Forum: The Self-Realising Soldier: Post-Heroic Reflections from Norwegian Afghanistan Veterans by Heidi Mogstad

In: Public Anthropologist
Heidi Mogstad Chr. Michelsen, Institute, Bergen, Norway

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Tine Molendijk Department of Military Management Studies, Faculty of Military Sciences, Netherlands Defense Academy, The Netherlands & Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management ( cicam), Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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Noora Kotilainen Senior Research Fellow, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

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Jeni Hunniecutt Research Scholar, The Ronin Institute, USA.

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Heidi Mogstad Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway

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In western media and politics, Afghanistan is usually depicted as a place of scarcity and hardship. This article attends to a different western representation of the country, that is, Afghanistan, as a site of self-fulfilment and growth. In doing so, I outline a mode of soldiering that emerged from my ethnographic interviews with Norwegian Afghanistan veterans: the self-realising soldier seeking combat, adventure and personal development in a distant and failing war. While not entirely new, this mode of soldiering challenges dominant representations of western soldiers in the post-9/11 wars as driven by humanitarian values or socio-economic mobility. However, the soldiers’ narratives are not merely fragments of lived and embodied experience. Nor do I read them as duped by military recruitment campaigns or neoliberal discourses idealising self-investment. Instead, this article interprets their post-war reflections as confessional speech acts that constitute the Norwegian Afghanistan veterans as realistic and sincere vis-à-vis “dishonest” politicians and “naïve” civilians far removed from the battlefield. The self-realisation discourse has ambiguous political effects, as it both exposes and obscures the military’s core functions and simultaneously unsettles and reinforces imperialist images of Afghanistan. Moreover, the self-realising soldiers challenge us to consider alternative moralities of war and raise important questions about the ethics of contemporary western expeditionary warfare.


In western media and politics, Afghanistan is usually depicted as a place of endemic violence and poverty. After the US and allied forces withdrew from the country in 2021, Afghanistan was also rendered as a site of destruction and loss—not registered in the form of racial injury and imperial violence but as loss of progress, democracy and other liberal fantasies imposed by foreign military occupation.1 In this article, I attend to a different western representation of the country, that is, Afghanistan, as a site of self-fulfilment and growth. In doing so, I outline a mode of soldiering that emerged from ethnographic interviews and conversations with Norwegian soldiers and veterans who served in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2017: the self-realising soldier seeking combat, adventure and personal development in a distant and failing war. While not entirely new, this mode of soldiering challenges dominant representations of western soldiers in Afghanistan as driven by humanitarian values and compassion, or a desire for socio-economic mobility. However, their narratives are not merely testaments of war2 or fragments of lived and embodied experience. Nor do I read my interlocutors as duped by military recruitment campaigns or neoliberal discourses idealising self-cultivation and self-investment. Instead, I read their post-war reflections as confessional speech acts that constitute the soldiers as realistic and sincere vis-à-vis “dishonest” politicians and “naïve” civilians far removed from the battlefield. I argue that the self-realisation discourse has ambiguous political effects, as it both exposes and obscures the military’s core functions and simultaneously unsettles and reinforces imperialist images of Afghanistan. Moreover, the self-realising soldiers challenge us to consider alternative moralities of war and raise important questions about the ethics of contemporary western expeditionary warfare.

The article is organised as follows. I first set the scene by describing Norway’s military contribution to the war in Afghanistan and outlining my methodology and sample. I thereafter examine the figure of the humanitarian soldier, which has been used to legitimise the US and nato-led military intervention in Afghanistan and shaped soldiers’ subjectivities and narratives. I proceed to show that the Norwegian Afghanistan veterans I interviewed distanced themselves from this figure and rejected idealistic motivations to serve their country or humanity. Ultimately, this article tackles what I initially considered a big puzzle: why do Norwegian soldiers—who are described to the public as protecting national and humanitarian values—repeatedly and unashamedly describe their motivation to fight in Afghanistan as self-realisation? I also consider two of the questions my interlocutors did not much ponder. Firstly, what are the moral and political implications of depicting Afghanistan as an arena for adventure and growth? Secondly, is there a moral or political problem in soldiers seeking self-realisation in war?

A “Peace Nation” at War

This article is based on research with Norwegian soldiers and war veterans who served in professionalised expeditionary forces in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2017. For the ensuing arguments to make sense, it is essential to say something about what characterised this mission and how it was framed and justified in the Norwegian public discourse. Lasting from December 2001 to August 2021, the mission to Afghanistan is one of the largest and lengthiest international operations Norway has participated in since World War ii (ww2), when Nazi Germany occupied the country. During these twenty years, about 9200 Norwegian regular and special forces soldiers served, mainly in the Faryab province in northern Afghanistan, where Norway assumed responsibility for regional stability, but also in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, where Norwegian soldiers mentored and trained the Afghan special forces.3

As a small state bordering Russia in the north, Norway’s war efforts in Afghanistan were mainly rooted in the country’s security dependence on alliance solidarity4 and specifically its alleged need to perform as a good and reliable ally to nato and the United States.5 Nevertheless, the mission was predominantly framed in public and political discourses as a humanitarian and peacebuilding intervention supporting women and girls specifically.6 As I discuss below, this “humanitarian branding” of military operations is not unique to Norway, yet arguably it found particular resonance there as the Norwegian public is used to thinking of their country and military in peaceful and innocent terms.

A small but oil-rich nation, Norway is a major aid donor and has led diplomatic efforts and peace negotiations in many countries.7 These international efforts enjoy high public and political support and have become part of the Norwegian brand.8 They have also bolstered a self-congratulatory public self-image of Norway as a “peace nation” (fredsnasjon) and “humanitarian superpower” (humanitær stormakt).9 In line with this self-image, Norway’s troops were often depicted as non-violent peacemakers building schools and wells in Afghanistan. For a long time, leading politicians even refused to acknowledge that Norwegian troops were at war in Afghanistan, preferring instead vaguer terms such as “military contributions” or “warlike conditions” (krigslignende tilstander). As Dyvik argues, this avoidance of the word “war” might seem pedantic, but it relied upon and reinforced the popular idea of Norway as a nation of peace.10

Norway’s military contribution to Afghanistan was further characterised by symbolic and discursive attempts by political and military leaders to make historical connections with Norway’s beloved ww2 resistance heroes. For instance, when former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg visited Norwegian forces in Afghanistan on Norwegian Constitution Day in 2010, he commended the soldiers for their efforts to ensure that “Afghan children one day shall feel the same joy Norwegian schoolchildren feel today.”11 In the speech, Stoltenberg also praised the soldiers for having travelled to Afghanistan to defend Norwegian values and security and described them as inheritors of the ww2 resistance movement that fought for Norway’s freedom and democracy seventy years ago.

Afghanistan veterans who received war medals were also praised by their leaders for their efforts to protect civilians and were regularly compared to ww2 resistance heroes. Moreover, Norwegian media were overwhelmingly supportive of Norway’s military efforts, often reiterating the links to the resistance movement or reproducing humanitarian and heroic narratives of soldiers rescuing civilians or building schools in Afghanistan.12 In public narratives, Afghanistan was typically portrayed in colonial and humanitarian terms as a failed and archaic state dependent on foreign rescue and modernisation.

Between 2004 and 2011, ten Norwegian soldiers were killed. While this is a small number relative to the causalities of most allied forces (not to mention the Afghan population), the deaths of Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan became public events at home and prompted the army to strengthen the security of their personnel.13 Nevertheless, Norwegian soldiers remained in Afghanistan until the summer of 2021, when the last nato forces withdrew, paving the way for the Taliban to return to power.14


My research on Norwegian Afghanistan veterans is part of the project War and Fun: Reconceptualizing Warfare and Its Experience(warfun) funded by the European Research Council.15 warfun aims to reconceptualise warfare by investigating the plurality of experiences and affective grammars generally neglected by normative approaches. During my fieldwork (intermittently between April 2022 and September 2023), I visited and participated in events at military camps and academies, veteran centres and army museums. I also analysed newspaper articles, public speeches and documents, read soldiers’ memoirs and deployment yearbooks, and visited the military archives. However, my primary method was in-depth, semi-structured and occasionally repeated interviews with 28 current or former soldiers in the Norwegian Army who had served in professional expeditionary forces in Afghanistan.

My sampling strategy was purposive. Because I was interested in soldiers’ emotional experiences of violence, I sought out individuals who had served in combat units. A few had previously served in Lebanon, Africa or the Balkans, but most went to Afghanistan as “rookies,” experiencing a war zone and combat for the first time in their lives. For many, their deployment in Afghanistan was also the first time they had travelled outside Europe. I deliberately spoke to interviewees with different ranks, military specialities and careers, ranging from special forces operatives and intelligence officers to infantry soldiers. The rationale was partly that I wanted to listen to different experiences, but also that I wished to identify tropes and narratives that cut across rank, function and unit culture. Only six of the 28 interviewees identified as women, and just one had an immigrant background. This reflects the composition of Scandinavian war forces, which, as Pedersen observes, remain “very much a white man’s thing.”16

While I did not intend to gain a representative sample, I spoke to Afghanistan veterans of different ages and educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Norway has a generous welfare system with free education and a relatively egalitarian income distribution.17 Partly because of this, the military is not considered a pathway to socio-economic mobility or citizenship as it is in other countries.18 However, working for the army is prestigious in many social milieus, and soldiers enjoy high support and trust in society. As mentioned, contemporary war veterans are also portrayed by politicians and the media in heroic terms and are frequently compared to Norway’s ww2 resistance movement. With a few exceptions, most interviewees emphasised that they had voluntarily chosen to go to Afghanistan and were excited about their deployment. Most interlocutors participated in combat, and two received individual decorations for their acts of valour. Several knew some of the ten Norwegian soldiers killed in Afghanistan; one had lost his brother, three had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) and two were still bothered by physical injuries. While some went to Afghanistan only once before leaving the army, most returned on several missions and pursued careers as frontline soldiers. During my research, about half were still working for the armed forces, and a few had recently served in Lithuania or Syria. However, most were staff officers or had transitioned into civilian professions.

