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The self-realising soldier

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

Soldiers participate in wars for various reasons, some of which are historically, politically and culturally contingent, and others shaped by individual circumstances and dispositions. While research on the U.S. and U.K. militaries has often highlighted soldiers’ desires for social mobility and economic security, the Israeli military sociologist Ben-Shalom (2012) emphasises soldiers’ need to feel a sense of purpose or meaning. From his perspective, meaning-making is an active creation and selection process, leaving room for individual agency and choice. However, soldiers’ motivations and narratives are also a matter of public and political concern. Moreover, public institutions like the government and the military are heavily invested in the “psychic and emotional lives of those whose job it is to fight, kill, be injured, and die on the nation’s behalf” (MacLeish 2019: 275). In other words, it matters not only what soldiers do but also what they say and feel.  

In this blog post, I begin by discussing what other scholars have identified as the “humanitarian soldier”, that is, a moral figure embodying both the humanitarian spirit and military ethos expressed in the post-9/11 “humanitarian wars” and counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan in particular (De Lauri 2019a; Kotilainen 2011; 2020). Drawing on my own research with Norwegian soldiers and veterans, I thereafter identify a new mode of soldiering: the “self-realising soldier” motivated primarily by a desire for adventure, thrill and growth. 

The contribution is based on my ongoing research with Norwegian soldiers and war veterans who have served in international operations during the last two decades. My primary data collection method is in-depth, semi-structured and occasionally repeated interviews with current and former soldiers in the Norwegian Armed Forces. These are supplemented with media analysis, archival research, expert interviews and research visits to military camps and academies, veteran centres, military museums and soldiers’ homes. My interviewees are mainly men (hitherto 18 men vs 4 women), but they have different class– and educational backgrounds and come from and live across the country. Moreover, they have different ranks, military specialities and careers, ranging from special forces operatives and intelligence officers to infantry soldiers and other enlisted personnel. Due to my interest in soldiers’ relationships to violence and enemy construction, I purposefully sought out people with combat experience. I have also focused on soldiers and veterans who have served in professionalised expeditionary forces in Afghanistan, sometimes referred to in Norway as “the new generation of soldiers and veterans”. However, several of my interlocutors have also experience from peacekeeping missions and military interventions in the Balkans, Africa, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Since I have yet to complete my analysis, what I present below are only preliminary findings and reflections. Further discussions and ethnography will be shared in future articles and publications. 

The humanitarian soldier  

Writing specifically about the post-9/11 era, Kotilainen argues that “the co-optation and closer collaboration of humanitarianism and militarism have given birth to a figure who encapsulates and embodies the global politics of the politicized humanitarian system and the logics of the new wars: the humanitarian soldier” (2020: 100). As De Lauri elaborates, “the humanitarian soldier appears as a global moral agent who embodies both the ‘humanitarian spirit’ and the military ethos expressed in contemporary humanitarianism and the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan in particular” (2019a: 33). The figure frequently appears in political discourses and legitimising speeches where it “aspires to make Western warfare seem humane and conducted in accordance with the moral legitimizations for such interventions. The humanitarian soldier is therefore well suited to winning over the hearts and minds of the domestic populations of the warring states” (Kotilainen 2020: 100; see also Kotilainen 2011). 

However, the figure of the humanitarian soldier is more than a visual representation or tool to persuade civilians and non-combatants. In the context of the war in Afghanistan, scholars have shown that soldiers’ narratives and self-understandings are deeply influenced by humanitarian campaigns, justifications and imaginaries. For instance, one of the Italian soldiers De Lauri (2019b) interviewed, emphasised ISAF’s mission to “help Afghans to rebuild their country, to give hope to the Afghan population” (p. 49). Another interviewee spoke of soldiers’ “moral duty towards humanity at large” (ibid: 50). Likewise, Welland (2016) writes that, when asked about their personal motivations, British soldiers tended to “assume a more humanitarian explanation than the security of their home nation” (p. 140). In her understanding, “many soldiers appeared genuinely excited about getting involved with the local population, with doing something more than just war-fighting, and had an unselfconscious desire to ‘do good’” (ibid; see also Duncanson 2013). Put differently; they had come to embody the figure of the humanitarian soldier used to legitimise foreign interventions as a form of compassion and moral responsibility (De Lauri 2019a). 

The self-realising soldier 

Prior to starting my research, I had expected that at least some of the Norwegian soldiers I interviewed would talk about their motivations and experiences in similar ways. A major donor of aid and development assistance, Norway has a rather self-congratulatory public self-image as a “nation of peace and compassion” (fredsnasjon) or “humanitarian superpower” (humanitær stormakt) (Gullestad 2006; Tvedt 2017). In accordance with this self-definition, the country’s participation in foreign wars and military operations are typically framed as humanitarian or peacebuilding interventions (Heier et al 2017). Moreover, the Norwegian Army is known to be restrictive with the use of violence and decorate soldiers for their efforts to save civilian lives. Given the Armed Forces’ consistent efforts to make historical connections with Norway’s World War Two “resistance heroes” and positive nationalist sentiments in the population at large (Gullestad 2006), I had also expected several of my interlocutors to exhibit patriotic values and motivations. 

