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Pitch tip: Don’t wear dangling earrings during an important presentation. At least: not when you wear a headset. One of those microphones that is attached next to your mouth. Because dancing earrings tap against the headset, which provides an extremely irritating sound with every move you make.

For a good (i.e. bad) example, look & listen to this TEDxTalk for a few seconds. As soon as Gina Martin enters the stage, you hear a ticking sound that only stops when she completely stands still for a moment. For me, it distracts from the contents. Does it have that effect on you too?

foto-tedxede-2016-kleinreesink-detail-angela-bloemsaatEr is ook een Nederlandse vertaling van dit blog.

The TEDxEde instruction was simple: the talk needs to be by heart, without any use of notes. Sounds easy, but during the taping of the teaser video it already proved to be quite difficult. It took me four weeks to be able to fluently speak a one minute text.  As you can imagine, the prospect of having to memorize the speech itself (about 13 minutes in total) within two months felt rather unattainable.

As an assistant professor, I have always taught my students to try to understand the subject matter instead of learning things by heart: it was not possible to pass my tests by memorizing only. And now, for the first time in my life, I myself have to learn something by heart. Awful.

I asked several actors I know how they do it. “Just follow the text logically” was one of many unworkable tips. Apparently, for them it’s a skill they have, but they can’t explain. “Competent, but unaware” it’s called in teaching lingo.

So I started doing it on military discipline. First daily repeating small parts. Then joining the fragments together. And when the whole speech was more or less memorized, practising it twice daily in full. In the car, during cooking, or in front of the computer.

It worked: I could dream the talk on the day itself and in the stress of a TEDx talk, that felt really comfortable. But it had been quite an extensive investment of time.

In my talk* I ask for recognition of soldiers. In this blog, I would like to offer it to actors. What a difficult profession you have! Respect!

*The video of the TEDx talk will follow within ‘a couple of weeks’. Hereby already the text of my talk:

War Changes Soldiers

In 2006, I went to Afghanistan. I was NATO’s head of air transport planning for the ISAF mission, the International Security Assistance Force. When I came back, I had been transformed. But not in a very good way. I was rather angry and irritated, suddenly spending a fortune on speeding tickets. I was startled by loud noises and slept very lightly. I remember one night waking up to what sounded like shooting outside. It was a frightening experience: I couldn’t find my bullet proof vest, or my weapon, or even my clothes. And then there was this hairy, male hand that was touching me saying ‘everything is all right, don’t worry’. It took me quite some time to realize that it was my husband comforting me, in my own bed, safe in the Netherlands.

Maybe you’re asking yourself, why is she so touchy? Well, let me take you back to Afghanistan. I was working in the capital Kabul. The mission headquarters. Kabul is at 1800 meters altitude, but it is still in a valley. It is surrounded by high mountains with perennial snow. The Himalayas. Every night we went to bed, we knew that the enemy, whomever that may be, might choose this night to go up to those mountains and fire rocket propelled grenades at our camp. Again. So every night I went to bed, I would put my clothes out like this. Boots still in the trousers, bullet proof vest next to it so I could leave for the bunker within 20 seconds after the alarm went off. A state of high alert that didn’t magically wear off the moment I returned to the Netherlands.

It wasn’t unexpected. In mission preparation we were told that when we came back, we might feel weird, and you’d have to readjust. But I wondered: How many others have this? And nobody I asked at the time could tell me. Even though we get extensively debriefed after a mission. We didn’t even have a name for this returning-home-blues.

The broader question whether war affect soldiers is very important if you consider how many lives it concerns. Just to the war in Afghanistan in the last 15 years hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been deployed. So as a scientist, specialized in military memoirs, I was intrigued.

I started reading up on what other researchers had to say about it. Immediately, Paul Fussell’s name popped up. In 1975, Fussell wrote a classic study about the experiences of World War One soldiers. These young men went into the war with the romantic notion that war would transform them into real men, even heroes. Instead, this war turned out to be awful: life in the trenches, the fear of poison gas, the constant nearness of death & destruction. This war turned men into victims, instead of heroes. Fussell concluded that modern, 20th century soldiers write about disillusionment, because of the atrocities of modern warfare. Other researchers agreed with him.

Then in 2008, more than 30 years after Fussell, comes Yuval N. Harari. And Harari disagrees. He says, it is not that these modern wars are so particularly awful. No, what it is, is that modern people, including modern soldiers, expect life to bring them something, that life has to be a series of experiences. And war is the Ultimate Experience . And such an Ultimate Experience CAN lead to disillusionment, (I had high expectations of this experience, and those expectations didn’t come true). But it could also mean, Harari says, right the opposite. These are growth stories: war has turned them from a naive young man or woman into a mature person. Not so much a hero, but someone who has grown for his or her experiences.

So both Harari and Fussell agree that war changes soldiers. They disagree on whether that is an exclusively negative change (Fussell), or can also be a positive one (Harari). But who is right? And if Harari is right, what is the ratio between positive and negative stories? Harari himself doesn’t know.

