates it: ‘Even in the deep bush, where you could die in any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. […] And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.’ At the same time, routine, boredom, and emotional attrition can be morally numbing and make soldiers indifferent to the suffering of themselves, colleagues, and civilians, causing harsh behavior and discourse that some soldiers later regret (Grassiani 2013). As a result, violence and its injurious effects can become as routine, boring, and normal as they can be shocking and traumatic (MacLeish 2013; Wool 2015). Generally, the slow and dull moments during missions define military life as much as the fights, so both deserve due attention.

4.3. Humor

Third, the role of humor, especially dark humor, cynicism, dry humor, and self-deprecation, is typical for soldiers. The scarcity of literature on this topic is particularly surprising considering the importance soldiers attach to humor, as evidenced, for instance, in the space soldier authors devote to it in their memoirs (Nazareth 2008; O’Brien 2015; Veldhuizen 2014). These memoirs, moreover, demonstrate striking similarities in military humor worldwide. The few social scientific studies that write about military humor focus on its value as a coping mechanism to deal with the circumstances in which soldiers operate and the stress and pain that comes with it (Ben-Ari and Sion 2005; Priest and Swain 2002; Saramifar 2019; Sløk-Andersen 2020; Ward et al. 2021). Some of these studies furthermore discuss how humor facilitates effective leadership, reproduces social norms, and leads to both desired and unwanted mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion in the military unit (Ben-Ari and Sion 2005; Priest and Swain 2002; Sløk-Andersen 2020). It would be worth further examining the propositions of these studies. Yet, it is equally important to go beyond such a functionalist-inclined approach and consider other aspects than the individual and social functions of military humor. As found among inter alia slum residents (Goldstein 2013), hospital nurses (Wear et al. 2009), and prison workers (Schmidt 2017), long-term exposure to circumstances of human suffering may engender cultures of absurdist and gallows humor that comprise both social commentary of the political sources of these circumstances and self-deprecating acknowledgment of the callous, cynical person one becomes amid such conditions. This type of observation, in which humor is understood as a mimicking reaction to ‘matters out of place’ (Goldstein 2013), has a more (post-)structuralist character. Examining military humor through such a lens would allow researchers to gain an intimate insight into soldiers’ experiential worlds, as well as into the ways in which soldiers subscribe to or challenge the political, cultural, and economic webs in which their work is embedded (see also Ben-Ari and Sion 2005).

4.4. Violence and Death

Fourth, the visceral, existential confrontation with violence and death evokes intense emotions, such as anxiety and anger, among military personnel. Violence and death feature in multiple forms in war. First, soldiers face life-threatening situations themselves. Junger (2004, p. 81) describes the soldier’s situation in his memoir Storm of Steel with this image: ‘It is as if one were tied tight to a post and threatened by a fellow swinging a sledgehammer. Now the hammer is swung back for the blow, now it whirls forward till, just missing your skull, it sends the splinters flying from the post once more. That is exactly what it feels like to be exposed to heavy shelling without cover’. Similar feelings of deadly danger and fear are also reported in semi-autobiographical works of fiction, such as Remarque’s (2013, p. 155) All Quiet on the Western Front: ‘A bomb or something lands close beside me. I have not heard it coming and am terrified. At the same moment a senseless fear takes hold of me. […] I tell myself that my alarm is absurd […]. It is in vain’. The fear is intensified by the fact that the field of combat is full of uncertainties, the so-called ‘fog of war’. Often, it is the presence of comrades alone that keeps them from succumbing to panic and flight (Kalkman 2020). To scholars, such fear of death may easily become a practical difficulty to be resolved in a functionalist attempt to improve combat effectiveness, but soldiers experience the possibility of a violent death first and foremost as intensely terrifying. Second, soldiers do not only risk being killed themselves, but they also frequently witness dying and death of comrades. When their comrades fall, this is profoundly impactful and can make them question the point of the war and their own presence in it, while it can also strengthen their sense of purpose (Lifton 2005; Shay 1994). The individual confrontation with the death of a close comrade or friend has rarely been studied in military research to date. Finally, soldiers also kill enemy combatants in turn. For some, this is a deeply felt, morally troubling deed that is hard to process at first or at all. It puts the relationship with the organization under pressure, particularly because armed forces do not always offer support to cope with conflicting moral feelings (Rauch and Ansari 2022; De Rond and Lok 2016). However, by strictly dividing tasks and dehumanizing victims, the organization can attempt to undercut soldiers’ sense of responsibility for their violent actions (Kelman and Hamilton 1989). In fact, it might even foreclose soldiers’ recognition of the moral character of using violence or acting in conditions that involve the suffering of others (Eikenaar, forthcoming). Yet, this should not draw attention from the individual experience of fighting and may not even work for everyone involved. For other soldiers, however, the act of violence is not as troubling. They may even enjoy combat as an opportunity to prove themselves or seek the thrill of the fight, as discussed below. The presence of violence and death is unique to the military context, and their (differential) impact on organizational members requires further study.

