Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Healing (War is Hell, part 6)

I rarely write to authors, but I communicated with David J. Morris twice via e-mail.

I had gone to Powell's to hear him speak about his book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That was very interesting, and I read his book shortly after, but also it ended up correlating with two other books that I read that same year (2015).

First it was Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, a collection of works edited by Deborah Christie. There were surprising correlations between how we talk about zombies and how we talk about PTSD, perhaps less surprising upon learning about the traumatized survivors of Hiroshima - the hibakusha - dazedly walking away from the blast area, holding their arms out to not agitate burn wounds. Morris had not read that collection, but he was familiar with some of the work.

Then, shortly after finishing his book, I read Code Talkers: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code-Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez. 

One of the interesting things about PTSD from The Evil Hours was that how it presents changed through different influences. Before film and television, visual flashbacks did not seem to happen. So when reading about the experiences Nez had with PTSD, he had seen movies before, but it was rare, and his symptoms were much more like the ones that you find with people who served in the Civil War (even though PTSD did not exist as a diagnosis then). I was interested in that, and in what worked for Nez. Twice he started having bad spells of being haunted by his war experiences, and twice his community joined in rituals to help him.

For that e-mail, Morris wrote back that if he had finished the book a little later there would have been a chapter on that, because he learned of it later. For those exchanges, I have to find David Morris very smart and with interests I support, though we might not be quite in synch. I should probably try and read more of his work. Beyond that, reading about Nez sent me back to Grossman:

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

No, the reason that there were more deaths in retreat than during regular combat was not because the war conditions are so poor (not that it helps), but because there is an inherent human reluctance to shooting someone facing you, that apparently gets easier when their backs are turned.

(The movie that led me to the book, The Act of Killing, was also helpful, because you see that these men needed to find ways to deal with killing too. Lots of drugs was part of the answer.)

This was a very disappointing piece of human psychology. At the time I ended up being more disappointed that after laying out the case for why non-fatal interactions are preferred, and how violating this is hard on people so successfully reintegrating them into society after combat requires help from society, Grossman then went on to focus on finding drills that helped soldiers get over their resistance to killing (I can see the necessity, but concerning). He also created a weird allegory about how soldiers and police are sheepdogs, not wolves or sheep, and they need to be this way and that's cool but if civilians are violent that's video games. He has since raised additional concerns where he seems to glorify police killings of civilians.

So, perhaps we need to be careful how much we trust his information, but before he went off the rails, he had written something about welcoming troops home with a retreat that their families attended, giving them an in between state on their way back to society. There was relaxation, and support available, and it helped.

I could not ignore the aspects of community in that retreat, nor the community aspects to the ceremonies that helped Chester Nez.

PTSD is fairly specific, and not every soldier gets it. Having to learn to kill, however, is very common for them. Doing so requires them to circumvent a part of their humanity, and generally involves a dehumanization of the enemy. Again, it's understandable, it may even be necessary, but then making the switch back is hard, and there should be more help for that. That we traditionally send young people, who have not fully established their adult identities yet, is something that may make it worse.

I'm not saying that I have any answers here. Mainly, I have empathy, and a realization that it's important, but also a belief that we can do better.

We talk about supporting our troops, but that often seems to be used more as a way to rebuke reasonable dissent. I hope that we can think about what support should mean, and that it should be helpful, acknowledging specific needs with clarity and compassion.

Okay, I want that for people who aren't troops too, but I will accept a multitude of good starting places.

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