However, neither of the soldiers and veterans I interviewed conformed with these dominant cultural scripts. First, despite the ideological justifications for the war in Afghanistan (De Lauri 2019b) and the focus on counterinsurgency (Welland 2016), they rarely expressed strong positive or negative feelings about Afghan Others, whether enemy or civilian. In fact, nearly all interlocutors explicitly underscored that they were not in Afghanistan to help the civilian population or to serve humanity, nor did they express hatred of the enemy. Second, while generally proud and grateful to be Norwegian, the soldiers and ex-soldiers I interviewed rejected or downplayed patriotic commitments to “serve the king and fatherland” (tjene konge og fedreland). As one explained: “I have always felt proud to wear the Norwegian flag on my shoulder and serve in the Norwegian Army. But going to Afghanistan was never about that. I was about my own desires to experience war and test myself in combat.” It was an “ego-trip” or “form for self-realisation”, others admitted unapologetically.   

Notably, the soldiers emphasised that their exact motivation changed over time. Initially, many were motivated by a strong desire to experience a “real war” (see also Dyvik 2016; Pedersen 2017) or experience something “unique” and unparalleled to their friends and peers at home. They typically described themselves as “young, immature boys who had always enjoyed speed and thrill” (fart og spenning) and life outdoors in the wild. Largely without economic and familial responsibilities at home, they considered themselves free and immortal, though retrospectively, many said they were probably “a bit stupid and naïve”. However, after one or several tours in Afghanistan, most of my interlocutors said they had satisfied their lust for risky assignments and combat. At this point, they were not only “older and wiser”, but many had been promoted and were leaders for younger troops. “No longer in their carefree twenties”, the majority had further married and got young children who depended on them and worried about them when they were abroad. Both developments made them feel more responsible and less willing to take risks on behalf of themselves or others. 

At the same time, serving in international operations was still considered more than just their job and obligations as professional soldiers. Using words like “freedom”, “comradeship”, “simplicity”, “fun”, “mastery” and “bubble”, many described their tours in Afghanistan as an exciting and pleasurable break from their work and commitments at home. Moreover, nearly all the soldiers I interviewed described Afghanistan as a place to grow and develop themselves as soldiers and individuals. Most also said they had experienced such growth, typically telling me they returned from their tours in Afghanistan as better warriors, leaders, and even human beings. Together with a growing sense of duty to and comradery with their fellow soldiers and unit, this desire to grow professionally and personally was a key motivation to return to war despite being more risk-averse and having lost faith in the overall mission (Waaler et al 2019).

By way of conclusion  

Serving in war is often framed as a national duty and sacrifice, which we assume provides soldiers with a larger purpose and meaning. In the post-9/11 era, the blurring of militarism and humanitarianism has also given birth to the figure of the “humanitarian soldier”, which has influenced European soldiers’ narratives and self-understanding. 
However, as described above, my interlocutors’ decision to join –and in many cases return– to the war in Afghanistan had little to do with their moral or emotional commitments to Afghan civilians or an abstract humanity. Nor were they primarily motivated by military or national loyalty or a desire for economic security. Conversely, what emerges from my interviews is the figure of a self-realising soldier initially motivated by the promise of adventure, thrill and self-discovery (including a desire to experience combat first-hand) and later by a strong desire for personal growth and development. 

How should we interpret this figure of the self-realising soldier, and where does it come from? At first glance, it is easy to view my interlocutors’ emphasis on self-realisation as an expression of the disciplinary power of contemporary neoliberalism (Strand and Berdntsson 2015). Indeed, the figure of the self-realising soldier is closely associated with the neo-liberal ideal of the autonomous and entrepreneurial citizen always looking for a way to invest in himself (Gershon 2011; Strand 2022). However, the idea that war can be regenerative or transformative is not new (Mosse 1990; Pedersen 2017). Moreover, we should be careful not to portray soldiers as,

“somehow seduced into military and war, either by valorization of personal regeneration in the ‘Myth of War Experience’ (Mosse 1990) or by idealization of self-making in neoliberal recruitment discourses (Strand and Berndtsson 2015) – let alone by celebration of violence and warriorhood in military-industrial-media-entertainment networks (Der Derian 2009) or in political-military narratives and commemorative practices (Sørensen 2015; Sørensen and Pedersen 2012)” (Pedersen 2017: 8).

In my current work, I follow Pedersen’s (2017) example and take soldiers “seriously” as self-driven and reflective human beings with complex and shifting motivations. I also tackle what I initially believed was a big puzzle: How come Norwegian soldiers –publicly said to protect the nation, liberal democracy and humanitarian values– repeatedly and unashamedly describe their main motivation as self-realisation? Finally, I consider some of the questions my interlocutors did not ponder much about: What, if anything, are the problems with seeking self-realisation in war? Moreover, what are the moral and political implications of treating Afghanistan as an arena for adventure and growth?


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