Interviewees were mainly recruited via personal networks and snowball sampling; however, I also contacted some via email or social media. While I come from a fairly anti-militarist family and have never wanted to become a soldier or experience warfare, my partner works for the Norwegian Armed Forces and has several friends and colleagues who have served in Afghanistan. When approaching and interviewing soldiers, I found honesty about both these aspects of my positionality to be ethical and helpful in building trust and rapport.19 Additionally, several told me they “liked the project’s angle” or my “interest in soldiers’ positive experiences,” which was one reason they agreed to talk with me.

While the notion of Norway as a classless society is a myth, the country is marked less by class differences than by a pronounced urban—rural divide.20 Cognisant of this, I travelled across Norway to meet Afghanistan veterans in their hometowns and communities. Interviews lasted between one and a half and three hours and were conducted in Norwegian, our native language. In many cases, the Afghanistan veterans invited me into their private homes, which facilitated intimate impressions and conversations. Otherwise, interviews were held at their workplaces, outdoors or at quiet cafés and restaurants, depending on their preferences. Upon invitation, I also participated in some of their pastime activities, including dog sledging and climbing.

Taking Soldiers Seriously

Research on the military is often problematised within our discipline. Although anthropologists linked to the military are specifically criticised,21 Mohr, Sørensen and Weisdorf argue that all “ethnographers interested in things military are moving in morally liminal spaces”.22 This fear of moral pollution is partly due to anthropology’s fraught legacy of aiding colonial and military interventions.23 However, arguably it reflects a professional value orientation which opposes aggression and assumes that war is pathological.24 This anthropological value orientation resembles western moralities of warfare. As De Lauri argues, dominant western moralities depict war as noble and sometimes just or necessary, but ultimately a serious and tragic event.25 However, anthropologists tend to be more critical of the state and often challenge the idea that wars are noble and necessary. In the warfun project, one of the questions we have grappled with is whether our scholarly morality of war has prevented us from taking soldiers’ worldviews and experiences seriously.26 Put differently, have we been so concerned with exposing and rejecting the destructive and inhumane forces of war that we have smuggled our own morality into the ethnographic analysis? Cognisant of this risk, I have tried to suspend my normative and political views and assumptions about war and soldiering and used empathy as a methodological research tool27 to gain emic insight and understanding. While my military outsider status and lack of shared experience in Afghanistan is a limitation, this also facilitated conversations that might have been more difficult to initiate if I were an embedded ethnographer or had experience from soldiering. Specifically, it allowed me to combine empathy with confrontation and curiosity as I probed the limits of my empathetic understanding. It also enabled me to question interviewees’ common-sensical views of their roles and responsibilities as soldiers. Surprisingly, my position as a civilian outsider was rarely problematised by interviewees, who stressed the importance of an outsider’s perspective and objectivity. In this article, I do not aim for objectivity as this would negate how my arguments have emerged from a dialogical and intersubjective process with soldiers and other interlocutors inside and outside the academy. Nor is my intention to evaluate “the truth” or consistency of my interviewees’ statements, which are reflections from a temporal, geographical and emotional distance.28 Instead, I approach their narratives as meaning-constructing activities29 that produce truths about the self and war and their personal motivations and experiences of Afghanistan specifically. Like this article, their narratives are constructed “within a web of different discourses”30, including political, military and media narratives. Accordingly, their statements are not simply expressions of “inner beliefs” but dialogical and performative responses to other narratives and representations. The article also considers what Afghanistan veterans’ reflections reveal about their soldierly morality of war.

The Humanitarian Soldier

As anthropological studies of violence have taught us, wars are not merely instrumental but are expressive of culturally specific understandings and values.31 The meaning and justification of war and soldiering also vary across time and space. In the 20th century, wars were typically fought in the name of protecting a feminised homeland, and being a soldier was framed as a national masculine duty and sacrifice. In recent decades, human rights and cosmopolitan norms such as the responsibility to protect have been mobilised to legitimise war and military action.32 This has led some to suggest that soldiers sacrifice themselves not for their co-nationals but for distant strangers.33

Writing specifically about the post-9/11 wars, 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.”34 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.”35 The figure frequently appears in political discourses and legitimising speeches where it portrays western warfare as ethical and humane and the international community as strong but caregiving. “The humanitarian soldier is therefore well suited to winning over the hearts and minds of the domestic populations of the warring states.”36

However, the figure of the humanitarian soldier is not simply a tool to mobilise civilian support and conceal violence.37 Nor is it merely an idea projected into the soldiers’ minds by politicians or social scientists.38 Discussing the “humanitarian wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan, feminist researchers have observed that cosmopolitan values and counter-insurgency engendered a reshaping of military masculinities towards care and compassion.39 For instance, Welland notes that, when asked about their personal motivations, British soldiers tended to “assume a more humanitarian explanation than the security of their home nation.” She writes that “many soldiers appeared genuinely excited about getting involved with the local population, with doing something more than just warfighting, and had an unselfconscious desire to ‘do good.’”40

Additionally, ethnographic research has shown that humanitarian campaigns and imaginaries deeply influenced western soldiers’ narratives. For instance, one of the Italian soldiers De Lauri interviewed emphasised the International Security Assistance Force’s (isaf) mission to “help Afghans to rebuild their country [and] to give hope to the Afghan population.”41 Another interviewee spoke of soldiers’ “moral duty towards humanity at large.”42 Likewise, Salameh’s study of why young Americans signed up for the post- 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq found that socio-economic mobility and financial incentives such as bonus checks, free health care and college stipends were only part of their motivation. When reflecting on their decision to participate in war, several of the recruits spoke of innate desires to “help” or “save” the innocent civilian population and “make the world a better place.”43 Whether or not these soldiers were ready to sacrifice themselves for distant strangers, it is striking that they spoke in the language of humanitarianism. Put differently, they embodied the figure of the humanitarian soldier used to legitimise foreign military interventions as a moral responsibility44 and act of care.45

Heroic and Post-Heroic Narratives

The research discussed above was conducted in a different historical and political moment, years before the western withdrawal from Afghanistan, and at a time when the military-humanitarian narrative seemed more persuasive. Nevertheless, I had expected that several of the Afghanistan veterans I interviewed would talk about their motivations in similar terms. As mentioned, the Norwegian military contribution to Afghanistan was publicly framed as a humanitarian and peacebuilding intervention, and military leaders and politicians frequently addressed soldiers directly as humanitarian actors. While the Taliban’s return to power in 2021 sparked a public debate about Norway’s contributions in Afghanistan, the critique focused mainly on nato and the US,46 reinforcing public narratives of Norwegian troops as “doing good” in Afghanistan.47 Even when confronted by critical journalists, political and military leaders largely refused to describe the Norwegian contribution as a failure. They also continued to praise soldiers for their efforts to help Afghan society and for standing up for Norwegian values. Given the blurring of Norwegian nationalism and humanitarianism and a great sense of national pride among the population, I also expected several interviewees to exhibit patriotic values and motivations. Indeed, when addressing the public in speeches or articles, Norwegian soldiers often foreground both humanitarian and national commitments. Like their political and military superiors, many also mobilise the proud national memory of Norway’s resistance against Nazi Germany. For instance, in an article first published in a regional newspaper in 2010 and later on the Armed Forces’ website, a female soldier from a mechanised infantry regiment in Faryab reflected on her personal experience of making a small but significant difference:

As a single person, I do not make a tangible difference in the larger scheme of things. However, I believe the socks I distributed [to the civilian population] still help keep small children’s feet warm. Even if I cannot influence the trajectory of the war, I am part of an organisation that works to improve the country’s security.

To reinforce her message, the soldier cited a famous ww2 poem by the Norwegian poet Arnulf Øverland called Du må ikke sove (You must not sleep). The poem, which children in Norway learn at primary school, calls for action in response to injustice and inspired the Norwegian resistance movement. Twelve years later, and less than a year after the Taliban’s takeover, the Afghanistan veteran who delivered the yearly “soldiers’ speech” (soldatenes tale) during Norway’s Liberation Day on 8 May 2022 made similar references to national traditions and values. In the public speech, she emphasised how Norwegian soldiers have “made an honourable choice to defend something larger than ourselves.” She further stated that Norwegian soldiers fight every day, at home and abroad, to protect Norwegian values and freedom. Addressed to the public, this speech portrayed soldiering as patriotic, selfless and heroic. Like dominant public narratives, the speech also portrayed Norway’s expeditionary war in Afghanistan as a means to protect and extend Norwegian values. However, in private interviews and conversations, hardly any interviewees conformed to these cultural and official scripts. Firstly, despite the humanitarian justifications for the war in Afghanistan, they did not focus on the plight of Afghan civilians or cite humanist and cosmopolitan values. In fact, nearly all interlocutors explicitly underscored that they did not go to Afghanistan to help the civilian population or to serve humanity. Secondly, while regularly expressing national pride and gratitude for being Norwegian citizens, they rejected or downplayed patriotic commitments to “serve the king and fatherland” (tjene konge og fedreland). Instead, they typically highlighted their desire to experience a “real war” and test themselves in combat.

A Desire for Combat

Specifically, interviewees commonly portrayed the mission in Afghanistan as an opportunity to find out if they “had what it takes” to be a soldier and shoot or perhaps even kill another human being. Hans, who was a platoon officer in the army’s Quick Reaction Force in Faryab, summarised his motivation like this:

I did not go to Afghanistan to save the world or sacrifice myself for something bigger or anything like that. I wanted to experience war and test myself under real and extreme conditions, to see if I could handle the pressure and find out what it is like to get shot at.

Similarly, Frode, who was a driver for a mechanic infantry unit, told me:

I have always been proud to wear the Norwegian flag on my shoulder and serve in the Norwegian Army. However, going to Afghanistan was never about that. It was about my personal desires to experience war and test myself in combat.