Now definitely intrigued, I decided to test their claims. Having written a military autobiography about my own experiences in Afghanistan, I decided to study every military Afghanistan memoir I could find and read from five countries: The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and, of course, the Netherlands. 54 in total, published up to 2010.

Based on a categorization by Friedman, I found all sorts of stories. 39% of the books were classical disillusionment stories, 30% of the books were Harari’s growth stories, and 31% completely different stories, like action plots and sentimental stories. More than half of the books had a positive story.

So Harari was right. It is not only disillusionment that soldiers experience when they come back from a war, there are also lots of them who have other experiences, such as experiences of growth.

And what about my symptoms, the returning-home-blues? Could they be found in these books? They looked a bit like PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD was characterized at the time by three things:

  • hyperarousal (like my being scared by loud noises)
  • intrusive re-experiencing (like nightmares and flash-backs)
  • and avoidance & numbing

You need 6 of these symptoms for it to be PTSD. I had only one: hyperarousal. So I did not have PTSD. But of the books I researched, one out of nine was written by soldiers diagnosed with PTSD.

Then I found a scientist, Louise Weibull, who actually had a name for returning home blues: Post Deployment Disorientation. I love that term: you come back: Post, from a Deployment and you feel Disoriented. Even Swedish soldiers who had been on a very peaceful mission, where nothing out of the ordinary happened, say no nightly risk of rocket propelled grenades, even they had it. So I looked through the books for this Post Deployment Disorientation: it looks like a feeling of alienation, but also looked a bit like the PTSD symptoms.

And all these symptoms turned out to be described extensively. British soldiers, like Dutch soldiers are warned about it , writes Doug Beattie:

You are told your mood will change without warning. You will get angry, sad, depressed, resentful and you won’t know why. You might start drinking too much, driving too aggressively, arguing unnecessarily, picking fights for no good reason.

I thought, yeah, that sounds familiar. When I came home I was no longer able to limit myself to driving 100 km/h on motorways. I could sacrifice my life in Afghanistan, but couldn’t drive 120? Hence the speeding tickets.

Dutch infantryman Niels Roelen describes alienation (he writes in third person, and in Dutch, so I’ll give you my translation):

The first few days he was just happy to be home and mainly very tired. Now that mist has slowly dissipated and its hard on him. He doesn’t feel right at home in the Netherlands yet; he is more silent than usual and often seems to have his mind on other things.

And I also found the PTSD-like symptoms in many books. Like my hyperarousal. American infantryman Johnny Rico writes:

The fireworks explode like colourful spiders over the Hawaii beach. And I jump. I lean forward from my chair and tap Ryan on the shoulder, “Holy shit! Did you see that?” “What?” Ryan asks. “Check it out” I say. I wait for the next explosion, and my body jumps lightly.

Or re-experiencing. For American pilot Michael Franzak his nightmares started when he came home:

Worse were the dreams about the hospital. Again I was alone, walking through the ICU looking at the bandaged children lying in the hospital beds, wrapped in gauze, missing arms, legs, eyes. … The wounded children just stared at me, expressionless faces….. I looked around for a nurse, a doctor – someone- but there wasn’t anyone.

A beautiful example of the third PTSD symptom, avoiding & numbing, is given by German paratrooper Robert Eckhold (once again in my translation):

I couldn’t understand why after such a short period of time I wasn’t the same person I was before the deployment, and I withdrew more and more, also because I felt unrecognized. Friendships and my relationship with my partner broke up, as I was no longer interested in maintaining them.

So I was very relieved to see that I was not the only one who experienced Post Deployment Disorientation. In half of the books that not only describe the mission in Afghanistan, but also the home coming, at least one of these symptoms is described. They are very common.

So, by now it should be clear that the conclusion is that war definitely affects soldiers. It can be in a negative way, but definitely also in a positive way.

For me personally: I no longer have any problems. As expected, the Post Deployment Disorientation went away. I can now hear loud noises without feeling startled, and I get no more speeding tickets, though I must confess to two parking tickets, lately.

So I was transformed back again.

But not entirely. As you may have understood by now, books are the art form that I’m in love with. Paintings have never been able to touch me. Until, after my deployment, I saw this painting by Stef Fridael. It shocked me. Like the books of the soldier-authors I have researched, it’s a self-portrait of a soldier who has been to Afghanistan and who has been changed.

Having heard all this, what should you do with this information? Should you have pity on soldiers? Nah. Professional soldiers know that war may change them. So please do not pity us. But do provide us with appreciation of the work we do, providing security and stability in unstable parts of the world, because that is what we crave: your recognition.

Thank you.



I get often asked: will you be writing a new book?  The answer is: yes, I’ve been working on it for the last four years. But it will be a different book than Officier in Afghanistan. Instead of a military autobiography, it will be a book ABOUT military autobiographies: my PhD research.

