In this post,author and veteran Nelson Lowhim reflects on PTSD and the discussions that happen, and don’t happen, between veterans and civilians.
I recently went to a dramatic reading of the Sophocles play Ajax, hosted by Theater of War, a group that uses theater to explore PTSD, trauma, and other difficult topics. In the production, a warrior named Ajax vies for the armor of his recently killed friend, Achilles. Ajax would win the armor in a contest of martial deeds, but the officers above him add an oratory contest which he loses to Odysseus. Ajax then flies into a fit of rage and almost kills the officers who robbed him of what he thought he deserved. However, Athena makes him mad and he slaughters sheep instead. Completely shamed, Ajax falls on his sword.
Though the play is about a soldier, this particular reading was directed at the medical field and its growing problems with suicide and depression, instead of veterans of war. Questions followed the reading, specifically questions about how the PTSD in the play manifests itself as violence, and about the thoughts that invade Ajax’s mind. The reading also demonstrated the concept of “moral injury,” the way traumas like war can damage one’s conscience and cause guilt and shame.
Unfortunately, too many audience members began their statements with the qualifier “I could never understand what a soldier has been through”—or something to that effect—before diving into the challenges of the medical field. It was funny. Here we were at the reading of an ancient mythology, and meanwhile we were experiencing the real time development of another myth. I knew this prologue to be a version of “Thank you for your service,” or TYFYS. I thought it to be both a little too filled with revere and, like TYFYS, something that doesn’t feel like much more than a knee-jerk response. And even if, unlike TYFYS, I felt some measure of pride upon hearing it, as if I were truly one of the chosen few on a pedestal, I understood it for what it was: another example of the rift between soldiers and civilians.
Even the host of the question section called out the overuse of the qualifier. He paraphrased Phil Klay’s point that it was a symptom of a bereft imagination to say that about anyone. I agree. Sure, deploying to Iraq is a unique experience, but so too is a doctor’s work in an understaffed hospital. Traumatic experiences can’t be “understood” but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try to reach across such rifts. Reaching out to others without exactly similar experiences is what makes us human and makes the journey on this earth worthwhile.
Placing veterans on a pedestal perpetuates the rift and decreases the communication between them and civilians, which leads to a lack of meaningful discussion about war between both parties. And that’s a real problem we face today. This isn’t to say that I am one to pour forth about my time in Iraq, but, again, this silence speaks to a certain amount of complicity on the part of both civilians and veterans. Because in this rift there’s also a silence between both parties about the policies that create the wars which lead to more veterans. The cycle of war, of forever wars, needs this silence which stems from the mythology of the war and the veteran. And if we want to turn it around, we will have to start a dialogue—a dialogue without pedestals or assumptions, just humans talking.
Writer, artist and veteran, Nelson Lowhim was born in Tanzania of Indian and Seychelles and Euro background. He lived in India for a year. At age 10 he moved to the States (lived all over) and currently lives in Seattle with his wife.
We can seize something of the experience of psychological trauma. If we’re unlucky, we even seize the trauma.. I was sent to work on reconstruction projects in Rwanda following the Genocide of 1994 and worked for 10 years on economic development projects in the civil war countries of Central Africa, an experience that changed and marked me. As long as there is empathy there is suffering. I worked with a Spanish doctor whose trauma resulted from 4 years of volunteer work patching mine victims back together in Angola. It’s odd how, as Americans, we talk so much about our very much deserving veterans, and so little about civilians casualties. While I haven’t been to Iraq or Afghanistan, I’ve met with unassisted internally displaced people and visited refugee camps in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo and it ain’t so pretty. I learned long ago that no one wants to hear me talk about the reality of genocide and civil war, rape, and human capacity for cruelty. The psychological situation for front-line humanitarian workers can be even more intense. Look at a memoir such as, Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson’s ‘Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures)”.