Other scholars studying Scandinavian soldiers in Afghanistan have also highlighted their desire to experience war and test themselves in combat.48 Among feminist scholars, such desires have often been analysed as gendered performances to fulfil a hegemonic ideal of masculinity.49 However, Pedersen (2017) proposes that the Danish soldiers he studied approached the war in Afghanistan as an “existential window of opportunity … to realise their dreams of becoming ‘true warriors’ and, by implication, ‘authentic individuals’” (p. 8).

In my interviews, soldiers’ desire to participate and test themselves in a “real war” was described as natural and self-evident. As Jonas, a former artillery officer and sniper, said, “if you are a soldier and are not curious about what it is like to be on the frontline, I wonder what on earth you are doing [in the army].” Many compared their deployment to Afghanistan to playing a football game rather than simply training for it. “Nobody wants to spend their whole life training for something,” they told me matter-of-factly. According to Johanne, who served in both Faryab and Kabul, soldiers consider war an opportunity to “peak professionally.” When reflecting on their motivation to go to Afghanistan, several used metaphors such as “playing a World Cup final” or “competing in the Olympics,” suggesting that Afghanistan was considered the ultimate highlight of their career.

Adventure and Off-Grid Travels

Interviewees also described a desire to witness first-hand what they had seen on tv or heard from colleagues returning from Afghanistan. Some admitted that this was partly about gaining recognition among colleagues, as having been to Afghanistan gave soldiers elevated status and authority. However, deploying a familiar and colonial trope among soldiers from Norway50 and elsewhere51 they also said they approached Afghanistan as an “eventyr” (adventure).

For instance, Jonas, whose grandfather had participated in the ww2 resistance movement, resolutely rejected my question of whether this had impacted his decision to become a soldier or serve in Afghanistan. Instead, Jonas highlighted the exciting war stories he had heard from returning soldiers and his personal desire for “thrill and adventure.” Like several other interviewees, Jonas started at the university after completing his conscription service but found this experience wanting and returned to the army to become a professional soldier. His first mission was in Bosnia, which he described as fulfilling a personal dream. After a disappointing mission in Kosovo where “nothing happened,” Jonas described Afghanistan as a “new adventure” as well as a “chance to compete in the Olympics.”

Several interviewees also said they wanted to experience something unique from and unparalleled by their peers at home. For many, the main attraction was to experience combat or witness a war zone described in generic terms. However, several were curious or fascinated about Afghanistan. In their narratives, Afghanistan was not merely a place of deprivation and war but an unfamiliar and exotic place that “not many people had the opportunity to travel to.” A few interviewees also compared their decision to go to Afghanistan with those of friends who had taken a year off after high school to go backpacking in Asia or Central America. Illustrating the entanglements between war and tourism,52 they expressed desires for off-grid travels involving new impulses and encounters with “authentic others.” Echoing the narratives of the humanitarian volunteers I studied on Lesvos,53 several also said they wanted to “be part of history” or “be there—where things happen.” Others spoke of a desire to “expand their horizon” or “get out of their comfort zone.”

When Afghanistan veterans discussed their motivations for deployment, life in Norway was an important backdrop and push factor. However, home was not described as a difficult or meaningless place they wanted to escape.54 Instead, interviewees depicted Norway as a boring and uneventful place they wanted a temporary break from to satisfy their lust for thrill and adventure. Rather than describing themselves as humanitarian or patriotic soldiers, or aspiring warriors seeking to cultivate an authentic self,55 they portrayed their younger selves as daring adventurers who wanted to “explore the world” and come home with a story to tell.

This discourse carries a problematic legacy of colonial adventurism. However, unlike the British ex-soldiers in Norman’s study,56 my Norwegian informants did not express a nostalgic longing for a colonial past. Since Norway was a colony of Denmark during the era of European colonialism, Norwegians tend to view themselves as colonial outsiders and express colonial innocence rather than nostalgia.57 While Norwegians are still part of the pan-European lineage of colonial explorers (not to mention the Vikings), interviewees referred to the more benevolent lineage of famous Norwegian arctic explorers, some of whom also served for the naval special forces. Speaking of their pasts, many interviewees also portrayed themselves as young and energetic boys or girls who had “always enjoyed speed and thrill” (fart og spenning) and who grew up climbing trees or “playing war” (leke krig) in the forest. Their narratives depicted Norway as “too quiet and uneventful” for their young and restless souls. Moreover, being a soldier at war was portrayed as a “natural continuation” of their childhood games and hobbies.

The Pleasure of Soldiering

Significantly, interviewees’ motivations often changed in response to their experiences in Afghanistan or personal events at home. Many said they had satisfied their lust for combat and risky assignments after one or more deployments. At that point, they had “been there, done that” and proved to themselves and others that they had what it takes to be good soldiers. Moreover, they were “older and wiser” and “less adventurous,” and several had been promoted to leaders of younger troops. Many also had wives and children at home who worried about them when they were deployed in war zones. These developments made them feel more responsible and less willing to take risks for themselves or others. Interviewees further pointed to the lack of meaningful progress on the ground, where local resistance and hostility to Norwegian troops had been growing.58 According to Johanne, the soldiers in her unit used to tell each other, half-jokingly and half-seriously, that it was “not worth sacrificing even their big toe for this war.” At the same time, serving abroad was more than “just their job” and obligation as professional soldiers. Using words such as freedom, fun, camaraderie, simplicity and bubble, interviewees described their tours in Afghanistan as an exciting and pleasurable break from their everyday life at home. Many highlighted the beauty of the Afghan landscape or spoke of the pleasure of “camping and sleeping outdoors, under the stars” or travelling to “quirky Afghan villages” and experiencing local hospitality and culture. Several also foregrounded the excitement and thrill they experienced during missions and the rush of positive emotions such as happiness and mastery they experienced in the aftermath of combat. When making these statements, interviewees were usually careful to distance themselves from negative stereotypes of soldiers as “killing machines” or “war addicts.” Instead, they typically compared soldiering to civilian professions such as surgeons or firefighters and said something along these lines: “Like surgeons, we are not glad because people are injured …” or “Like firefighters, we do not like to see people’s homes burn … however, we like to put our skills and training to use.” Some described the pleasure of soldiering as an experience of intensity. Elaborating on this, Johanne underscored that most people seek intensity in their lives, whether through their careers, hobbies or love. Were they trying to make the strange familiar—or perhaps acceptable—to the anthropologist?

Growth and Development

Several of the experienced soldiers I interviewed also portrayed the war in Afghanistan as an opportunity to “specialise” or “get new professional and technical challenges” (faglige utfordringer) or “leadership experiences.” While these motivations cut across rank and unit, the special forces soldiers talked particularly warmly about the “enormous resources” they were afforded to develop as individuals. One of them, Tore, described being a soldier in the Norwegian special operations command as an “opportunity to maximise self-realisation: physical, psychological and technical.”59 For him and many of his colleagues, going to war was mainly an opportunity to develop their skills and grow as professional soldiers. Others described Afghanistan as a place to learn more about themselves and the world. For instance, one interlocutor said he had started learning Pashto and returned to Afghanistan partly to practise his language skills and learn more about Afghan culture and society. Some interviewees also spoke of serving in Afghanistan as an opportunity to challenge themselves and grow as human beings. Together with a growing sense of duty to and camaraderie with their fellow soldiers, this desire to grow professionally and personally was a key motivation to return to war despite becoming more risk-averse or losing faith in the mission.

The Self-Realising Soldier

As illustrated, many interviewees narrated a personal transformation from war-hungry and adventurist rookies to mature and experienced individuals finding meaning in their work as professional soldiers. This attention to temporality is important and arguably lost in some scholarship which portrays soldiers in essentialist terms as “war addicts” or “adrenalin junkies.”60 At the same time, it is striking what had not changed according to the Afghanistan veterans I interviewed, namely their emphasis on self-realisation. While the warfun project’s title and focus encouraged them to share their positive feelings and experiences, I was puzzled by their willingness to state this so plainly. For instance, summing up his motivations, Steffen said it was “110 per cent selfish.” Afghanistan was an “ego-trip” or “nothing more than an opportunity for self-realisation,” others admitted unapologetically.

Significantly, the interviewees who made these statements had different and not only positive experiences in Afghanistan. For instance, they included individuals with good reasons to give the war a large purpose, such as soldiers who had killed in combat or lost close friends and colleagues—even a brother. It also included individuals who had suffered from physical injuries, ptsd or moral torment.

Unexpectedly, most of the soldiers I spoke to also appeared largely unaffected by the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. For instance, when I asked Frode to reflect on the event, he responded:

I did not foresee it happening so quickly, but I always knew [the war] needed a political solution … What am I thinking today? Well, I did not go to Afghanistan to save the country; I went there to realise myself.

What should we make of these assertions?

Confessional Speech Acts

When I first encountered the self-realising discourse, I read it as an expression of discontent or disappointment with the mission in Afghanistan, or with the subsequent return of the Taliban to power in 2021. However, after talking to more soldiers and veterans, I realised they had divergent political views and understandings of what had transpired in Afghanistan. Some believed the mission was a major fiasco which exemplified western overreach or what one described as a “flawed idea of transporting a western model of liberal democracy across the world to a war-torn and alien country.” Far from the universalist figure of the humanitarian soldier, these interlocutors often spoke in the language of cultural relativism and depicted Afghan civilians and society as radically different because of their history and upbringing. Others expressed beliefs that were more aligned with their political and military leaders’ official statements, and with colonial and missionary narratives. Unwilling to discard Afghanistan as a failure, they stressed that isaf had brought modernity and hope to Afghan society by building schools and infrastructures and spreading liberal values and ideas. A few also said that “we did what we were supposed to do, namely planting a Norwegian flag,” highlighting Norway’s success in performing as a good nato ally.61 What they all seemed to share, however, was a deep suspicion towards idealism, which they associated with naivety and lack of lived experience and understanding. Consider this extract from our interview, where I tried to push Jonas to reflect on alternative and more humanitarian motivations.