4.5. Homesickness for War

Fifth, the experience of ‘homesickness’ for war may sound counterintuitive but is widely reported. Camaraderie and the exhilarating feeling of being alive make for good memories, while the confrontation with vain, empty civilian life is harsh to many soldiers upon their reintegration (Brænder 2016; Gray 1959; Harari 2008; Sørensen 2015). It is not uncommon for soldiers to talk in deprecatory words about the vanity and corruption of civilian life, contrasting it with the pure and neat military life (Lartéguy 2015). Many of the soldiers of World War I ‘simply took pleasure in killing’ (Ferguson 1998, p. 358). In general, many soldiers are attracted by ‘the delight in seeing, the delight in comradeship, the delight in destruction’, as noted by World War II veterans and philosopher Gray (1959, p. 28). Bar and Ben-Ari (2005), too, have signaled that once soldiers overcome their resistance to fighting and killing, they often enjoy it. This does not mean, however, that the feelings soldiers experience can be put down to ‘fun’. Soldiers rarely call combat ‘fun’, but rather use words such as ‘good’ and ‘unique’. Often, they describe a confluence of antagonistic feelings, including fear, adrenaline, and excitement. Stories of their deployment may, for instance, be ‘about the normalcy of cheering and laughing when seeing a blast of fire, the piercing cries of soldiers at the loss of a buddy, the black humor used to cope with this loss, the easy acceptance of “collateral damage” resulting from combat and, at the same time, about profound feelings of guilt at being unable to save a child from abuse’ (Molendijk 2021, p. 135). Such stories evoke discomfort in civilians as ‘they mess up the notions of perpetrator and victim, normal and abnormal, and good and evil’, and accordingly, they unwittingly reinforce societal imagery of veterans as crazy or at least psychologically damaged (Molendijk 2021, p. 135). Aware of this attitude in the society that was once their home, veterans usually do not readily share their stories (De Reuver 2022; Harari 2008; Molendijk 2021; Sørensen 2015). For these very reasons, it would be insightful if researchers put serious effort into listening to veterans’ stories as they reminisce over their deployments with their buddies. Among other topics, it is worth unraveling experiences of homesickness for war and doing so without readily interpreting it in etic terms as, for instance, a symptom of war trauma.

5. Discussion: Theoretical and Methodological Implications

Military identities, boredom and thrill, military humor, violence and death, and homesickness are worthy empirical foci in the novel line of military research, which is committed to thoroughly understanding soldiers’ lived experiences. Distinct from both functionalist and condemnatory critical attitudes, the soldier-based line of research adopts an empathically critical approach to military phenomena, combining the etic and emic perspectives. In addition, as we discuss below, this reorientation has even more fundamental implications. For truly empathically critical research, it seems that the field of military studies would benefit from ontological and epistemological reconsideration, a shift towards interdisciplinarity, and an expansion in research methods.

