PTSD is in the news a lot today. Veterans returning from the various fronts of the "War on Terror" are overwhelming VA clinics. Among those for whom help is unavailable or ineffective are those who are committing suicide and murder in record numbers. This is only the most visible sign of the toll that endless war is taking not only on vets and their families but on society as a whole.
Dr. Edward Tick argues in War and the Soul that the effects of war on the warrior are in large part determined by the society from which veterans come and to which they return, utterly transformed by the horror of war. Having killed, seen their comrades killed and maimed and learning of the effects of war on the civilian populations they were told they were sent to protect changes them in ways that American society does not encourage them to talk about. This has profound effects on the soul of the warrior and on the soul of American society.
Modern wars are fought for corporate Empire. They have been waged almost continuously in the name of peace, security and freedom since the end of WWII. This has affected the collective American psyche to the point where few question foreign intervention, a dramatic change from the past. This is a symptom of the pathological response to living in a state of endless war. Average Americans and their society have become casualties of the war on terror, though few seem to recognize it. Just as repeated deployments increase rates of PTSD, so have the effects of endless war caused civilians to suffer many of the same symptoms of combat-induced psychological and spiritual dysfunction. Somewhere along the way, America has lost its soul. Dr Tick's book suggests a way that it might regain it.
In healthy societies throughout history, becoming a warrior only begins with a trial by fire. The next stage is always a welcoming back into that society, where the veteran's willingness to sacrifice for the good of the group and to uphold its ideals is publicly acknowledged and honored. Following this, the warrior is helped to re-integrate into society and to become a productive citizen. Having learned to respect the value of life, veterans in such societies have traditionally sought to preserve them by working for their betterment and opposing wars that did not serve the best interests of society.
In modern America, we mistrust everything our government does until it decides to send our children to war. Politicians and the corporate media tell us that the greatest military power in history is threatened by stateless terrorists and by leaders of nations who refuse to submit to the will of the Anglo-American corporate Empire. When the call to war comes out, like Abraham we dutifully offer our children as sacrifices to the God of war.
Americans tell themselves that they are fighting not only for our freedom but from those suffering under the grip of tyrants. They remain blind to the fact that today's targets are often their former allies. More destructive to the national soul, they ignore the death and destruction of civilian populations we are told we are "liberating" when this unwelcome news is allowed to slip through the filter of the corporate media. Nothing unites a divided American society like a "good" war. Just as the damage done to a warrior's soul comes from the necessity to kill in war, so has the damage to the American soul come from the acceptance of the idea that we must destroy nations to save them and to preserve an American way of life so morally corrupt that it can be defended only by force.
Soldiers come to view life as a struggle for survival. When they are raised in and return to a society that treats life so casually, it is no surprise that they find it difficult to change the mindset that others are either allies or enemies. Indoctrinated to hate "the other," they often come to regard fellow citizens as enemies when they disagree. The result is a society in a perpetual state of civil war between self-identified liberals and conservatives. This leaves Americans too weak and divided to see that they have the power to heal their nation only by living up to the lofty ideals of liberty and justice for all in America and around the world. A People so divided cannot rule itself. The economic elite that sent our youth to war has fostered division in order to more easily assume control. The prospect of democracy will remain but a dream until Americans unite to make it a reality. Veterans cannot "come home" when the nation they thought they were defending does not exist.
The returning soldier is hyper-alert, sensing danger in unexpected noises or shifting shadows. Similarly, as the concentration of Americans is increasingly diverted to trying to make a living in an ever more hostile economic system, they are easily startled and frightened. The trauma of the attacks on 9/11 left the majority of Americans jumping at sudden noises in the corporate media that shift their attention to shadowy threats they are conditioned to accept as an excuse for war. Those who control their economic destiny use war to keep them distracted from seeing that one cost of endless war is its role in the destruction of the economy. Stuck in the belief that war is inevitable, Americans fail to question foreign interventions despite the obvious fact that their economic costs become unsustainable. The perceived necessity of an endless "war" on terror also obscures the fact that its real purpose is expanding and defending corporate Empire.