Me: You said you wanted thrill and adventure, but [when talking about the war stories that inspired you], you specifically mentioned that your colleague had rescued civilians from bombing in Goražde [Bosnia]. Did this also foster some humanitarian or idealistic motivations?

Jonas: No, I was not an idealist at all. I guess it felt nice to be part of something bigger than myself, but I did not harbour more profound thoughts about this.

Me: Do you know any more idealistic soldiers?

Jonas: Not among those who serve on the frontline. If you are staff and work “far behind” in the rear, I am sure you can keep this naïve worldview …

Like Jonas, several interviewees fervently distanced themselves from humanitarian values and motivations, even if they had previously indicated that this influenced them. I eventually understood these repudiations as expressions of their distrust towards idealism, which they viewed as incompatible with the naked brutality and realism required of them in war and combat. “You do not want idealistic soldiers on the frontline,” some even told me bluntly when I admitted that I found the idea of seeking self-realisation in war uncomfortable. Their aversion to idealism echoes the famous Prussian general and military theorist Clausewitz, who argued that “war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst.”62 It also reflects the stark opposition interviewees drew between frontline soldiers who have experienced war “with the flesh”63 and civilians and military staff in the rear.

As illustrated by the extract from my interview with Jonas above, I also detected strong discourses of political pragmatism and anti-naivety or cynicism in soldiers’ narratives. Pragmatism is a cultural virtue in Norwegian society64 which coexists somewhat uneasily with the grandiose national self-image of a “humanitarian superpower” described earlier. At the same time, naivety is often said to be a defining characteristic of Norwegian politics and people. In my interviews, pragmatism and anti-nativity were presented as soldierly virtues and contrasted with naïve and idealistic civilians, who soldiers believed were duped by “den dype freden” (the deep peace) in the region after the Cold War and overestimated Norway’s ability to do good in the world.

Finally, Afghanistan veterans’ recurrent efforts to distance themselves from the humanitarian frame reflect their lingering resentment towards Norwegian politicians, whose depiction of soldiers in Afghanistan as non-violent peacebuilders was viewed as a dishonest effort to “conceal the war.”65 Many years after their deployments, they still got fired up talking about this and particularly about politicians’ refusal to use the word “war.” This refusal misrecognised the lived experiences and risks soldiers took in Afghanistan but also misled the Norwegian population, they argued zealously. At the same time, I do not believe their efforts to distance themselves from national values and motivations should be read as anti-nationalist sentiments. Conversely, I interpret this partly as an admission of their experience in Afghanistan, which most of my interviewees were reluctant to compare with ww2, where Norwegian citizens fought an existential war against a militarily superior occupation power. Their mission in Afghanistan was to fight on the nation’s behalf, but—for various reasons—my interlocutors did not experience Afghanistan as a heroic war. Some interviewees even rejected the idea that they deserved to be publicly recognised and honoured after returning home. We went there because we wanted to, they insisted, repeatedly challenging the idea of soldiering as a sacrifice. Instead of taking soldiers’ assertions at face value or challenging their accuracy, I propose viewing them as performative speech acts resembling the Foucauldian confession. According to Foucault, confessions are verbalisation techniques through which one discloses the “truth” about oneself to others.66 Confessions can be cathartic and pleasurable to act because they purify confessors’ souls and allow them to disavow individual responsibility.67

Notably, Foucault was initially concerned with confessions extracted by religious, medical or other authorities.68 However, by considering practices of confession outside these disciplinary domains, he later showed that confession becomes a voluntary practice enacted in both public and private.69 Moreover, Foucault’s genealogy of confession identifies an important shift in how confessions are practised. He observes that, since the 18th century, confession mainly has not been about renouncing the self but about constituting the self, in positive terms, as an ethical subject.70 Drawing loosely on this analysis, I argue that my interlocutors’ self-realisation discourse can be read as confessional speech acts constituting them as pragmatic and knowledgeable—perhaps slightly cynical—professional soldiers vis-à-vis naïve or ignorant civilians and journalists who mistake soldiers for humanitarians and have a limited understanding of war’s brutality and nature. The confessions also constitute the soldiers as sincere and innocent apolitical instruments of the state vis-à-vis deceitful politicians who concealed the war but ultimately carry the responsibility as they made the decision that Norwegian soldiers should fight in Afghanistan.

A Different Morality of War?

To understand why Afghanistan veterans unashamedly described their motivation as self-realisation, we must also recognise that they have a different relationship to war and violence than many civilians and anthropologists. To illustrate this, consider how interviewees described soldiering as an ordinary job comparable to other professions dealing with matters of death and violence, such as doctors, firefighters, police or emergency workers. Like me, you might be troubled by these comparisons or interpret them as efforts to make soldiers’ lust for warfare morally acceptable and palatable. After all, doctors and firefighters heal and rescue people, while soldiers are trained to injure and kill.

However, the soldiers I interviewed do not think of themselves or experience their profession in these terms. This is partly because killing and injuring are not all they do as soldiers in war. For instance, in Afghanistan, interviewees safeguarded and patrolled roads and checkpoints, trained and mentored Afghan police and security forces, and many recalled episodes where they assisted Afghan civilians or humanitarian projects. Moreover, interviewees portrayed killing and injuring as a last resort and often reiterated the widespread and sanitising image of Norwegian soldiers as exceptionally well behaved and restrictive with violence.71 Yet, more fundamentally, the Afghanistan veterans I interviewed did not consider injuring or killing enemy soldiers as morally problematic or wrong. They also expressed frustration with “civilian attitudes to violence,” which they believed exceptionalised soldiering and had an unrealistic and naïve relationship to warfare and democracy. As Johanne reflected:

Of course, you can criticise soldiers for wanting to experience combat, but if you are a doctor, you do not merely want to treat blisters; you also want to have sick or injured patients. Everyone understands that doctors want to perform their trade. However, if you are a soldier, you are not supposed to say that you want to experience the essence of your profession (oppleve yrket fullt ut). Because people consider it wrong to use violence. Violence is not accepted in society, at least not in our society. That [attitude] frustrates me because using violence can be the right thing to do in some situations (…) If we put aside the question of whether it was right for us to be in Afghanistan, I think it is fine that soldiers want to be there when things happen. What is not acceptable is to seek out combat situations if this means violating your mandate and putting other lives in danger for no reason.

As illustrated by this quote, the soldiers and veterans I interviewed are what Mattingly would describe as moral and evaluating subjects72 who care deeply about the rules of war and their own conduct as professional soldiers. However, they only consider self-realisation as a problematic motivation if it pushes soldiers to violate their mandate or rules of engagement. As current or former professional soldiers, they further insist upon the necessity and appropriateness of using violence to protect or further national interests.

These attitudes to violence and soldiering reflect cultural beliefs and practices within the Norwegian Army. While Norwegian military leaders often describe soldiers as humanitarian actors in public, the army does not train their soldiers to be non-violent peacemakers. Instead, their ideal soldier is a skilled warrior trained to use force and aggression at the right time and place while showing respect to civilians and enemies alike. Moreover, the Norwegian Army clearly considers self-realisation an acceptable motivation for soldiers participating in expeditionary warfare. This is evident from Norwegian military recruitment campaigns from the 1950s to the present, which offer a good mix of appeals to patriotism and humanitarianism and promises of adventure, self-investment and growth. In a particularly memorable campaign, Afghanistan was depicted as an adventurous alternative for Norwegian youths otherwise stuck in a standardised and conventional life.73 Hence, besides challenging representations of Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan as humanitarian or national heroes, I suggest that the self-realising soldiers in my study express a different morality of war cultivated within the Norwegian Army. According to this morality, warfare is neither exceptional nor pathological (as the anthropological value orientation suggests) but natural and sometimes desirable and useful. Moreover, wars are not necessarily experienced as noble but tragic and destructive (as western moralities of war propose) but can be a privileged opportunity for self-realisation and growth. Lastly, an important part of Afghanistan veterans’ self-understanding is that they were apolitical tools of the state. Because of this, they also insisted on their right to put aside the question of whether it was right for them to be in Afghanistan. “It is the politicians who decide where we go and how long we stay,” they repeated whenever I asked them to reflect on their moral responsibility.74 This delineation of soldierly responsibility is integral to their morality of war and helps them preserve their own innocence.

Concluding Reflections

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 also gave birth to the figure of the “humanitarian soldier,” which has influenced western soldiers’ narratives and self-understanding. However, as I have discussed in this article, my interlocutors’ decision to join—and in many cases return to—the war in Afghanistan had little to do with their moral commitments to Afghan civilians or an abstract humanity. Nor were they primarily motivated by national pride and loyalty or a desire for economic security or mobility. Conversely, what emerged from my interviews is the figure of a self-realising soldier initially motivated by the promise of adventure, thrill and self-discovery (including testing themselves in combat) and later by a strong desire to return to the “war bubble” and grow as professional soldiers and individuals.

This figure should not be misconstrued as a purely individualistic character who does not care or feel responsible for their fellow soldiers and unit. Conversely, most interviewees spoke of the powerful bonds and obligations they felt to their brothers and sisters in arms. As suggested, several interviewees were also strongly invested in the culture and development of their unit, thus seeking self-realisation within their community of soldiers.75 Nevertheless, their motivations were mostly framed as an individual pursuit.

At first glance, it is easy to view my interlocutors’ emphasis on self-realisation as an expression of the disciplinary power of contemporary neoliberalism.76 Indeed, the figure of the self-realising soldier is closely associated with the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous and entrepreneurial citizen always looking for a way to invest in themselves.77 Moreover, it is striking that soldiers’ emphasis on self-realisation and growth echoes military recruitment campaigns and histories published on the Norwegian Army’s website.