5.1. Ontology and Epistemology

Empathically critical research requires a shift in scientific-philosophical underpinnings, or more accurately, it calls for a middle position between the typical ontologies and epistemologies of functionalist research and condemnatory critical research. Functionalist research tends to be focused on behavior, which is analyzed as objectively observable variables that can be explained—and manipulated—by considering their purpose for soldiers and/or the military organization. As such, this line of research resonates with a positivist or at least Parsonian view of the social world as a reality existing independent of our senses, in which researchers can discover enduring structures of (military) behavior (see also Ouellet 2021). Condemnatory critical research, in contrast, tends to focus on subjective experience and meaning making and, at the same time, on analyzing soldiers’ realities as shaped by the institutional forces and cultural norms in which they are embedded. Condemnatory critical research is based on a constructionist view of the social world as a dynamic human construction, in which researchers unravel how (military) knowledge is contingent on historical developments, human perception, and social experience (see also Mohr et al. 2021). The empathically critical approach we propose takes the middle position of critical realism, which combines a subtle ontological realism with epistemological constructionism and, as such, reconciles the values of existing positions (Given 2008).
Critical realism involves a constructionist understanding of knowledge, but rather than ending in a relativist view of the impossibility of truth, it commits to the more pragmatic position that although the world can only be accessed through our social constructions, it is nonetheless ‘real’ in the sense that it has an ontological status independent from us (Elder-Vass 2022; Kramer 2007). Consider, for instance, the difference between the soldier who feels guilty about having survived an attack while his colleague died and the soldier feeling guilty over having been indifferent to large amounts of ‘collateral damage’ in a mission that turned out to have questionable motives. To be able to make a distinction between the two, we cannot indiscriminately approach the two soldier’s realities as mere variations of ‘emic’ interpretation, but neither can we simply decide whose judgments are accurate and whose are not. We have to sincerely examine the ways in which these soldiers construe and give meaning to the world, including our own ‘etic’ assessment of the legitimacy and appropriateness of their subjectivities. In a critical realist approach, the researcher’s etic view, as well as soldiers’ emic perspectives, are considered capable of producing reasonable, justified, and worthwhile knowledge about the world, even though in both cases, that knowledge is necessarily partial and fallible. Moreover, the social constructions that shape and constrain knowledge (both emic and etic knowledge) are considered reasonable, justified, and worthwhile constructions as well, as they are conditional to our knowledge and our interaction with the world (Elder-Vass 2022; Kramer 2007). Recognizing that this critical realist position may raise concerns too (and we encourage critical consideration), we postulate it is the best option to take seriously soldiers’ existential realities while acknowledging the social situatedness of their lived experience. It is from this critical realist position that empathically critical research is possible.

5.2. Interdisciplinarity

Another implication of our proposed reorientation concerns interdisciplinarity. Since the turn of the millennium, different scholars have encouraged interdisciplinary research in military studies, realizing ‘that the military is a highly complex social phenomenon in itself and one that cuts through various levels, touches several different contexts and is thus subject to multiple processes of interpenetration’ (Kümmel 2006, p. 417). An interdisciplinary approach has come to be seen as indispensable to comprehending the ever-increasing complexity of military affairs (Caforio 2007; Ouellet 2021). While acknowledging that the specialized knowledge of monodisciplinary research will always continue to be necessary for in-depth, refined insight into specific questions, we agree that research seeking both emic and etic insight with the aim of confronting real-world issues requires a multifaceted and integrated approach. Nonetheless, much military research is still monodisciplinary, and the work labeled as interdisciplinary is often actually multidisciplinary, meaning that different findings and disciplinary perspectives remain distinct (Bennett 2010). Such research accordingly may produce contradictory findings which are left unaddressed. A mono- or multidisciplinary view, for example, may risk that mental health problems are seen as either an issue of the individual soldier who needs better psychoeducation in mental coping strategies or as the result of organizational problems among which an organizational focus on psychoeducation in which all responsibility for mental health is placed on the soldier’s shoulders (Molendijk 2021). Or that technological developments are studied independently of the actual humans having to put such innovation into practice, thereby either overlooking important psychological and ethical dimensions or identifying so many psychological and ethical objections that technological innovation is rendered impossible (Van der Maarel et al. 2023; Rauch and Ansari 2022). An interdisciplinary approach, in contrast, combines and moreover integrates the different dimensions or at least is able to point out conflicts between them.
The potential of interdisciplinary research lies in its investigation of topics at the intersection of multiple disciplines and its synthesis of the disciplinary approaches involved. It is simultaneously attentive to both the individual soldier and the wider context and to both internal conflicts in the mind of the soldier and organizational concerns. In doing so, it offers unified insight, and therefore realistic insight, into the multitude of factors that are at play in real-world problems, including practical problems of efficacy and existential problems of the soldier in crisis. The interdisciplinarity we envision is thus not an abstract holism but actually a rather concrete appreciation of the complexity of real problems in the real worlds of soldiers. Military research topics, from this perspective, are approached as multidimensional issues that are always embedded in organizational, political, and societal systems, which as such offer a vantage point into potential tensions at the micro, meso, and macro levels and between these levels, which in turn are not examined from an a priori condemnatory perspective but as heterogeneous webs within which behavior takes shape and acquires meaning.