In their fear and anger, Americans are easily persuaded to strike out at any perceived enemies that the corporate media and politicians identify. In continuing to regard their fellow citizens and those in faraway nations as "the enemy," they remain divided and easy prey of the Puppetmasters who have seized control of their government. Americans must awaken to the fact that they too will suffer under a corporate-controlled new world order where governments effectively become subsidiaries of multinational corporations. If they fail to rise up and join the international resistance, they will ultimately suffer the same fate as the surviving citizens of other targeted nations such as Iraq, Libya and Syria: control by an economic elite with loyalty to no nation or its people.
Unreasoning anger fueled by all-consuming anxiety leads to isolation and fear of confrontation by combat veterans and American civilians alike. The costs of war to the veteran are easily seen by those who know the signs of PTSD. The effects of war on society are less readily identified. In a nation in which there is an almost universal belief that war is inevitable, it is hard to imagine how that society might look if its members did not accept without question that self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as veterans must learn to recognize the effects of trauma in order to heal, so must the members of the society that sent them to war come to understand the fact that their numb acceptance of the inevitability of war is the cause of much of their national malaise.
The trauma of war causes combat veterans to see danger in normal aspects if their environment. The smell of diesel, the sound of a slamming door, a flash of light seen in the reflection of the sun by a high window all bring back in a rush the sense of fear and panic they experienced when these normal experiences were paired with real danger in war. These reactions can cause such intense anxiety that veterans are unable to think rationally about what they are responding to. Only when they can talk about these experiences with others who understand their cause can the veteran learn to cope with them, allowing them to calm themselves and gradually learn how to prevent these responses.
After more than a decade of wars with no seeming end, Americans have also been conditioned to experience fear of what they once perceived as normal. Those who fight for justice for the poor and middle class are seen as agents of socialism by people who have forgotten the real meaning of traditional conservatism. Those who have accepted that predatory capitalism is not only normal but right see dissidents as enemies of freedom, prepared to seize by force if necessary all that they have come to hold dear.
Such people often see their guns as the only means to protect themselves from the class warfare they have been told represents a socialist assault on the American way of life. They do not see that they are part of the same class that is being assaulted by those who started the class war by attacking average citizens. The real soul of America is the idea that democracy is only possible the blessings of liberty and justice are shared by all. This will not happen until Americans can talk out their differences over how best to achieve that ideal. The civil war between those who hold two opposing visions of what the essential character of America will end when citizens of the US see each other as comrades in the battle to take back America for the People.
In the aftermath of so much war, we have learned much about how to treat the individual who has suffered the invisible wounds of PTSD. Is it possible to achieve the same result with a society torn by the trauma of wars for corporate Empire from Vietnam to Iraq and beyond? I believe that we can, once we realize that the common enemy of freedom is not our fellow citizens or those of other nations but those who would profit from war. Only then can Americans hope to recover from the effects of the trauma of war on society.
Once they have completed the warrior's path and healed themselves from their personal PTSD, veterans can play an important role in the healing of America. Every veteran has taken an oath to defend the constitution and the people of the United States. This oath was not to defend a government corrupted by the selfish, or only one side of an American people engaged in a civil war. Americans have been driven into a blind rage at their own neighbors, having been taught that they enemies they have been taught to hate war profiteers who sent them and their comrades into danger to further their ambition of an all-powerful corporate Empire. Veterans have been trained to maintain unit cohesiveness against the enemy and not to let personal differences divide them. If they understand that the enemy is those who would use the power of government to further the interests of those who sent them to war and not the interest of the citizenry they were told they were defending, they can form the nucleus of a united citizenry. There is one military value that is of supreme importance to fighting for the cause of freedom; the determination to leave no comrade behind.
Veterans who have overcome the fear of their own anger and the guilt they may feel for their actions in war can complete their journey to becoming warriors by joining the battle for freedom and democracy that is worldwide but whose central front is in the United States. Once they realize that as members of the US military they were unknowingly enlisted into the service of the soulless men and women whose blind ambition would enslave us all in a permanent fascist New World Order, they can cleanse their souls by joining the struggle to create the nation for which they believed they were fighting. They can continue to serve their country by fighting for the ideals for which they risked their lives so that all of us might be free.