However, ideas of war as revelatory or transformative are not new.78 As Pedersen argues, we should also be careful not to portray soldiers as “somehow seduced into military and war” by military recruitment discourses or the “celebration of violence and warriorhood in military-industrial-media-entertainment networks.”79 In this article, I have followed Pedersen’s example and taken soldiers “seriously” as self-driven and reflective human beings—mediated but not duped by cultural and institutional narratives. More specifically, I have interpreted their self-realisation discourse in two ways. Firstly, I have analysed these statements as confessional speech acts, which constitute the interviewees as realistic and sincere vis-à-vis “naïve” civilians far from the battlefield and “deceptive” politicians who are ultimately responsible. Secondly, I have interpreted them as expressions of a different and more “positive” morality of war, which I have argued fits uneasily with western moralities of war and the anthropological value orientation.

Certainly, my interviewees’ morality of war is more complex, varied and contradictory than what I have space to consider here. This is also the case with “western moralities” and “the anthropological value orientation,” which in this article have served as heuristic devices to identify tensions and differences. Moreover, the extent to which soldiers’ and civilians’ moralities of war differ will vary across time and space and depending on the type of war and interests at stake. However, these complexities should not prevent us from identifying alternative moralities and debating their causes and implications.

To conclude, I will briefly consider two questions the Afghanistan veterans I interviewed did not much ponder. Firstly, what are the moral and political implications of depicting Afghanistan as an arena for soldierly adventure and growth? Arguably, the effects of this representation are ambiguous. On the one hand, soldiers’ representations of Afghanistan as a place of interest and growth challenges orientalist representations of Afghanistan as a place of destruction and scarcity. In emphasising their lust for and experience of war and combat, interviewees also challenged the legitimising figure of the humanitarian soldier and exposed the violence of the state.

On the other hand, depicting Afghanistan as an arena for adventure and self-fulfilment reinforces the colonial image of the country as a playground for western powers. Like the portrayal of Afghanistan after the western forces’ exit as a site of ruptured progress and loss, rendering Afghanistan this way also speaks to what Daulatzai and Ghumkhor describe as the narcissism at the heart of western imperialism.80 More specifically, soldiers’ focus on self-realisation exposes a broader Norwegian and western refusal to attend to Afghanistan as a place that has been continuously disrupted81 and brutalised82 by foreign powers.

Secondly, is it a problem that soldiers seek self-realisation in war? This is both an ethical question of whether soldiers’ motivations are morally relevant and an empirical question of whether and how their motivations influence their actions. Regarding the latter, some of the military personnel I spoke with suggested that we cannot trust that self-realising soldiers are willing to sacrifice themselves for their country. However, I think this concern loses sight of the context. Unlike a potential future Russian invasion, the soldiers and veterans I interviewed did not experience Afghanistan as an existential war in which they had a personal and emotional stake. To paraphrase the earlier quote from Johanne, it was a war for which many Norwegian soldiers did not even want to lose their big toe. According to Foucault, those who listen to confessions have the power to judge.83 So, should we judge soldiers who seek self-realisation in distant and brutal wars? Or is it true, as Huntington argues, that the military mind must be understood and judged according to professional military standards only?84 Pace Huntington, I believe we can responsibilise soldiers by asking if it is right that they participate in a foreign and failing war to realise themselves. This question is particularly pertinent in a place such as Norway, where citizens have relatively high socio-economic mobility, and soldiers have opportunities to choose other career paths both inside and outside the army. However, more importantly, we should scale up the responsibility and ask, is it right that politicians send them? Moreover, is it ethical for national militaries to appeal to adventure and self-fulfilment? Arguably, this conceals soldiers’ core function and the uncomfortable fact that, in a national and existential war, they will ultimately be considered disposable.85 Finally, soldiers might cultivate different moralities but are also reflections of the society of which they are a part. Hence, what does it say about the Norwegian society that men and women went to fight in Afghanistan to realise themselves?


The author acknowledges support from the warfun project funded by the European Research Council (erc). Grant agreement 101001106.

Anthropology in Conflict. A Commentary on Heidi Mogstad’s “The Self-Realising Soldier: Post-Heroic Reflections from Norwegian Afghanistan Veterans”

Mogstad’s paper challenges prevailing humanitarian representations of Western soldiers in post-9/11 wars, showing them to be self-realising individuals seeking combat, adventure and personal development in distant conflicts. Part of the larger project warfun,86 her research on Norwegian Afghanistan veterans aims to reconceptualise warfare by investigating “the plurality of experiences and emotional articulations that can be easily neglected by […] normative approaches.”87 Mogstad is acutely aware not only of popular perceptions shaping citizens’ views of soldiers, but also of anti-military beliefs and values that have historically led anthropologists to depict soldiers either in apolitical terms or through a “condemnatory critical” perspective, as I have termed it elsewhere.88 Unlike the nuanced critical stance essential to sound scientific research, condemnatory critical research tends to categorically denounce military phenomena. To illustrate, the few anthropologists who have ventured into the study of soldiers are often careful to distinguish between anthropology “for the military” and “of the military,”89 labelling the military solely as “the source of so much suffering in the world today.”90 Consequently, soldiers have expressed frustration with “misguided academics” who criticise “the conduct of operations from the safety of their universities.”91

Mogstad intentionally pursues an alternative approach. She adopts what I have dubbed an “empathetically critical approach.”92 In this commentary, I focus on the implications of (not) adopting such an approach, one that embodies the traditional anthropological combination of “emic” and “etic” perspectives, which I therefore consider the core and duty of anthropological work. I will unabashedly draw on my own work multiple times in this commentary—a liberty I take because of the substantial overlaps between my research and Mogstad’s, which led to my invitation to this commentary. Of course, my commentary may well say more about my own positionality than hers. So, as I take an empathetically critical approach to Mogstad’s work in this commentary, I invite her to reciprocate this approach in her response.

Emic and Etic, Empathy and Criticism

Mogstad investigates the reasons behind Norwegian soldiers describing their motivation for fighting in Afghanistan as a pursuit of self-realisation when speaking to her, while publicly, they commonly assert their commitment to protecting humanitarian values, a stance also conveyed to researchers in previous studies. She adeptly situates her inquiry in the dynamics of civilian-military (mis)understanding, observing that while civilians often fail to understand, or intentionally ignore, soldiers’ genuine motivations for engaging in combat, soldiers often reciprocate by stereotyping civilians as naive.

Mogstad’s explicitly addresses her own positionality in the methods section, contemplating whether her scholarly commitment to reject “the destructive and inhumane forces of war” implies “that we have smuggled our own morality” into the analysis. By analysing soldiers’ accounts as speech acts resembling the Foucauldian confession, she found a thoughtful balance between uncritically accepting and a priori disputing these accounts.

I deeply appreciate the approach and analysis presented by Mogstad. At the same time, I am compelled to delve deeper. For instance, I question her assertion that the anthropological perspective is solely rooted in Western war aversion and a scholarly critical stance towards state power. Would it not be pertinent to acknowledge that most anthropologists are left-wing, an orientation not necessarily intrinsic to the discipline but rather part of a specific social bubble? In line with this, while admiring the intelligent reflections with which Mogstad’s analysis unfolds, I wonder whether the full potential of the empathetically critical approach has been extracted. In this context, it should also be noted that observations similar to Mogstad’s regarding soldiers’ motivations and interactions with civilians have already been documented in various contexts, including the US, Danish, Dutch, and others.93 Therefore, I would say, it is time to have such observations not merely as outcomes but as a starting point, building on them for a more profound exploration of how people tasked with violence relate to war and combat. The notion of soldiers as an exotic tribe, rooted in old-fashioned anthropological views of cultures, ought to be discarded. Instead, approaching soldiers as fellow human beings promises a sharper understanding of the plurality and complexity of their experiences and narratives. To illustrate what I mean by this, let me explore several potential aspects of plurality and complexity relevant to Mogstad’s study, drawing on insights from my own research among Dutch soldiers.

Additional Complexities

Both the accounts shared by Dutch soldiers and the societal context of a self-proclaimed peace nation bear a striking resemblance to the Norwegian context.94 Despite idealistic frames of recent military operations by the Dutch political leadership, such as “making a substantial contribution to safety” or “helping reconstruct the region,” Dutch soldiers express far lower, more self-oriented expectations, such as “putting my training into practice” or “doing my job under pressure.”95 Similarly, just as Norwegian soldiers likened their deployment to Afghanistan to the “World Cup finals” and “the Olympics,” Dutch soldiers consistently spoke of the “Champions League.” At the same time, even those soldiers who denied having altruistic motives distinguished themselves from murderers and mercenaries, and stressed that soldiers are “humans, not robots.”96 Just as Norwegian soldiers compared their profession to that of surgeons and firefighters, Dutch soldiers drew parallels with civilian occupations. While emphasising their commitment to their roles “for myself” and “for my buddies,” none viewed themselves as people who “would do just anything for money.” As one soldier stated, “I just like what I do, but I wouldn’t intervene in a country if it didn’t make sense. I’ve got my principles.”97

First, despite conducting ethnographic research among soldiers since 2010, I did not perceive a clear change in their expressed motivations over the years, contrary to Mogstad’s suggestion. Like Mogstad, I observed a clear distinction between soldiers’ public speech acts and their private accounts. However, I have come to the conclusion that for many soldiers, a variety of altruistic motivations and self-centred motivations are true simultaneously. The emphasis on each in their accounts often seems to depend on the context and the dialogue, as well as the interlocutor’s prioritisation of statements. As Mogstad observes, positive war sentiments may coexist with negative and even traumatic deployment experiences, and soldiers may seek combat while simultaneously likening themselves to surgeons or firefighters, and rejecting images of killing machines, mercenaries and robots. This confluence of positive and negative emotions reveals war as an existentially important but also complicated experience, and soldiers’ insistence on right comparisons shows that they explicitly position their profession as morally significant. While certainly not opposed to the use of force, they demand it to occur within a justifiable framework. I think we can acknowledge such moral complexity as it is presented to us. This complexity, it seems, encompasses a range of ideals, both large and small, as well as moral and non-moral motivations, which is a diversity seen in most professions. Therefore, I would be inclined to accept soldiers’ invitation to examine their jobs not just as strange but also as simple as that—a job. Much like the roles of surgeons, firefighters, butchers, undertakers, or sex workers, soldiers’ work might be considered physically, emotionally, and morally challenging, even labelled as “dirty work,” but nevertheless a job.98

Second, I would like to extend Mogstad’s analysis that soldiers’ rejection of humanitarian discourse stems from a distrust of grand idealism, which they deem incompatible with the harsh realities of war they have experienced “in the flesh.” Agreeing with this conclusion, I believe there is more to consider. Soldiers not only position themselves in contrast to political and civilian illusions due to their war experiences, but also learn early in their careers to be sceptical of humanitarian discourse for their own and others’ well-being. As Mogstad writes, some bluntly told her, “You do not want idealistic soldiers on the frontline,” when she admitted that she found the idea of seeking self-realisation in war uncomfortable. It would be insightful to emphasise the implications of this further. Many soldiers I spoke to, stressed the dangers of overly idealistic expectations. For instance, one soldier stated, “When a new guy comes in and says ‘I want to help the local population,’ we immediately say, ‘Fucker, you’d better not think like that, you’ll come back broken.’”99 This attitude, echoed by others, suggests that soldiers learn to get rid of ideals of saving people as dangerous illusions already during basic training. Beyond personal beliefs, then, soldiers’ pragmatic attitude can be viewed as a preventive coping mechanism for self-protection.