It is now almost ready. At the moment, the inner doctoral committee (‘de leescommissie’) is reading the manuscript and when they are happy with it, the accompanying promotion ceremony will be held at the Erasmus University Rotterdam on the symbolic date of September 11 at 13:30 hours .

To give you some idea of the exciting results of this research, I would like to share the fifteen most remarkable statistical results. They come from the study of all military Afghanistan memoirs that were published between 2001 and 2010 in five different countries: the US, the UK, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. They answer the three main research questions: who are these soldier-authors, what do they write about and why do they write?


  • On average it takes military authors of immediate memoirs two years before they publish a book after having been deployed, irrespective of whether they publish with a self-publisher or a traditional publisher.
  • In a warrior nation a book is 12 times more likely to be written by a combat soldier than in a non-warrior nation.
  • Independent of country, combat soldiers are nine times more likely to get published by a traditional publisher than their combat support colleagues.
  • Even though the individually deployed soldier is more likely to be a writer than the soldier who is deployed with his own unit, traditional publishers are five times more interested in publishing the stories from people who went with their own unit than from the individually deployed ones.
  • The same goes for professional soldiers, they are almost eight times more likely to get published by a traditional publisher than a reservist


  • Revelatory plots (growth and disenchantment plots together) make up the majority (69%) of Afghanistan memoirs.
  • Working soldiers are nine times more likely to write positive plots than former soldiers.
  • A combat soldier-author is almost four times more likely to write a negative plot than a combat support soldier.
  • Soldier-authors with a traditional publisher are four times more likely to add a truth claim to their books than self-publishers.
  • A large part of all soldier-authors (59%) make some kind of disclaimer as to the content of their book; almost always (in 97% of the cases) about some form of self-censorship for operational security reasons, rarely (12%) for literary reasons.


  • 78% of all soldier-authors feel the need to explicitly explain why they wrote and published their book.
  • A positive plot is five times more likely not to have an explanatory motivation text than a negative plot.
  • Authors of negative plots are five times more likely to voice a desire for change than authors of positive plots.
  • Soldier-authors who write that they themselves have experienced some kind of mental adaptation problem (such as PTSD symptoms or prolonged alienation) are eighteen  times more likely to admit to writing as a form of therapy than people who do not write about these problems.
  • Of all soldier-authors who give self-help motives, 79% is individually deployed, and individually deployed soldiers are almost six times more likely to give self-help motives than soldiers who have been deployed with their own unit. 
Read the entire thesis here.
Listen to and look at the public defense ceremony (15 minutes, in Dutch)

Er is ook een Nederlandse vertaling van dit blog.

Every review is nice to get, but some feel even more special than others. Last week, I got a very special one.

In the acknowledgement of Officier in Afghanistan and in a blog, I have made no secret of my admiration for Robert McKee. He is a writing teacher who can truly be called a guru. Therefore it was wonderful to be recommended in his weekly newsletter:


What Writers are Saying about Robert McKee:

[…] ‘a great read’ is hard work, but can definitely be learned. For me, two books and a course were crucial in this learning process. The course is the famous (or better: infamous) Robert McKee seminar, the Hollywood script doctor. […] In his seminar he teaches a whole life of writing experience in four days.”

“[…] Robert McKee who has taught me during his seminar to use subtext and who is able to clearly express and analyse what makes a really good story. Every time I got stuck and thought: why doesn’t this chapter work, I only had to do a value change analysis to understand what was missing.”


Esmeralda Kleinreesink Author (Officier in Afghanistan)

To visit Esmeralda Kleinreesink’s website (English blogs),

click here

Please note that the book is written in Dutch; an English version should be available eventually; in the meanwhile, you can download sample translations in English for free here

Autographed copies available (Dutch only)


The entire newletter can be read here

Er is ook een Nederlandse vertaling van dit blog.

“I was always last to get a handshake. Uniforms first.” My civilian colleague, a professor, shakes his head. He has just attended a military exercise with a group of cadets.

“That’s what you get when you don’t wear your salary scale on your shoulders,” I say.

“Seems fitting for a former conscripted corporal,” another colleague says.

But despite our sarcastic comments, it’s obviously weird that such a high ranking civilian gets introduced last.

The Mentalist

Later that week I unexpectedly run into the same problem. I am working on a scenario for the American police series The Mentalist. The team from The Mentalist is composed of four agents and a civilian. The civilian is Patrick Jane, the title character. In my script Lisbon, the boss, introduces them all to the new sheriff. The question is: in what order does she do that?

I have no problem classifying the other agents in order of status: first the one who’s been acting chief before, Cho, then his partner Rigsby, next the rookie, Van Pelt. But what to do with Patrick Jane? This is the man who solves every case, but he’s also a civilian and therefore not part of the hierarchical police pecking order.  Should he be mentioned first? Or last? Or at least before Van Pelt, the rookie?

I watch a few episodes looking for a similar introduction. I can’t help smiling when I finally hear Lisbon say: “Meet Cho, Rigsby, Van Pelt and Jane”. So in American police circles it is also ‘uniforms first’.

We are all just like chickens.

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