A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a major problem among veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA government web site explains that “OEF/OIF service members are at risk for death or injury. They may see others hurt or killed. They may have to kill or wound others. They are on alert around the clock. These and other factors can increase their chances of having PTSD or other mental health problems.” The site goes on to say that “Research on OEF/OIF Veterans suggests that 10% to 18% of OEF/OIF troops are likely to have PTSD after they return.” (OEF and OIF are acronyms for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
That’s a lot of veterans. Hundreds of thousands, potentially. Why is this number so high? Is there something uniquely bad or intense about wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? We can point to several factors, to include constant redeployments – four or five were not uncommon – on high-risk and high-stress missions, only to witness regress instead of progress. Add to this the everyday shifts between secure bases and insecure field ops (as with air crews in World War II), direct electronic connections to home (which can prove discomforting rather than reassuring), and transitions from battlefront to homefront that are often too rapid for bodies and minds to adjust. Finally, we’re witnessing better diagnosis (think of the “epidemic” of concussions in the NFL, which is much more about better recognition of the symptoms rather than an explosion in cases). Small wonder there’s almost a pandemic of PTSD cases among the troops.
Are today’s troops not adequately prepared to handle the stresses of war? Were warriors of the past somehow different? A colleague, the classicist Steven Willett, explained that within ancient Greece there’s no direct evidence of warriors suffering from what we today term PTSD (though doubtless men suffered physical and mental anguish in the aftermath of brutal physical combat associated with Greek phalanxes).
In Willett’s words,
The evidence [of PTSD] is nonexistent because their [the Greek’s] emotional attitude to service and death for the state is not ours. One way to appreciate this is to look carefully at the beautiful funeral sculptures set up in the Kerameikos of Athens after the first years of the Peloponnesian War. Dead soldiers stand serenely in the confidence of having done their duty, perhaps with a favorite dog or horse by them, and the parents looking on never betray grief. The emotional ambience is calm, the tears long shed, the family proud in its sorrow. A lot of these funeral sculptures are available on line, but the best are in National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The families and relatives of Spartan soldiers who had died [are] nobly celebrated, while those of the survivors almost mourned. Think of Thermopylae.
It got me thinking anew about America’s current wars, and how these wars – unlike those for the Greeks – are not directly for communal defense. Nor are America’s wars fought by communities, not when 99% of Americans exempt themselves from military service. In Greek society, all able-bodied men believed it to be both duty and honor to wield shield and spear to defend their communities. (Socrates was one of them.) In America today, “support” for the troops often begins and ends with a bumper sticker.
Shared sacrifice for communal ideals: such common purpose doubtless acted as a cushion for the physical and mental blows inflicted in Greek warfare. No matter the era, troops in combat see and experience horrible things, but the trauma is arguably easier to process when blows are cushioned by necessity, and softened by sacrifices shared within tightknit communal settings.
And that’s precisely what’s lacking in the USA today: a sense that our overseas wars are for a communal cause, for honored ideals held in common. (Other than a vague sense of protecting the “homeland” from “terrorists.”) The lack of a strongly held communal cause/purpose for our wars ultimately contributes, I believe, to PTSD rates among our returning veterans. A sense of confusion – why did I suffer – what was it for, intensified by bitterness – my suffering wasn’t worth it – I killed people and saw my buddies killed and it was all for nothing, plagues the troops that our government sends to war ostensibly in our name.
The military historian Sir Michael Howard quotes Carl von Clausewitz on the larger meaning of war. War, Clausewitz wrote, “cannot be divorced from political [communal] life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements [of political purpose and war] are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.”
If we want to lower PTSD rates, the easiest way is to stop sending troops to war, full stop. And the second easiest way is to stop sending troops to pointless wars that are devoid of political or communal sense. Wars that serve no larger communal purpose lack meaning. And where meaning is debased, so too is our troops’ ability to deal with wars in all their horrors.
Copyright 2016 W.J. Astore.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), professor of history, and the author or co-author of three books and numerous articles focusing on military history.