Critically engaging stories of military-civilian transition

In the first post to this new War Stories blog, we reflect on current stories about veterans in ‘transition’ and why these stories matter. Transition is the term which is used – usually uncritically and straightforwardly – to refer to the process by which military service members leave the armed forces and re-enter civilian life. As we set out below, there are numerous social narratives that compete to claim the ‘truth’ about veterans’ transition and these narratives reflect assumptions about military and civilian life (Caddick & Smith, 2017). Our intention is therefore to sketch out, briefly, what is at stake in the various truth claims put forward in these different narratives, as well as to question what the discourse of ‘transition’ itself enables us to see and what it might exclude.

In the UK, there is a dominant narrative – dominant, in the sense that is has the weight of military and government opinion as well as institutionally sanctioned research behind it – according to which veterans generally transition fairly seamlessly from the military to civilian life. As McGarry (2017) has argued, this is the ‘view from the top’ which we are encouraged to accept; that the majority of veterans undergo a ‘successful transition’ from the military, and that problems such as mental health, suicide and homelessness are experienced by a marginal few at rates consistent with those observed in the civilian population. Embedded in this narrative is the assumption that the success of veterans’ transitions can be objectively assessed using social indicators and metrics, such as employment rates.

This is a narrative about transition which is explicitly designed to reflect well on the military. As Lord Ashcroft writes in the Veterans Transition Review (2014; p. 177-178),

“The MOD and the single Services should aim to promote a more positive picture of Service Leavers, and be bolder in countering information in the media and elsewhere that presents an unduly negative impression. The purpose here is not PR for its own sake or to cover up failings. The more prevalent the impression of veterans as victims who struggle to lead normal lives, the harder  it will inevitably be for them to find good jobs and contribute to civilian society – and the harder it will be to recruit into the Regular and Reserve Forces. There is a good story to tell.” (Our emphasis)

The positive story of transition is therefore revealed as an inherently political one; driven by a need to keep up military recruitment levels and to ensure veterans become productive members of society. It reveals as much about civilian norms and power relations as it does about those in the military. The dominant idea of transition relies upon neat distinctions between military and civilian spheres, and suggests a linear movement of service personnel from one sphere to the other. These underlying assumptions have practical consequences for service provision to support veterans. For example, issues can quickly unfold regarding continuity of care when soldiers leave the ‘protected’ sphere of military life and enter the civilian world. This can be seen in the way in which healthcare responsibility passes immediately from the MOD to NHS and veterans’ charities upon discharge, literally overnight.

However, veterans’ own narratives suggest these civilian/military distinctions are not so straightforward. Veterans’ narratives reveal that the lived and embodied experience of transition is complex (Bulmer and Jackson 2016). A veteran, by definition, is neither civilian nor military and this in-between status is often reflected in veterans’ stories. Whilst civilians are trained to become military personnel, military personnel are not trained to become civilian again (Wheelan 2014, 2016; Bulmer and Eichler 2017). Yet leaving military employment requires veterans to acquire cultural competence in ‘the rules of civilian life’ (Cooper et al. 2018 p. 163). Veterans may have mixed feelings about their military service and its continuing legacy in their post-service lives. Their experiences are also shaped by their wider life story and identities. For example, women veterans may face different challenges than their male counterparts yet their stories often go unheard (Eichler 2017). A better understanding of veterans’ transition stories is essential if we are to better understand and support veterans. They may help us to understand why, for instance, when there is seemingly an abundance of support for veterans available through the military third sector, so many veterans feel as though no-one is interested in helping them.

An inevitable component of transition for many ‘current generation’ Western veterans includes leaving behind their role as key actors in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Flores (2017) shows, many veterans are drawn into activism – whether ‘pro-mission’ or anti-war activism – as part of a deeply held commitment to “service” identities (i.e., engaging in activism is a way to continue to perform one’s duty to the nation, even if that includes advocating against the wars they took part in). And as Schrader (2017) puts it:

These veterans feel they are continuing their service through the promotion of social justice issues, which is a shift from an embodiment of those who make war to those who create peace through non-violent means – which works to demilitarize not only themselves, but also the country.

