[Presentation to Academics, Community members, and Veterans on the challenge of re-integrating into civil society: Mount St. Vincent University, 20 April 2016]
How has the community you work with been impacted by war?
It has been said that Canada’s national identity was born on the European battlefields of the First Great War. This history and those heroes are revered within our military institution. When we talk about war; there is generally a view of it as a unitary experience with clearly defined start and finish, winning-losing, and where good and evil are clearly demarcated. But War is our word, it is not their word. Instead, pre-deployment training, brotherhood and heroic deeds during named operations and missions, and post-deployment adjustment form the realities for military personnel. Deployment to a warzone is often the culmination of training over many years; it is focused on tactics, mission objectives, time-limited deployments – it is a fragmented experience focussed on tasks, doing one’s job, battle buddies, and AORs. Even the things that happen in another unit close by are often unknown to them.
Over the past 25 years, our military has deployed to many conflict areas, from Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places. The CAF also deployed to warzones in the 1970s-80s during the so-called Cold War when we were a different military - watchers and guardians tasked with keeping the peace and protecting people.
To understand the impact of serving in armed conflict zones, I think we need to understand aspects of military psyche. Military personnel undergo rigorous training that transforms and unites them under basic values of loyalty, courage, honour and the responsibilities that comes with wearing the maple leaf on one’s shoulder.
Military life also hinges on emotional suppression, compartmentalization, and having an internal shield so that experiences do not overwhelm them. These qualities form an essential skillset to allow them to manage adrenaline, stay focussed, and not freeze in dangerous situations. It allows them to fully commit to one another even in nightmarish realties – the grotesque, indecent, and sometimes inhuman things happening around them. It exposes them to cultural and political realities that have to be ignored even as these things chew into their fundamental beliefs and value systems.
In terms of impact – warzones are a surreal, life altering experience both good and bad. Soldiers describe deployments to a warzone as an ultimate test of training and proving oneself. It centers on rules and ethics, staying focused, missing family, and about reconstituting a new intimate family in faraway places. There are many who see their particular deployment as a positive, life affirming experience – they made a difference or they have better appreciation of life at home. For soldiers who served in places like Rwanda, Somalia or the Balkans; restrictive ROEs meant that they could not help in the ways and to the extent that they were trained to do and expected by the Canadian public. Often, they were forced to be helpless observers to atrocities.
Training and military values meant that they had to bottle up reactions to the terrible things happening around them. They were left in a type of emotional pressure cooker that exhausted many of them. Over 20 years later, we continue to grapple with the after-effects of these places. Our military institution will likely grapple with the after-effects of Afghanistan for many years to come.
For veterans, war is a complex moral testing ground – it is the place where the highest espoused values are met and sometimes fail which can leave them in a moral quagmire. It is the place where inhumanity occurs and at other times where the best of us is enacted through compassion and caring and protecting the innocent.
Upon return home, many of them are disoriented and ‘feel changed’ by a loss of military bonds; their experiences further separate them from civil society. Many resent how average Canadians occupy themselves with trivialities unaware of their efforts to protect us from harsh realities. Their service is invisible and has little meaning back home among the rest of us.
The people I see have personal secrets based in shame/guilt or even outrage with leadership for not being able to do the right thing. They are separated through silence and are skeptical of civil society – they are set apart (reverse culture shock). Veterans end up being a sub-culture onto themselves.
For many, WAR is an incredible source of pride for passing the ultimate test and it also forces them to contend with inevitable failures to help, to assist. It is about the failed promises of specialness (hero to zero) and returning home to mediocrity, isolation, and anonymity.
For those who are medically released because of mental injuries, they are recast as victim heroes who feel broken and discarded by their military family and divorced from civil society. They exist in an interpersonal vacuum. Many of the people I know search to repeat specialness through sacrifice or heroic acts as they contend with profound emptiness and separateness. They live with the loss of bonds forged by combat. These people are held in a nebulas place in general society.
What stories need to be told?
The war narrative is usually left to politicians and official reports. A second narrative in Canada - the medical narrative – reduces war to physical and mental injuries from specific events as a set of symptoms, exposing possible biological weaknesses among some members. These narratives are often sanitized and organized for public consumption that hinge on the mandates of national security and sensitivity of personal information. The stories from soldiers on the ground often reflect the impossibility of holding up espoused military values, moral complexities and contradictions, hidden operational errors, lack of support in the field, and about maintaining silence over events that outraged them and wore them out emotionally. They walk as ghosts among the rest of us.
Their stories, especially among those deemed mentally wounded, are not heard since they are considered to be compromised and hence unreliable witnesses to their own experiences. While their stories need to be witnessed I am not sure if the rest of us are up to the task of listening without judgment:
Whose voices need to be heard?
The prevailing narrative of war is that of aging, stoic WWII veterans ‘the greatest generation’ and images of the Highway of Heroes which creates a seamless story honouring our war dead. But, we have no story for our modern-day mentally-injured veterans. We are not sure what to do about them – we can’t understand why they take their own lives.
This story has been constructed as a medical story about compromised warriors and mental aftermaths like anger, addiction, sleeplessness, depression, or lingering PTSD and a focus on technologies and interventions to resolve mental injury/degradation.
I think veteran stories need to be heard for what they are outside of diagnostic considerations. We need to understand the things they take on mentally or give up of themselves to assume a military identity and fulfill their roles. Stories of bewilderment, disheartenment and the loss of themselves on behalf of the country. Again, I am not sure if we are up to the task of listening because of our own compartmentalization, vested interests, and our anxieties.
In Canada, we seem to hold a polite indifference towards our military. We are not sure about the place of the institution as it relates to our reputation as ‘nice people’. I believe that this unspoken tension and disconnection further alienates veterans – young men and women - from social re-integration. Our media often reduces post-war concerns to governmental contests with veterans over money and supports. We are not sure how to respond to the injured - these failed warriors.
We do not have conversations over the responsibilities of Canadian society to help bring them home mentally. Instead, we leave it to our politicians and federal institutions to manage them. We do not grapple with questions about how young men and women serve to quell our confusion and anxiety over questions about national identity and our role in the world.
The stories of family members, friends, and parents of soldiers need to be included in a full accounting of fundamental changes in their sons and daughters.
The voices of the thousands of counselors and therapists across the country who hold many secrets but are held to confidentiality also need to be heard.
War encompasses a vague notion of protecting Canadians and exerting influence in the world by helping other societies even as geopolitical and economic complexities raise unsettling questions that can not be addressed. Many veterans wonder whether their efforts in faraway places were worth it.
In terms of military veterans, I think we have to face a harsh reality in Canada: Namely, that upwards of one third of the men and women we send to warzones will struggle to come home mentally and some will never be able to make that journey even with well-meaning efforts. There seems to be a fundamental question to be answered: Are they a necessary sacrifice?
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.