The message in the dream was so strong that it woke me – hard to ignore a realization that feels heavy in my body. I am struck by the sophisticated and yet paradoxically simplistic efforts to link trauma among soldiers to personal or biological vulnerabilities that produce distress from scenes of human suffering and devastation or experiences of betrayal and institutional neglect. A focus on individual susceptibility. I believe that an alternative social-relational understanding of military trauma could lead us in an entirely different direction. It accounts for the importance of military identity and values in understanding trauma. Namely, that once a soldier has a direct experience of failures to meet codes and values or physical deterioration, he is faced with fundamental questions of what it was all about. She is often forced to face the hollowness of pride and specialness and the limits of comradeship. He may realize that nobody else wants to hear from him and the simple and painful truth is that he often has to keep quiet or he has to go.
Concerns about unit morale and operational priorities means that there can no space for ‘negative nellies’; there can be no conversation about the impacts of contradictions, dilemmas, and other realities of military life itself which may be injurious to its members. Training, perfectionistic standards amid silence and emotional suppression can erode one’s mental stamina especially when faced with the realities of deployments or domestic catastrophes. The 110% ones and the ‘go to’ guys seem to suffer the biggest fall from grace; pride is often replaced with disheartenment and bitterness.
These members can witness or experience things which are intimately personal and yet unseen by the person standing next to them. Their worlds can be immediately altered – they take a hit and the mirrors shatter. Values, beliefs, and expectations can come crashing down in an instant and they realize that they stand alone in an empty room. I have heard many times that in these moments of unwelcome clarity - which can happen in the blink of an eye - everything suddenly changes. It is this unchangeable moment, that soldiers try to ignore or deny, that can create the basis of trauma. And, in many cases these situations contain some unsolvable moral dilemma. They try to think their way through what is essentially an emotionally-centred problem – shame or outrage - that has no outlet. These men and women remain stuck with fragmented memories and bodily felt reminders of these internal struggles.
What if the negative ones, the ones who move to the fringes were treated as the valued social conscience of the military? I wonder about the need for safe places where these other voices and experiences can be heard and respected by others in uniform? We might come to a better place of taking care of each other and not leave it to the civilian world to try and figure out. Instead of occupying our efforts exclusively on individual vulnerabilities, we might be better off by also uprooting the basic nature of military training and culture and the inherent contradictions, including the downside of stoicism and individual secrecy. After all, we developed as a highly social species out of necessity – we are cannot survive physically or mentally on our own.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.