Veterans, then, can offer counter-narratives which threaten to dislodge or undermine the dominant story in important ways. However in drawing on their military experience to resist, they simultaneously revalorise military – and typically masculine – privilege (Tidy 2015), making counter-narratives and their effects rather complicated, too.

Nuancing ‘transition’

We need to develop a better understanding of the complexities of military-civilian transition as they are experienced and narrated by both the veteran community and wider society. Underpinning this is our belief that critical knowledge generation is essential to inform social policies and practices which directly affect veterans and as a resource for generating new dialogues about how societies engage with war and war-preparedness. In closing this post, we call for different approaches to military-civilian transition which engages productively with stories of veterans’ experiences. We suggest the following questions are a useful starting point for developing more nuanced and sophisticated perspectives on ‘transition’:

  • How can researchers and policymakers encounter veteran narratives?
  • How do veterans experience transition in different contexts?
  • How do different transition stories construct the relationship between civilian and military spheres? What practices do these distinctions legitimise and enable?
  • How do veterans negotiate plural military and civilian identities?
  • How do different aspects of veteran identity intersect?
  • How does a recognition of narrative agency challenge conventional academic concepts?
  • What can transition narratives tell us about the rationalities and practices of war-making?

Authors: Dr Nick Caddick & Dr Sarah Bulmer


6 thoughts on “Critically engaging stories of military-civilian transition

  1. Thank you for this incisive and timely piece Nick and Sarah. You reflect issues I’ve picked up from my own experience as a veteran, and as someone who has academic interest in all of this, with the aim of better informing ourselves and our political masters of the ‘lived experience’. The tension over this lived experience and the political narrative is crucial. On one hand, I understand the desire not to create a ‘bow wave’ impression in the public consciousness as Ashcroft describes it (if I recall correctly) that all veterans are deeply ‘traumatised’ (see also the Deloitte report in 2016). It is not the case that all veterans are traumatised, far from it. But, I believe more do experience some form of ‘reverse culture shock’ (Bergman et al., 2014) at least, and this is buried as the mindset among veterans (as they are institutionalised to do) is to ‘soldier on’. This feeds into another tension, that of stigma. On one hand, there is political will to reduce this, but on the other, to make talking about issues more difficult due to the above rhetoric. A ‘double bind’ as I describe it in my forthcoming thesis, and one that is inherently messy, and simply not answered by quantitative statistical analysis. That’s why your blog and work are so important to all veterans like me (and as is I hope my work and blog), who are living this experience, often in silence.


    1. Thanks Graham for the supportive comments, and insightful reflections. Veterans being ‘deeply traumatised’ – as you rightly critique – certainly attracts attention in the press, but also highlights the fact that the personal consequences of war for some, can be devastating (a point that often gets lost in the official narrative). Beyond this though, there is the issue of transition. In your response and from many other sources, I read about the personal challenge of transition for veterans. I’ve not read it yet (printing it out now!) but there’s an interesting-looking paper entitled ‘Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans’: . Presumably, this highlights the need to look beyond the ubiquitous notion of ‘PTSD’ and concentrate better attention on the process of transition. How we do this in a non-pathologising way is important too – so that we don’t end up shifting the narrative from ‘all veterans are traumatised’ to ‘all veterans struggle with transition’. Nuance, complexity, detail; all necessary elements of understanding veterans’ journeys.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thought provoking blog and timely. There is definitely a need for more education around transition particularly for health professionals. The issues around transition are wide ranging but can include loss of self-esteem and sense of purpose. For those who served for long periods transition can feel like a form of grieving, for the loss of the military family. Frequently veterans will gravitate to careers that provide a degree of shelter from the realities of normal civilian life, so roles like close protection in high threat environments and other uniformed services. The civilian world can feel like an alien environment with it’s emphasis on financial gain as opposed to helping your mates and teamwork. Single male veterans with limited family support are probably most at risk and this should be studied in more detail.


    1. Hi John, thanks for adding your reflections on the transition piece. The theme of civvy street as an alien environment is one I’ve heard from numerous veterans, and one that seems to resonate. It reminds me also of a recent blog by Alex Cooper: . Not sure what we do about that . . . structures that contribute to individualism and competition in civilian life aren’t changing anytime soon.


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