Discomfort and Reflective Dialogue with the Military

To be sure, Mogstad effectively fulfils the aim of her research. While recognising how soldiers may be influenced by cultural and institutional narratives, she approaches them as reflective individuals with agency. The rapport she has established with them is notable and commendable, especially given her relative newness to the field of military experiences. It enabled her to adopt a nuanced approach, diverging from the prevailing tendency in anthropology to categorise soldiers in simplistic binary terms as either villains or victims. Her writing exudes anthropological empathy, showcasing how empathy can enrich rather than hinder critical analysis.

Building on these strengths, I believe it would be worthwhile to further explore aspects of complexity and plurality in soldiers’ experiences and accounts, and their interactions with civilians. For instance, while Mogstad’s analysis commendably moves beyond the simplistic dichotomy of war as either “destructive and inhumane forces” or pleasurable “lust,” traces of this dichotomy still persist. Some of this may stem from her persistent discomfort with the notion of feeling positive about combat. It might be interesting to investigate further the dynamics between researchers and respondents, for instance through the concepts of transference and countertransference, psychoanalytical notions that have also been applied in scientific research. In research contexts, transference refers to the respondent’s feelings and reactions toward the researcher, while countertransference describes the researcher’s feelings and reactions toward the respondent and their transference.100 I found the tool useful to avoid both uncritically absorbing soldiers’ perspectives and being overly critical out of fear of anthropological inadequacy. More importantly, it has helped me and my team to view the interactions between myself and respondents as data, offering insight into civil-military relations.101

To reiterate, Mogstad indeed offers thoughtful emic observations. Also, she raises well-argued etic questions such as “is it right that they participate in a foreign and failing war to realise themselves?” As an anthropologist teaching at a military academy, I have found integrating such questions into soldiers’ education immensely valuable, fostering critical introspection and dialogue. In my experience, soldiers are receptive to such (self-)critical questioning. And anthropologists, rather than conducting anthropology either “for the military” or “of the military,” can make important contributions by engaging in such reflective dialogue with the military.

The Clandestine Thrill of Modern Nordic Colonial Soldering. A Commentary on Heidi Mogstad’s “The Self-Realising Soldier: Post-Heroic Reflections from Norwegian Afghanistan Veterans”

“Experience. No money can buy it” apprises a 2010 Finnish Armed Forces recruitment poster. By adventurous slogans and visuals of young armed soldiers playing sports and patrolling in an Afghanistan-like landscape, the campaign aims to encourage Finnish recruits to join military crisis management operations. The campaign material suggests that service in overseas military operations—at the time primarily the isaf operation in Afghanistan—offers an opportunity for extreme adventure that cannot be acquired in a functioning, safe and well-organised Nordic society. In addition to the adventurous extreme experience, the campaign revolves around the economic benefits of international service as well as gaining good assets for the demands of professional life, such as language skills and international experience.102

During the period of the multinational military operation(s) in Afghanistan (2001–2021), the public legitimising narratives more or less revolved around humanitarian justifications, cosmopolitan moral responsibility to stabilise the area, promotion of democracy and good governance, human rights, gender rights as well as schooling of girls. The public discourse and military narratives also helped creating the figure of the humanitarian soldier, an embodiment of the international humanitarian efforts in global crisis zones.103 Therefore, it is noteworthy how the recruitment material—majorly targeted to address twenty-something male population104—speaks a language vastly different from official narratives justifying the operation.

It was more than ten years ago when I bumped into this recruitment campaign and wrote about the revealing gap between the official public humanitarian narratives vis-à-vis the brisk and adventurous descriptions used to appeal to potential soldiers.105 Now, when reading Mogstad’s engaging article, I came to think of the campaign again. The article examines the motivations of Norwegian Afghanistan veterans mainly based on interviews conducted after the end of the international military presence in Afghanistan (2021). It addresses the very same gap between the official (public) narratives of the Afghan operation and the personal motivations of the Nordic soldiers serving in the country, which I detected a decade ago.

As Mogstad brings forth, previous research has often found that the official narratives pierced by humane and cosmopolitan spirits are echoed by the soldiers who served in these operations. She observes that the timing of the research is important. While the military operation was on-going, international Afghanistan veterans might have felt a need to portray themselves in the idealised figure of the “humanitarian soldier” complying with the public narrative, originating from official legitimisation and military strategic justifications of the operations.106

However, already in 2010—and regardless of the dominant story of the Western presence in Afghanistan—only 4,17 per cent of recruited Finnish military crisis management/peacekeeping personnel named helping people in the operational area as their motivation. Conversely, gaining professional experience was named by 36,46 per cent, salary by about 20 per cent, and the challenge of the task by nearly 10 per cent.107 Mogstad’s interviews with Norwegian veterans—conducted a decade later, after the end of the operation and the restoration of the Taliban rule in 2021—unveiled analogous clandestine motivations for joining the operation. Her interviewees—quite aberrantly from the official narrative—blatantly mention their desire for combat and for experiencing a “real war” and openly talked about their “selfish” and individual motivations of self-betterment and personal advantages brought about by waging war in foreign lands.

This finding (coupled with the Finnish statistical information and recruitment narratives) raises a question: Have we really listened to the (Nordic) soldiers serving in foreign operations? Or has the official mantra of humane operations and moral yet armed presence of Nordic “peace nations” in global crisis zones blurred our view of the reality of the operations, and of the realities of modern soldering? Mogstad’s starting point is to “take the soldiers seriously.” In other words, to acknowledge soldiers as self-driven human beings with capabilities of reflecting, and then actually listen to what they (want to) say. This is what the article excellently does—and thus, brings forth new information and raises important questions regarding the reasons why we (as researchers, politicians and citizens) have not listened these clandestine, candid voices of soldiers.

While the surrounding society at large has turned a deaf ear to the candid motivations of soldiers, the military has always listened. Military organisations know how to appeal to young, mostly male soldiers pondering whether to enlist to go on a mission to a war in a “faraway land.” Militaries know how to speak the language of soldiers and utilise the narratives of excitement, adventure, thrill, self-fulfilment, and benefit—as the Finnish recruitment campaign illustrates—to attract them. The individual adventurous, even selfish, yet nowadays seldomly outspoken, motivations of individual soldiers for serving at faraway war theatres are age old, if not eternal. Nevertheless, the (Nordic?) silence on the eternal allure of war (for the soldier) is undoubtedly telling of our societies and military taboos.

Mogstad depicts individual action-seeking soldering as “post-heroic.” As I read it, the article also points to the disillusionment caused by humanitarian and cosmopolitan, altruistic heroism fostered in strategic communication narratives and public and political speeches about the military intervention in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, I dare to argue that, when faced with death, the ethos and aspiration of self-fulfilments and adventure are often seen as heroic. In militaristic mindset and individualist soldier discourses, heroes are not just those who save children or defend their own homes, but also—and perhaps precisely—the ones who take risks, enjoy the action, adventure and ultimate settings offered only by war.

Then, might it be that in contemporary Nordic societies and cultures vowing in the name of human rights, equality and the value of life, we simply do not dare to acknowledge the allure of war, even if it has been lying blatantly before our eyes? For many soldiers serving in global battlefields, going to war might never have been about caring for the vulnerable or fighting for a more humane world. The article suggests it might be more about soldiers’ willingness to wage war for its allure and radiance, and for their professional benefit.

Mogstad very convincingly reveals the eternal essence of soldering, which we often seem to disregard. The radiance of the mortal and dangerous experiences, and the involvement of Nordic military organisations and societies in cruel and costly, globally divisive militarised mindsets and systems, are politically inconvenient and disturbing to many. Consistently with previous research, Mogstad explains how the military strategic communication narratives of post-9/11 Western interventionist wars were/are ultimately designed to sell distant wars to taxpaying citizens of democratic states. The timing of her study is also significant here: the current past tense of the war in Afghanistan marks a significant alteration in how things are framed and named, and perhaps also genuinely perceived by the veterans themselves. When the operation in Afghanistan was still on-going, keeping up the narrative of humanitarian soldering made it possible for the soldiers to justify in acceptable terms their participation in the adventurous, thrilling, faraway war. Candid discussions on the individual motivations of soldiers, would have made it rather difficult to maintain political and public support for the military operation in a Nordic democratic system. This unveils how widescale critical discussion on the Nordic (European) participation in the Afghan war is still necessary.

