“I wasted my youth and my health fighting for imperial ambitions of greedy psychopaths,
all the time believing I was protecting my beloved country.” (quote from an ex soldier)
War trauma and working with war veterans is not one of my specialties. However, from time to time an ex-soldier finds me and asks for help. Such sessions are intense and challenge my skills and knowledge. Very few coaches, counselors or therapists have first hand experience of war and it can be difficult for us to fully understand the frame of mind that comes with war trauma. War veterans are aware of this, which is often a reason to avoid seeking help.
Working with childhood trauma is relatively easy. We can re-frame such events from a perspective of our adult experience. We can recognize that, as young children, we created detrimental beliefs because we misunderstood the behavior and emotional states of people around us, because we wrongly perceived ourselves as sources of problems and because we saw everything in “black and white” terms. It’s usually not difficult to change our childish perspectives, except that it can take some time and effort to connect to younger, more instinctive and emotional parts of our brains.
War trauma is different. Soldiers are fully adults, with specific beliefs, ideas and sense of identity. Adults know much more about the world and people’s behavior. Adults have certain defense mechanisms firmly in place. When war strips it all away from us, it can be difficult to find something to replace it.
In the words of a client: “War is simple. You either shoot somebody, or get shot. You enter a survival mode, in which things are black or white. Any other person is either with you, or an enemy. The first person you kill is important to you. You think about what kind of person he was, about his life, his family. The others become a blur. It can be shocking to discover what you are able to do, what you can turn into.”
When you feel that you could die at any moment, your brain reverts into a very instinctive, primitive way of functioning. The “survival mode” my client mentioned means that your rational brain switches off and animal instincts take over. Frightened babies might spend time in this state. When our rational filters disappear, trauma is more likely to influence the parts of the brain that are unlikely to or very difficult to change. Children, at least, eventually receive some comfort and support in all but the most toxic families. There may be no such comfort for a soldier – worse, coming back to your normal state of mind might mean becoming horribly aware of what happened in the meantime.
Often there are stories behind the decisions to join a war. A war veteran client grew up without his parents and with insufficient grandparents’ guidance and support. The army gave him structure and guidance he was longing for – firm hierarchy, clear tasks and clear responsibilities, as well as power and sense of security in the form of firearms. It was shocking for him to become aware of how his childhood needs influenced his decisions. Some people join cults for similar reasons – if they hope that in such a cult they could receive or earn whatever was missing in their families.
When war trauma merges with pre-existing childhood trauma, it might become very difficult to disentangle them. Sometimes, army training is purposefully designed to be traumatic for new recruits, so that they would create strong group bonds and enter survival mode in which they can be taught to perceive certain groups of people as “targets”.
A client of mine once suggested that I write about loss of innocence and what does it mean. I was hesitant to write about it, because the feeling of lost innocence can be very individual and difficult to define. However, I think of war as the ultimate experience of lost innocence – loss of ideals and hopes, loss of faith in humanity, in ultimate purpose of life, in your own self. All of the previous beliefs, ideals and faith might pale compared to horrible realities of war. No reasoning might be enough to bring them back. Trauma is often a result of relationship disappointments – war trauma shatters your relationship with the world and life itself.
Some ex-soldiers might start fearing their own selves. Others might give up themselves and any hope that they might be truly loved for who they are. Children feel this way sometimes, but a child’s intense feelings are usually a result of overreaction and inexperience. This is not the case with soldiers. They might feel they can only be fully understood and accepted by those who experienced the same, while avoiding or neglecting other relationships. In this way, they can keep themselves emotionally stuck in the past.
You can never become your old self again. Superficial advice such as “Think positively”, “Forgive yourself”, or “Have faith” is not only ignorant, but downright arrogant. Guilt is always somewhere in the background. You cannot escape the fact that, for whatever reason, you killed people; people like you, who wanted to live, who most likely believed they were fighting for a just cause… and perhaps they were right. Perhaps you killed innocent people or children. While in survival mode, you can push guilt out of your mind. Once war is over, there’s not much left to distract you from it. You might seek distractions – alcohol, drugs and other addictions. Guilt is often a taboo-topic; your government might give you medals and praise you for killing people. Guilt which you cannot talk about becomes an even bigger burden.
I don’t have complete answers. Some ex-soldiers might need recovering parts of themselves that might be stuck in traumatic experiences. The question is, what do you do next? When you have your sense of self back, what do you do with it? What can you believe in?
Action in the external world might be more helpful than trying to convince yourself to think and feel differently. Find out what makes you feel that you are helping the world to become a better place. The war veteran I mentioned earlier volunteers in a certain rescue service, for example. This won’t bring back lost lives – but improving or saving other lives can help you find some balance, perhaps atonement. Perhaps you can start seeing yourself as a new, different person and, by extension, feel that all humanity can learn and evolve.