Out in the Open

Stoic warrior mentality is ill-suited to military service, says corporal

Corporal James Alexander says he joined the military expecting to find emotionless tough guys. Instead, he found vulnerability and compassion — and a new concept of what it means to be a man.
Corporal James Alexander on his Wedding Day in Vancouver. (Courtesy of Corporal James Alexander)

In his early 20s, James Alexander says he was "half-assing" his way through a degree at Simon Fraser University. 

"I felt directionless," he tells guest host Duncan McCue. "Stepping into my role as a young man, I really wanted a sense of momentum to figure things out properly, and my greatest perception of of where discipline could be acquired was the military."

So James joined the Canadian Armed Forces. He's been a reservist with the British Columbia Regiment for 13 years now. But his perception of what it mean to "man up" in the military has evolved over those years.

"At the very beginning, I had this idea that the military was this place for hard guys, stoic, maybe a bit of this Rambo image," he says.

But James found that many of the guys weren't like that at all..

"I don't want to diminish some of the hardships of the military, but some of those friendships that endured and some of the people that are closest to me today are caring, sensitive men who are capable of getting in touch with some of their vulnerabilities, which means being connected to their emotions," he says. 

"And that was a total shift from what I expected going in."

But that's not to say they were all sensitive soldiers.

James continued with school during his time a reservist. He's now a registered clinical counsellor. He encounters guys that tried to hang onto that emotionless warrior ideal. And he sees the effects. 

"I found that there was a bit of a split. There was a group that stayed emotionally disconnected," he says.

These, he says, were the guys who developed problems — with drugs and alcohol, in their relationships, as fathers. Sometimes, the results were even more troubling. 

"There was a soldier who once shared the comment with me that instead of maintaining the warrior mentality, that eventually, if you have to succumb to all your challenges and your problems, well at least there's a 'warrior's solution' … as though there was some honour to ending your life."

The "warrior's solution", to this soldier, was suicide. 

"Certainly, there's an aspect of compartmentalization, and I would never suggest that a soldier wants to be vulnerable or wishes to portray that kind of image, because when it does come down to it, there is some level of cost to be fully emotionally connected and aware if you're over on operations," he says.

A soldier needs to know when to flip that switch on and off, he says. When making the difficult decisions, set your emotions aside and follow your training. But afterward, find a way to reconnect with those vulnerabilities.

And sometimes, your emotions are what make you a good soldier in the first place.

"If I go overseas, and I have no compassion for the people I'm attempting to defend, or even for the best interests of my people back in Canada, then what's the point?" he says. 

"What is it that I'm choosing to defend? I have to have some level of even tenderness and compassion within me. Otherwise, I think it would defeat the purpose."