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War and the Soul
Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
By Edward Tick
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2005 Edward Tick
All rights reserved.
WAR, TRAUMA, AND SOUL
Art burst into my psychotherapy office wearing a black leather riding jacket, tight jeans, and high black boots. His hair was cropped like that of a concentration camp inmate. I put out my hand and introduced myself. He stared at it and grunted, "Uh huh!"
He stomped through my office, looking out each window and behind each closed door. Then he moved his chair into a corner from which he could survey the entire room.
"That's better," Art said in a froggy voice. He looked over his shoulder and out the window towards the trees. "Yeah. Maybe I can relax a little here."
I stretched and said, "Well, I'm going to. I hope you can do the same."
He looked at me with wild eyes. "You are? You ain't afraid? You're not gonna scribble notes or nothin'?"
"No, this meeting is just for us to get to know each other."
"Okay, Doc. I'm in bad trouble. I need help."
The Veterans Administration had rated Art 50 percent psychiatrically disabled. He worked part-time for the post office, where he experienced harassment, especially from his boss, who called him "the .38 killer." He had a hard time concentrating or restraining his rage and was afraid of losing his job.
"I have double vision," Art declared. "I'll be standing at the post office window selling stamps to an old lady, and at the same time, I'll be seeing NVA [North Vietnamese Army regulars] charging up the hill at my machine gun post. It takes all the control I can muster to stay at my window and just count out change."
Art trusted no one and was numb to all feelings but "staying on red alert." He had to distance himself from everyone or he'd let his guard down. He startled at every loud sound and could not sleep—or when he did, he had nightmares of combat. And he was plagued with survivor's guilt.
"I shouldn't be here. I should be dead a thousand times, the things I've been through. That's why I'm just waitin' for it. Death is chasing me. It'll catch up to me. Nobody could survive what I did and still be alive. Sometimes I'm convinced I'm not."
"You've been scared out of your wits," I said. "You've been through just about the most horrible things a person can endure. You must have been frightened down to your very soul."
"My soul?" Art's face turned white. He stared at me with pinpoint eyes. "My soul has fled."
"What do you mean?"
"It's gone. It fled my body. I felt it leave."
"Yes. Souls are alive. Souls can enter and souls can leave. Tell me how that happened."
He looked deeply and quizzically into my eyes. "You believe me?" he asked.
"Yes," I nodded.
He leaned forward. "I think you do. I'll tell you. It happened at Khe Sanh."
"You were there?"
"The whole damn time! From the end of '67 till we pulled out in June of '68. You know how thick snowflakes fall in the middle of a blizzard?"
"Sure," I said.
"That's how we pounded the hell out of the enemy," Art said. "Day and night. Night and day. Air strikes. Heavy bombers. Fighter jets. Heavy and light artillery. I can still feel the earth shaking. In just nine weeks we dropped 75,000 tons of bombs. I'm tellin' you, Doc. A cockroach couldn't have lived through what we dropped on them."
Art leaned forward again, staring through me. "But each day, they charged up my hill again by the thousands. I was a machine gunner. I'd shoot and scream, 'You crazy bastards, don't make me kill you. Stop it! Go home!' They'd fall like flies but keep comin'. They must have lost ten thousand at Khe Sanh. But they wouldn't stop. It worked, too! We were stupid! Khe Sanh was just a blasted pile of mud that nobody wanted. But Westmoreland wasn't gonna lose. God, what we'll do to win! He brought everything we had to Khe Sanh while the Vietnamese spread out in the south and infiltrated everywhere. He fell right into their trap!"
I looked into Art's eyes, trying to keep him in the room. "That's enough to scare the soul out of anybody," I said.
"Let me tell you what it's like," Art went on. "You can feel the connection between your body and your soul when it starts to break. It's like a thread that starts fraying. I tried so hard during those long nights, the earth shuddering, my hands over my ears. I concentrated to keep that thread from snapping. But I could feel it getting thinner and thinner.
"One day, I had my breakfast in the mess. I sat in the same blue plastic chair in the corner all the time. I felt safer there. Then I went to my post. I was at my machine gun. The same damn thing happened as happened every day. The gooks2 were comin' up the hill. They were thick that day. They wouldn't stop. They fell by the dozens, but they just climbed over the bodies and kept comin'. God, I could see their eyes.
