Talking About War
By Dr. Arturo Osorio
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
• General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Sherman proved his point during the November 1864 March to the Sea, where his army ravaged the Confederate's heart to teach its people about the consequences of rebellion and secession.
Less than 50 years later, World War I broke out and proved to be a grisly example of the hellishness of war. Technology-enhanced was manufactured, making it easier to kill. Machine guns, rapid-fire artillery, poison gas, and tanks, weapons that could take away life at any time, either in an instant in the best-case scenario, or after agonizing minutes if the soldier was not lucky enough.
Talk about the war? The returning veterans of World War I would never want to do that. The goal of anyone coming home was to forget about what happened and get on with their lives, it was easier said than done.
Why World War I Veterans Did not Want to Talk About Their Experiences
The British Library has an article that describes why returning World War I veterans were reluctant to talk about their experiences. Many of the reasons were universal to all soldiers of all times and nations, and some of them were due to the cultural change of the early 20th century.
The experience of war, not only the constant fear of death or horrendous injury but witnessing friends die and being injured in horrible ways, was so keen that returning soldiers felt that talking about it made the experience too real. Veterans of World War I tended to keep those experiences to themselves helped to make the memories less terrible.
Soldiers believed they were sparing their loved ones the horror of what they experienced by not sharing their experiences. In many cases, language itself was a barrier. No words (at least those were acceptable for the time) existed to impart the details of what a soldier in World War I experienced.
Censorship also played a vital role as soldiers were encouraged to keep their experience and shy away from sharing with their friends and relatives what they had gone through. Letters to home from the front were censored daily to preserve the war effort.
Shell Shock to PTSD
The Australian Army Research Centre notes that the condition we now know as PTSD was well known in ancient times. Ancient people believed that the psychological effects of combat were caused by evil spirits or the ghosts of those fallen in battle. ancient cultures often treated PTSD with religious rituals. The rituals did not always work but at least was the first contact with the condition, and noticeable was not the result of cowardice or malingering.
During the American Civil War, PTSD was called “soldier’s heart,” a term derived from the fact that many veterans of that conflict had an elevated tendency for cardiovascular disease. According to the Smithsonian, Civil War soldiers who exhibited symptoms of PTSD were thought to have physical causes for their conditions or had character flaws.
World War I popularized a whole new term for PTSD: shell shock, so named for the artillery shells used in the war. By 1915, hospitals were flooded with soldiers who seemed to have psychological trauma. At first, some physicians thought the condition was brought on by the concussion caused by artillery bombardment. But then soldiers who had been nowhere near the trenches started reporting it. So, doctors concluded that those suffering from the condition were cowards or were exaggerating to get out of front-line duty.
Shell-shock treatments were often harsh and the most part ineffective. Many turned to substance use disorder as a way to self-medicate.
Considering the official attitudes toward PTSD at the time, World War I soldiers had an extra incentive not to be open about what they had experienced, even when the panic attacks, the periods of catatonia, and the flashbacks occurred.
Soldiers in Subsequent Wars
World War I's veterans had been hesitant to talk about their experiences, sometimes for the same reasons as those who served in what was once called the War to End all Wars.
James Martin Davis, a Vietnam veteran, recently wrote in the Omaha World Herald that while peacetime soldiers can safely tell their stories, the truth is different for soldiers who have been to war. Civilians are not prepared to hear war stories and certainly not in the way a veteran is likely to tell them.
War develops its vocabulary that those who have never experienced it would never fully understand. Soldiers who experience combat have to harden themselves simply to survive with any semblance of sanity. They use the terminology for the enemy, who they must kill, and who wants to kill them, which would seem shocking, politically incorrect, and even racist to the civilian ear. The act of dehumanizing the enemy is a way to steal the soldier to be able to kill. For most people, killing is an unnatural act and has to be learned by soldiers called upon to deal with death and destruction.
The deaths of friends are often cloaked in language that conceals the awful truth of it. “Bought the farm” is one common euphemism. Texas A&M Today relates a study that revealed that even soldiers who do not come back suffering from PTSD have strong feelings around killing another human being, something they are unwilling to talk about.
Getting Soldiers to Open Up About Their Experiences
Fortunately, attitudes about PTSD have changed since World War I. Medical professionals recognize that the condition can afflict the bravest and that no shame is attached to it. PTSD UK notes that the “talking cure” in which a veteran afflicted by the condition talks with a therapist is a good basis for coping.
It is noticeable that the vast majority of combat veterans do not have PTSD and readjust seamlessly to civilian life. The Jefferson Center has some excellent suggestions on how to talk to a veteran and get him or her to open up about combat experiences.
Whether the veteran is someone you meet at a party or work, a best friend, or a spouse newly returned from a combat zone, is not to press them too hard about their experiences. Let them open up about his or her experience at their speed. Do not ask about injuries or PTSD. Ask if he or she is comfortable answering questions.
Above all, thank the veteran for his or her service. They will appreciate the sentiment more than any civilian can know.
- goodreads.com - William T Sherman Quotes
- bl.uk - Combat and the soldier's experience in the First World War
- bl.uk - The Silence After War
- bbc.co.uk - Shell Shock During World War I
- mayoclinic.org - Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
- researchcentre.army.gov.au - How Did Ancient Warriors Deal With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- smithsonianmag.com - Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?
- theconversation.com - What World War I taught us about PTSD
- sunshinebehavioralhealth.com - Contingency Management Helps Veterans Stay Drug-Free
- omaha.com - Midlands Voices: Why Many Combat Veterans Don't Talk About Their Wars
- today.Tamu.edu - 20 Years Of ‘Forever’ Wars Have Left A Toll On US Veterans
- ptsduk.org - The Role of Talking Therapy in PTSD Treatment
- jmch.org - 8 Tips for Communicating with Vets Year Round
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