Culture Differences


Yesterday, I had the terrifying pleasure of sitting down for my first television interview. I was pretty nervous; I wasn’t sure what I’d say or need to do. I was also worrying about how I’d look. My skin has been improving, but I haven’t been able to get to a barber in about three weeks, and my hair and beard are both a bit scraggly. The whole process was pretty harmless. I answered a few questions about specific services at the school, how my status as a vet puts me in a unique perspective, and how I bring that to the table as a tutor. One of the things my interviewer was particularly interested in was the culture difference between veterans and the civilian student population.

The military often affords folks with a pretty unique set of experiences. I’m not talking about weapons training, physical conditioning, or how to hunt people down while avoiding detection. While these are all valuable skills for a service member, or even police, hunters, and other professionals, these aren’t the skills or culture I want to touch on today.  I want to talk about multiculturalism and group thinking versus personal thinking.

Much as my sociology teacher seemed loath to admit, the military is often on the forefront of social issues and change, despite being one of the most conservative institutions in any society. The military became racially integrated long before Brown versus the Board of Education began overturning Jim Crow laws. I would venture to say that integration on the battlefield did a lot to further race relations with whites and blacks, but I’ll get to why a bit later. Women’s increasing role in national defense during WWII also eventually led to the services opening their doors to women as actual soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.

So what does this do to shape someone’s worldview? I’ll give you my own experience. To date, I’ve worked with people from every single US state, citizens of approximately different countries on six continents, and participated in missions spanning  25 countries. While I spent high school in one of the most segregated cities in the US, I went on to have roommates who were Black, Asian, Latino, and Arabic, among others. I knew people whose families made less than $15,000 a year, and others who were easily classified as the “1%” of Occupy ire. And that was just in four years or so.

You begin to realize that when you are forced to rely on other people for your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being that people really aren’t that different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say people aren’t different at all, but it’s a pretty narrow margin. We all bleed red, and that’s what counts in the military. Men and women the world over complain about the same things, like their spouses. Arabs, Americans, and the Chinese all tell similar jokes, often about each other’s mothers or whatever their culture’s “rednecks” are.

This phenomenon leads to a very particular mode of thinking. At some points, it becomes very cynical (my distaste of democratic governments, for example), but at others, it expands to include others in your decision-making process. In the West, we are inadvertently indoctrinated into what I like to call the cult of Me. We are an individual obsessed society. What matters most are *my* thoughts, *my* feelings, *my*rights, often to the expense of others or society at large. The military teaches things slightly differently, and it’s pretty obvious when you leave the service.

The very first thing anyone has to learn in basic training is that he or she is not special. Your comfort, your ideas, and even your very life is insignificant to the needs of the collective. It breaks a lot of people. You learn this early through collective punishment and exercises designed to make you realize your responsibility for a complete stranger. Did you just fail a test? Not only was it your fault, it was also the fault of everyone who should have been there to support you. One of the most psychologically difficult exercises in responsiblity in my experience came from intelligence school. One instructor would make you write a letter to the hypothetical family of a dead soldier for every wrong answer on a test. Granted, the stakes a very high in that particular profession, but it nonetheless was very important to me.

Most people think they will never be responsible for another being’s life, but you’d be dead wrong. How many of you have ever driven a car? Who is a parent? Both of these situations require you to think about and take responsibility for the lives of others, and it is very rare for either of these situations to be absent from a human being’s life at one point or another. During my tenure as an analyst, about 1700 coalition troops died in my area of responsibility, Afghanistan. Countless more civilians were killed by either collateral damage or by their own countrymen attempting to intimidate them. I can’t say how many insurgents I helped to kill, because I wouldn’t keep count. I also drove everyday, assuming the responsibility not to drink or endanger others on the road.

The difference I’m trying to highlight is not the level of responsibility. The difference between military members and civilians is the awareness of that responsibility. That is what makes military and veteran culture unique. It is one reason I wish my country would institute conscription. As a global society emerges, we need to not only learn what it takes to get along with one another, but that it is okay to have differences. I pray Ares gives people the courage and wisdom to accept that.

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4 comments on “Culture Differences

  1. […] Pete Helms discusses differences in mainstream vs military culture: Yesterday, I had the terrifying pleasure of sitting down for my […]

  2. Galina says:

    Thank you for this article. I will be sharing it with my students.

    • pthelms says:

      Please let me know how it goes! I’m always very interested to see how people respond to stories like this.

      • Galina Krasskova says:

        My polytheist students have found it fascinating. I also shared it with students at the interfaith seminary where I teach and ther hasn’t been much feedback—i think polytheism is so new to them that it takes time to process the information I sometimes give them. The feedback I’ve gotten has been positive though.

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