"Then mortars started fallin' on us. They must have set 'em up to support this charge. This time they were gonna get in. We had to hold the perimeter. I was shootin' and screamin'. I called for more ammo belts. I looked around. I was the only one left. I looked behind me and I could see my buddies running like hell toward the base. 'C'mon Art!' my sarge yelled. In front, the gooks were almost up the hill.
"God, I flew out of that foxhole like lightning. My feet were pounding the mud. I could feel the gooks behind me. I could hear their breathing. Bullets were whizzing by me. I was a goner for sure. That's when it happened."
"Your soul?" I asked, holding his gaze.
"I felt it, Doc. The cord snapped. My soul ran right out of my body. It ran faster than me, yards ahead of me. I was exhausted. I wanted to lie down and let them kill me. But it was like I was being pulled along in a jet stream. I couldn't stop. I guess my soul didn't want me to die yet. It saved me."
"Losing your soul is horrible. But it saved you. That sounds like the only good part."
"No. Wait. I got through our second line. What was left of my squad gathered where it was safe. But I couldn't stop. My soul kept pulling me. I kept running all the way to the mess. I ran in, like my blue chair could protect me. Then I stopped dead. My soul stood next to me. We looked. There was a huge hole in the roof over that section of the mess. My blue chair was blown to Kingdom Come. If I'd have stayed any longer at breakfast, I'd be in the other world. That was it."
"It. The End. I saw my soul shake its head. There was no way it was gonna move back inside my body."
We both breathed deeply and sat in silence. Then I said, "Is it still out?"
"Yeah," Art said. "I don't ever tell anybody this, but it's right here next to me. It's sittin' here looking at you deciding if it's gonna trust you. It's like my twin. It's like there's two of me wherever I go. I can see it and feel it. I got to listen to what it says, y'know. You can't go against your soul."
Art stared out the window. "I can't believe I told you this. I don't tell nobody. So tell me, Doc. Is there any way to get your soul back into your body?"
"There is such a thing as soul work," I said. "Native Americans and ancient people knew just what you are talking about. Terror can make the soul flee the body. It's too dangerous to stay, so the soul leaves. But if you don't die, the soul gets stuck. It can't go to the spirit world because your body is still alive. But it's too scared to climb back inside."
"That's exactly it!" Art exclaimed. "I was afraid you'd say I'm crazy."
"I believe you, Art," I said. "What you're telling me isn't crazy. Your soul splitting from your body at that moment was sane."
Art allowed a tight-lipped smile.
"We can try to make your body and this life a safe place for your soul to move back into," I continued. "If we can get you off combat alert, if you can learn to trust a little bit, if we can find ways of talking, not just to you but to your soul over there, maybe we can bring you two closer together." I bowed in a gesture of welcome and respect to the air next to Art. He nodded, took a deep breath, and leaned back in his chair for the first time.
Art's experience occurred in 1967–68. "The End," as he described it, was also the title of a song the rock group The Doors was singing back home. Story and song both declare that war devastates not only our physical being but our very soul—for the entire culture as well as for the individual. In war, chaos overwhelms compassion, violence replaces cooperation, instinct replaces rationality, gut dominates mind. When drenched in these conditions, the soul is disfigured and can become lost for life. What is called soul loss is an extreme psychospiritual condition beyond what psychologists commonly call dissociation. It is far more than psychic numbing or separation of mind from body. It is a removal of the center of experience from the living body without completely snapping the connection. In the presence of overwhelming life-threatening violence, the soul—the true self—flees. The center of experience shifts; the body takes the impact of the trauma but does not register it as deeply as before. With body and soul separated, a person is trapped in a limbo where past and present intermingle without differentiation or continuity. Nothing feels right until body and soul rejoin.
Ancient peoples and traditional societies recognized soul wounding and soul loss as authentic conditions. Their shamans and spiritual healers practiced many forms of soul healing and retrieval. We will explore this phenomenon of soul wounding and soul loss, particularly in the context of war, in the chapters that follow. First, however, we must be clear on what we mean by the term soul.
The soul is at the center of human consciousness and experience. Yet we cannot see or measure soul directly. Rather, we "see it feelingly," to use Shakespeare's words from King Lear; we know soul through our experiences of its functions and traits. It is "the vaporization out of which everything derives," said Heraclitus. It is not the body, explained Aristotle, but its originative principle. It is through soul that we experience our human uniqueness and spiritual depth.
