In our own words…

Early yesterday, I spoke with a man recently returned from his third military deployment to Afghanistan in as many years. His most recent tour was in a different uniform , that of a private military contractor rather than as a soldier under any given flag. This recent professional transition had been a tremendously difficult choice for him – to finally leave his regiment of 7 years, and serve not for Queen and Country, but instead for profit.

Included in the usual pleasantries that we routinely exchange (we aren’t friends so much as have a mutual interest in one anothers work) was my question, “was it much different being a contractor than a soldier?”. His answer, which once surprised me but no longer does, was that it was easier. Much easier.

He talked about it being easier to be above the politics of combat, to avoid becoming “bogged down” in winning the hearts and minds of locals and instead to be able to focus on discreet missions which had a clear start, middle, and end – something very different to the  “posturing” that characterized his past tours. What was most salient in our conversation was the recurrent use of the term “freedom”. He said that as a soldier, your voice is somewhat stifled, restricted and controlled through a complex mechanism of impression management, rigid hierarchy and standard operating procedure. However, as a contractor, his opinions were his own, their expression his choice, and unlike his time in the military – they had an outlet.

Our conversation reminded me of the work of Derek Eland, himself a former serviceman who recently spent some time in Afghanistan with British troops with the sole purpose of letting them tell their perceptions, constructions and opinions about war in their own words. What developed was an installation currently on display at the Imperial War Museum entitled “In Our Own Words”, here beautifully summarized in a BBC slideshow .

The product of Eland’s work, , although artistic in intention, serves as a powerful reminder of the importance and neglect of discourse in the arena of work. The narrative, in all of its forms, allows us to achieve a depth of understanding of an individual’s experience of work and in the case of my friend, the contractor, highlights the importance of being heard – of simply giving those narratives a voice and an outlet.


About Neil D. Walshe

Neil Walshe is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of San Francisco, California. His research looks at the role of courage and cowardice in the workplace in order to understand how moral behaviors relate to the world of work. While much of his work focuses on military and high-risk occupations, he tries to place the concept within the realm of more traditional white collar professions.
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