Another significant theme that the article meritoriously discusses is the colonial mindset and context of modern Nordic soldering. This is, for instance, illustrated through the issue of traveling. As mentioned above, the Finnish recruits and recruitment material highlighted the attraction of seeing the world and acquiring international skills and experience from global battlefields. Likewise, for the Norwegian veterans, going to a faraway crisis area to experience a “real war” and acquiring professional skills and expertise were central motivations. However, neither the colonial undertone of the Afghan operation nor the voluntary (professional) participation in faraway (colonial) conflicts is acknowledged. The fact that the war did not pose an immediate existential threat to soldiers’ families and society also enabled narratives of personal self-fulfilment, excitement and adventure.

This global disparity of privilege is brought forth by a Norwegian soldier stating that it was “not worth risking one’s big toe” for the war in Afghanistan. Global injustice, inequality and the mindset of colonial soldering are blatantly manifested here: the misery and inescapable insecurity of others offer the more privileged inhabitants of this world extreme vacation-like experiences and professional skills to take home. Living in a warring state or conflict-ridden area or defending one’s own country when forced to are significantly different experiences, which produce different forms of soldering, compared to going on a mission to a faraway land, returning home and carrying on with one’s career and secure life.

Self-Realisation through Resistance? A Commentary on Heidi Mogstad’s “The Self-Realising Soldier: Post-Heroic Reflections from Norwegian Afghanistan Veterans”

I found myself wondering a lot about agency as I read this article. And power. One of the most striking realisations I have had during my reflections of my own military service after six years in the US Army National Guard, is how serving in the military necessitates a loss of self, of agency, of power. I felt what I can only describe as a sense of pride in reading this article. I feel proud of the veterans who volunteered to go to war as an act of agentic self-service and then who went even further as to embody freedom through confessional speech acts by speaking their truths in these interviews. I feel proud of the author, the ethnographer, who embodied critical self-reflection and open-mindedness, and created a dialogic container in which the veterans were given space to narrate and make meaning of their lived experiences of war, and by and through doing so, were able to constitute the self. I see this as a reclamation.

I served in the United States Military, and I am now a scholar of the emerging academic discipline of Veteran Studies. My own subjective positionality and lived experiences of military service, and all the work I have done in veteran spaces since ending my time in service in 2014, all inform how I read and interpret this article. I, of course, compared these experiences of Norwegian Afghanistan Veterans to what I know about the US Military Veteran experience. I was struck by some differences, but largely, I found myself smiling and nodding with a sentiment of, “yes, of course” throughout reading this article.

I published a book in 2022, Rethinking Reintegration and Veteran Identity: A New Consciousness,108 in which I wrote extensively about the experience of becoming conditioned to be a service member. Individuality is quite literally socialised and trained out of you as you undergo assimilation into military service. Though of course, we all maintain a sense of self during our time in service, largely, we survive, function, and thrive in military culture through self-sacrifice—through embodiment of the total and collectivist nature of the military institution. The very nature of every military everywhere is to protect, defend, fight. All service members are trained in combat readiness. It is conditioned into the programming of “soldiering” that the pinnacle of this identity is to experience combat. The idea of self-realising as a service member through experiencing combat simply cannot be separated from the institutional context; this is the quintessential military experience.

Further, experiencing combat as a service member is not only about putting into practice everything you train for (like how the trained surgeon wants to perform surgery). There is a hierarchy embedded in the cultural foundation of military institutions—those who experience combat enjoy a level of cultural institutional respect and admiration among peers and even have access to tangible benefits resulting from combat experience (such as promotion opportunities). As I explain in the “Model of Veteran Identity Hierarchy” published in my book, loss of life during combat is the apex point of Veteran identity (the “gold star” Veteran) but fighting in and surviving direct combat during war is a close second.

Thus, I suggest that this notion of self-realisation through desiring and experiencing combat is not really about the self—it is about an assimilated self culturally positioned within the institutional context of the military. To be clear, this is not to say the desire to experience combat is not legitimate, but we must understand the larger situational context here—there is no “self” within the hegemonic, collectivist, and total nature of the military institution. I wonder, would these soldiers have a desire to self-realise through experiencing combat if the military had not conditioned this very desire into them? I would venture to say anyone who has served in any military would understand this sentiment—of course there is an internal call to prove yourself, to test what you have trained for, to see if you have what it takes. Would that internal desire exist had I not undergone Basic Combat Training and assimilated into military culture? I cannot answer that definitively, but likely not. The finding in this article that these veterans experienced self-realisation through combat experience does not surprise me one bit. What does surprise me, however, is the way they distinctly oppose and resist the claims that they are motivated by humanitarian reasons.

Before elaborating on this resistance to humanitarianism, I want to first speak briefly to what I notice as a powerful intersection of storytelling, the ethnographic approach, and the emergence of the veterans’ narratives as confessional speech acts in this piece. As previously mentioned, I deeply appreciated the researcher’s approach to ethnographic inquiry in this article. In my own scholarly work within Veteran Studies over the past decade, I have adopted a “research with, not on, veterans” approach, which blends participatory, ethnographic, and community-driven methods to veteran-centric research with the intention of centering the veteran voice. Veterans do not often get opportunities to tell our stories in unfiltered, witnessed, meaningful ways. And when we do, it is cathartic and healing.

The author noted how veterans liked the angle of this project and were grateful for the interest in their positive experiences. I suspect they also liked the container—the metaphorical confessional booth, in which they were given the opportunity to constitute their selves as agentic, self-realising individuals who are not mere instruments of the state. I want to point out and name the power of the ethnographic approach in creating the space in which this confessing was able to occur. The veterans were given a space to tell their stories, and in doing so, they were given an opportunity to practice agency, to situate their own individuality, and most importantly, to experience a reclamation of self. This is particularly relevant given the discursive context surrounding Norway’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

I was surprised to learn about how the political leaders and media have framed the war in Afghanistan and positioned Norwegian involvement as solely humanitarian. The intentional avoidance of the word “war” was bewildering to me. I could not help but to compare this to my own experience as a US Soldier training for the War on Terrorism (though I was never deployed to Afghanistan). In all my military experiences, there was never any sugarcoating that this was a war. On the contrary, I remember distinct training tactics that included dehumanizing and desensitisation of the general Middle Eastern population (i.e., training with simulations to practice shooting at women in hijabs who were carrying bombs). I remember how concerning it felt to me to train in that way. I remember it felt oppositional to humanitarianism. There is much to unpack in these contradictory national approaches to the framing of the war, and of course speak to each nation’s vestment and relationship to the war. But for the purposes of the commentary on this article, what impacted me most in reading this piece was seeing how these Norwegian veterans reclaimed a sense of self through situating themselves as seekers of war combat in what appears to be direct contrast and intentional defiance to the national narratives of humanitarianism.

What struck me the most was how the Norwegian veterans claimed to be unaffected and indifferent to the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. The American veteran community was outraged and experienced communal grief when this happened. If the Norwegian veterans were not affected, then it must be true that their motivations for being there were not to make a difference in the Afghan nation or culture. The Norwegian soldiers were there for themselves. But because the sense of self is diminished in military culture, what is underlying this assertion of using this theatre of war for self-realisation? Could it be more about resisting the false narrative of their government? Could the drive to experience combat in this war be more about their desire to prove their political leaders wrong than it was to simply put into practice the profession of soldiering? I wonder if resistance is at the heart of their experiences of self-realisation.

To reiterate, one must sacrifice a sense of self to belong to a military institution. I would argue this is universal, despite what military it is. But to belong to a military that negates the very root of why it exists in the name of keeping face as a humanitarian superpower yet sends its members into direct combat while refusing to acknowledge the reality of war, feels antithetical. Thus, I think given the meta-narratives surrounding this war in Norwegian politics and media, I believe the self-realisation of these Veterans was just as much about resistance to the system as it was individual growth and actualisation. I believe they self-realised themselves as soldiers by claiming their desire to experience combat in the war their government signed up to be involved in but refused to call a war. The power here is in the resistance. They are not mere agents of the state, they are not militarised selves who have been conditioned to the point of no longer having a sovereign selfhood. Their lived experience of soldiering negates the story their political leaders tell. And by owning their desires for the essence of that soldiering (experiencing combat in war), they reclaim agency—they self-realise.

Response to Comments

I appreciate the careful reading and generous and thought-provoking comments on my article by Tine Molendijk, Noora Kotilainen and Jeni Hunniecutt. As I read their commentaries on March 8th, the International Women’s Day, I could not help thinking about the fact that we are four women writing authoritatively about soldiering and warfare. As feminist scholars like Cynthia Enloe have argued, the military and war are typically constructed as masculine spaces, leaving female soldiers (and researchers) out of place.109 According to Ferguson, the male character of war also remains a given within anthropology, although ethnographic cases point to military transformations, contextual variations and complexities.110 The fact that we are four women contributing to this forum thus seems significant, even if feminist scholars might (rightfully?) criticise us for not saying much about gender or sexuality. Nevertheless, I am deeply thankful to the three scholars commenting on my article. Since their comments push in different directions, I will respond to them separately, starting with Molendijk’s insightful observations. Regretfully, I only recently learned about Molendijk’s work, which I otherwise would have engaged with more thoroughly in the article. In this short response, I will focus on Molendijk’s intriguing provocation that the “full potential” of my “empathetically critical approach” has not been extracted. If I understand her comment correctly, she argues that I have not been entirely successful in suspending my normative and political judgments about war and soldiering. Accordingly, traces of the civilian/military dichotomy and what Molendjik calls “the condemnatory approach” remain in my analysis. The example she mentions is my persistent discomfort with the notion of combat as something positive and pleasurable. She also encourages me to accept my interviewees’ invitation to examine soldiering as an “ordinary job.” Notably, Molendijk suggests that anthropologists are not only influenced by disciplinary norms and values but also “left-wing orientations” cultivated and reinforced within the “specific social bubbles” we inhabit. In other words, she indicates that anthropologists’ social and professional lifeworld might prevent us from recognising soldiers as “fellow human beings” and people with “normal jobs.” “The notion of soldiers as an exotic tribe, rooted in old-fashioned anthropological views of cultures, ought to be discarded,” she argues. My response to these assertions is that Molendijk is partially right. The discipline of anthropology has always been preoccupied with the exotic, conceived as “what lies outside ordinary experience.”111 As executors of state violence, soldiers have also been exposed to anthropological othering “at the limits of empathy.”112 Yet, does my analysis of Norwegian Afghanistan veterans reflect a failure to de-exoticize soldiering or empathise fully?