5.3. Research Methods

A final implication of our proposed call for an empathetically critical approach is the recognition of a need for experimentation with new research methods. A majority of studies in military research rely on interviews, surveys, memoirs, and document analyses. These are useful sources of data, particularly for research questions in the two schools of thought that we identified. At the same time, they are not sufficient for an emic perspective. New research methods, instead, can give more voice and agency to soldiers, so they can convey the rich complexity of their work, thereby enabling military scholars to better relate to their lived experiences. It can also give soldiers the opportunity to use methods of communication that they find most helpful to share their message or which help them to relay important information that cannot always be captured in words or on paper.
In addition to established forms of data collection, military scholars might benefit from ‘basenographies’, referring to ethnographic research on military bases. Data collection can both be conducted on domestic bases to study themes such as boredom, humor, and the normalization of violence through training, but also on bases in mission areas to analyze direct reactions to combat experience and how soldiers process witnessing death and violence, and in military rehabilitation centers to explore how soldiers grapple with extreme ruptures in their personal and professionals lives. It is noteworthy that the rare instances of such an ethnographic study particularly highlight how soldiers are trying to cope with facing futility, senselessness, and surreality at the same time as they are experiencing normality, routine, and boredom (De Rond and Lok 2016; MacLeish 2013; Wool 2015). These are findings that deviate considerably from research outcomes based on post-return interviews and memoirs. Another promising direction is the use of visual data. Soldiers will often observe intensely moving, disturbing, and ambiguous situations, but their visual impressions cannot always be put into language. Videos and pictures can help the researcher take the position of the soldier, so they see what they saw, thereby getting a better feeling for the context in which the soldier operates. Visual data can be made by the researcher, obtained from the organization, or produced by soldiers themselves. Finally, there is value in exploring the use of fictional novels by veterans. While formal interviews and memoirs often encourage the construction of a rationalized or sanitized version of events, novels allow veterans to maintain the paradoxes and absurdities of military life in their accounts. As such, soldiers can tell about their experiences with fewer (self-imposed) restraints and offer a more honest description of their sometimes confusing observations, feelings, and thoughts (Kalkman 2022).
This expansion in research methods is in line with the celebrated ethnographic method of ‘thick description’ coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), which involves elaborate descriptions of situations combined with contextualization. It is the understanding of people’s verbal and physical utterances in their wider social, cultural, and political contexts. In other words, a combination of emic and etic perspectives.
As a final, practical note on methodology, it should be acknowledged that researchers may be confronted with different access issues to militaries for reasons ranging from force protection to insulating a government bureaucracy from unwelcome scrutiny. At the same, the particular access issues that researchers may encounter are also a source of both emic and etic data into the ways in which the military organization and/or its personnel relate to ‘outsiders’. There are vast differences between national militaries, and issues of access can not only hinder but also help to shed light on these differences.

6. Conclusions

To date, marginal attention has been directed to soldiers’ life worlds in research on the military. The majority of sociological, organizational, and anthropological studies on the military are inclined towards either functionalism or condemnatory criticism and, in doing so, take an etic approach. We propose to include an emic, soldier-based viewpoint, which comprises an empathetic as well as critical approach. Such an elaboration has several implications. Empirically, it requires attention to themes that are relevant to soldiers’ lived experiences. We identified five empirical foci, namely military identity, boredom and thrill, humor, violence and death, and homesickness for war. Theoretically, it seems that critical realism is the aptest ontological and epistemological position from which to conduct empathically critical research and that interdisciplinarity is necessary to penetrate the multidimensionality of soldiers’ experiences. Methodologically, a soldier-based field of study would benefit from an expansion in research methods to, for instance, basenographies, visual data, and fictional novels by veterans.
These suggestions may apply not only to research on the military but also more generally. The empirical, theoretical, and methodological venues proposed here are valuable for all fields of study that are dominated by an etic approach. They contribute to a more scientifically holistic perspective that includes and takes seriously the lived and embodied worldviews, actions, and experiences of the people being studied.

Author Contributions

The authors contributed equally to this work. The first author took the lead in revising the manuscript based on reviewer comments. Conceptualization, T.M. and J.P.K.; Methodology, T.M. and J.P.K.; Formal analysis, T.M. and J.P.K.; Writing—original draft, T.M. and J.P.K. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Data Availability Statement

No new data were created or analyzed in this study. Data sharing is not applicable to this article.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Molendijk, T.; Kalkman, J.P. Towards a Soldier-Based View in Research on The Military: An Empathetically Critical Approach. Soc. Sci. 2023, 12, 51.

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Molendijk T, Kalkman JP. Towards a Soldier-Based View in Research on The Military: An Empathetically Critical Approach. Social Sciences. 2023; 12(2):51.

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Molendijk, Tine, and Jori Pascal Kalkman. 2023. "Towards a Soldier-Based View in Research on The Military: An Empathetically Critical Approach" Social Sciences 12, no. 2: 51.

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