As mentioned in the article, I entered this research with no personal experience from the military and fairly anti-militarist sentiments. While Norway introduced gender-neutral conscription in 2015, military service was optional for women when I graduated from high school seven years earlier, and I had zero interest in volunteering. Unlike some of my female friends, I did not even show up for the non-binding information and assessment session and would probably have been a conscientious objector if military service was compulsory at my time. I also have what Molendijk describes as “left-wing orientations” to most social and political issues, which in Norway usually entails being critical of western and US-led military interventions. My personal views on the war in Afghanistan are further affected by my previous fieldwork, which included many conversations and friendships with Afghan refugees fleeing in response to the worsening conditions in their country. However, my aversion to war and combat is likely more deep-seated and shaped by my upbringing in a Christian, social-democratic and largely anti-militarist family. As Molendijk proposes, I could have done a better job fleshing this out and reflected more thoroughly on the dynamics between me and my interlocutors. Yet, as I briefly mentioned, my partner works for the Norwegian Armed Forces, and together, we have many friends who work for militaries in different countries. Some also served in Afghanistan and have been important interlocutors and gatekeepers. Hence, I do not view soldiers as members of an “exotic tribe.”

Of course, socialising and being friends with soldiers does not mean that you know and understand them ethnographically. Like Molendijk, I consider empathy key to nuanced and sound ethnographic research. And, perhaps contrary to popular intuition, empathy as a research tool is not merely something one “has”; it needs to be practised and cultivated. To illustrate, I was exposed to and challenged by soldiers and veterans with different norms and attitudes to the military and (western) warfare long before I started this research. However, I would be lying if I said that I always listened carefully to their perspectives and experiences. I was probably more interested in debating contemporary political issues and sharing my own views or stories from refugees fleeing Afghanistan. The setting and form of our conversations might also have foreclosed more intimate and open-minded exchanges.

In contrast, researching and interviewing Afghanistan veterans required me to enter a different mode. As described in the article, I have worked hard to suspend my normative and political views and assumptions about war and soldiering and used empathy as a methodological research tool to gain emic insight and understanding. As someone who has never been in the military or experienced war and combat, I have never pretended that I can fully understand these experiences. Nor do I expect the Afghanistan veterans I interviewed to support all my interpretations and analyses. However, as with my earlier research with Norwegian aid workers and volunteers, I hoped my interlocutors would recognise what I wrote about them. When sharing my observations and findings with interviewees and other military personnel, it thus pleased me to see that they often nodded or smiled (like Hunniecutt) or verbally confirmed that they recognised what I was describing. In cases where we disagreed about the analysis, this often led to productive dialogue and discussions. As mentioned in the article, the soldiers and veterans in my study generally believed that research should be “objective” and respected my “outsider view” of them. If I just accepted or reiterated what they said, it would not bring any added value, they argued.

As Molendijk indicates, our minor disagreements might be revealing of our different positionalities. While we both agree that good ethnographic research requires a combination of empathy and critique, I wonder if our differences boil down to where we experience our empathy to end. We might also disagree about what a useful critique of the military entail. However, more fundamentally, we have both experienced soldiers to be thoughtful and (self-)critical interlocutors. I wholeheartedly agree with Molendijk that engaging in reflexive dialogues with soldiers and the military is important. Doing so not only enables anthropologists to understand military lifeworlds better but also allows soldiers to push back and challenge our cultural representations and theories. Like Molendijk, I also believe it is important to recognise plurality and complexities in soldiers’ narratives. I have done this partly by emphasising soldiers’ shifting motivations and feelings about warfare. It is interesting that Molendijk did not observe such shifts in her research, since we otherwise have many similar findings. However, I want to caution against being too preoccupied with identifying nuances and complexities. Doing so can be important to “humanise” soldiers, but it also risks erasing meaningful differences. As my article acknowledges, soldiers’ subjectivities are more varied, complicated and contingent than I had space to consider. However, these complexities should not prevent us from identifying alternative moralities of war and debating their causes and consequences.

In their comments, Kotilainen and Hunniecutt also point to differences between emic and etic perspectives. Kotilainen intriguingly proposes that the soldiers might not consider themselves post-heroic since “in militaristic mindset and individualist soldier discourses, heroes are not just those who save children or defend their own homes, but also—and perhaps precisely—the ones who take risks, enjoy the action, adventure and ultimate settings offered only by war.” Similarly, Hunniecutt describes a value-based hierarchy embedded in the cultural foundation of military institutions. More specifically, she argues that soldiers who have experienced combat enjoy higher respect and admiration among peers and often get tangible benefits from this, such as promotion opportunities. In my research with Norwegian soldiers and veterans, I detected similar dynamics. For instance, having been to Afghanistan (and having experienced combat in particular) gave soldiers authority and brought them respect from colleagues. Often, having these experiences was also described as helpful or even necessary for soldiers’ career development. The award of “bravery medals” to Norwegian soldiers who have demonstrated personal courage or leadership skills further points to a strong link between combat and heroism.

However, when my interlocutors reflected on their experiences and contributions in Afghanistan years later, most refused to describe themselves or their colleagues as heroes. Some also challenged the link between combat and heroism, for instance, by questioning whether soldiers they said had “actively sought out combat situations” deserved to be awarded medals. These retrospective reflections illustrate the importance of integrating temporality into our analysis of soldiers. They also highlight contestations within the Armed Forces, which is not a monolithic institution where everyone agrees on what is good and honourable. As Kotilainen observes, it is also important to recognise the self-realising soldiers as influenced by their mode of warfare. While the Norwegian Afghanistan veterans I interviewed resisted heroic narratives and labels, this does not mean they consider all forms of soldering unheroic. In fact, many depicted Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russia in heroic terms, and I imagine they would consider defending Norway against an existential attack heroic, too. While it is important to recognise soldiers as reflexive and self-critical actors, it is further relevant to question how far their self-critique goes. As Kotilainen recognised, the soldiers in my study did not acknowledge the colonial undertone of the mission in Afghanistan, nor did they problematise their lust to explore a distant warzone. Arguably this is telling of broader Nordic narratives of exceptionalism and innocence. In this regard, I also found Kotilainen’s point on the Nordic silence (or failure to listen to soldiers’ truths about the war) relevant. I wonder if this can be conceptualised as a form of “strategic ignorance” or “bad faith” protecting Nordic countries’ public self-image as nations of peace and compassion.113

Before I conclude, I will briefly comment on Hunniecutt’s thought-provoking suggestion that “the notion of self-realisation through desiring and experiencing combat is not really about the self—it is about an assimilated self culturally positioned within the institutional context of the military.”

Emphasising how “individuality is quite literally socialised and trained out of you as you undergo assimilation into military service,” Hunniecutt argues that “there is no ‘self’ within the hegemonic, collectivist, and total nature of the military institution.” She further asks, “would these soldiers have a desire to self-realise through experiencing combat if the military had not conditioned this very desire into them?” Her question and arguments reminded me of a discussion I had with the Norwegian theologist and military chaplain Gudmund Waaler, who has written an excellent book about Norwegian and Swedish Afghanistan veterans’ relationship to danger and violence.114 While Waaler and I share many similar findings, he believed I overemphasised soldiers’ focus on the self. He argued that Norwegian soldiers sought and experienced self-realisation within their professional community and became more collectivist the longer they stayed in the military. I have no reason to question this and would like to reiterate that the figure of the self-realising soldier should not be misconstrued as a purely individualistic character who does not care or feel responsible for their fellow soldiers and unit. Nevertheless, most of the Afghanistan veterans I interviewed focused on their individual motivations and gains when narrating their experiences. More importantly, however, neither Waaler nor I have found that Norwegian military training erodes soldiers’ sense of self or individuality. Based on my limited knowledge of the US military, there seem to be many differences between Norwegian and American military culture, which might be part of the explanation. However, I suspect that the main reason Norwegian soldiers could focus so heavily on self-realisation was that Norway was not perceived to be under immediate threat or attack. Moreoever, while Norway participated in distant wars and military operations, the Army did not treat my interlocutors as disposable or demanded them to behave in self-effacing and self-sacrificing ways. The ongoing war in Ukraine reminds us that this can change. According to Norwegian military leaders, the war “in our neighbourhood” has also heightened conscripted soldiers’ sense of gravity. Finally, I wish to challenge Hunniecut’s suggestion that soldiers’ desires to self-realise through experiencing combat are only or mainly conditioned by the military. As suggested, the Norwegian Army clearly finds soldiers’ desire to experience combat acceptable and regularly appeals to personal development and adventure in their recruitment campaigns. However, judging by my interviews with Norwegian Afghanistan veterans, their lust to experience war and combat usually emerged prior to their military socialisation. Moreover, soldiers’ motivations and worldviews are not only shaped by the military but also by the broader society they are part of. Accordingly, I believe my interlocutors' desires to seek self-realisation in distant war zones can teach us something about contemporary Norwegian society and perhaps Nordic welfare states more broadly. To paraphrase Kotilainen, the question is whether we want to explore these lessons and probe their personal and societal implications.


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I discuss this in greater detail in other articles. See also: Høiback, H. (2016). Forsvaret: Et Kritisk Blikk Fra Innsiden [The Norwegian Armed Forces: A Critical Insider View]. Cappelen Damm; Mæland, B. (2004); cf. Hammer, A. (2010).


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See Høiback, H. (2016) for further discussion on the army’s recruitment campaigns and strategies.


For similar sentiments, see MacLeish, T. (2019). How to Feel About War: On Soldier Psyches, Military Biopolitics, and American Empire. BioSocieties, 14(2): 274–299 (p. 284).


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