Throughout the ages, communities have made special efforts to protect or restore the souls of their warriors during times of war. Only in our postmodern, technological age do questions of the soul's veracity even arise. Not surprisingly, the soul's fundamental needs for well-being are often ignored nowadays. Yet survivors who will not otherwise talk about their violent experiences will engage when invited to speak in terms of soul. Often, they see no sense in talking of anything else.
The following are some of the ways the soul has been conceptualized historically:
The soul is the drive to create and preserve life—that of our own, other people, our community, and the planet—as we participate in the endless creativity of the universe. Spinoza's dictum that every creature seeks to persist in its own being gives voice to this fundamental aspect of soul, which is at once biological and psychospiritual.
Needless to say, war threatens to the utmost this imperative to create and preserve. Consider, for instance, Bill, an eighty-year-old World War II veteran. At age nineteen, he had served as bombardier on a Flying Fortress dropping fire on Europe. Sixty-one years later, he cried as he trembled in front of me, "I went to war to save humanity, but ever since I've felt like a mass murderer!"
The soul is the awareness of oneself as a discrete entity moving through space and time. It is the part of us that contemplates our own existence. Epictitus defined the soul as the "me" at the center of our experience. Albert Camus said the soul is "myself, that is to say, this intense emotion which frees me from my surroundings."
This separate but participating center is damaged in war as it valiantly struggles with gargantuan forces. The victim feels like an unwanted speck, a vermin to be eradicated. One Holocaust survivor said, "How would anybody feel after experiencing the entire world singling you out for annihilation?" And what about the agent of that annihilation? Combat veteran Gustav Hasford wrote simply, "What you do, you become." Existentially speaking, the autonomous self, the "I," creates and defines itself by its actions and experiences. In war, that "I" redefines itself in terms of its capacity to cause pain or to endure the threat of sudden violent death, or both.
The soul is our intellectual power, that which thinks, reasons, and understands. Many philosophies consider reasoning the highest function of soul. Reason allows us to know ourselves—and to know that we know. It allows us to rise above our animal nature, to control our instincts, to shape our world, and to create things that did not exist before. Through reason, the soul contemplates the order of the universe and searches for meaning in our lives and in all existence.
But the distortions the soul undergoes in war reshape our cognitive functions and skew the ways our minds operate, including at the psychoneurological level. Our instinctive responses, having been evoked by battle, may remain unrestrained, and the ability to create and to find meaning may be stripped away.
The soul is what gives us our ethical sensibilities. It is the spirit behind the Ten Commandments, as distinct from the physical letters carved in rock. Soul is conscience. Socrates described an inner voice that told him only what not to do, stopping him only from taking an action that might hurt someone or lead to self-betrayal. Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio's conscience, is a fairy-tale representation of this function. Jiminy clicked and croaked on Pinocchio's shoulder, attempting to guide his charge aright. It was only when Pinocchio responded, discovering compassion and helping his maker, that he transformed from a wooden puppet into a live boy. When we act in accord with soul, we transform into real people; in discord, we devolve and become like dead wood.
One veteran of the American invasion of El Salvador described his first kill. He had a defending peasant in his rifle sights, but he did not want to pull the trigger on an impoverished farmer fearfully protecting his home. Meanwhile, his sergeant screamed in his ear, "Shoot, shoot, kill the bastard or I'll have you court-martialed!" He pulled the trigger. As he vomited and cried, his sarge slapped him on the back and said, "Don't worry. The first one is always the hardest. It'll never be so hard again." War survivors commonly report such situations in which they felt forced to betray their moral codes. Afterward, they pass through life without feeling, like wooden puppets on strings.
The soul is our will, our individual volition. Plato said, "That which is moved from within has a soul." In contrast, when we are moved from without we are soulless. Søren Kierkegaard declared that "purity of heart is to will one thing." Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the will to power, William James of the will to believe. Will is the intention arising from within that drives us to think, feel, and act.
But in war, the gigantic will of the collective replaces that of the individual. For the military to function efficiently, it must run on a hierarchy of power, tradition, and discipline. Basic training curtails our personal will, and then brutal combat damages or destroys it as we are forced to act in ways that oppose our civilized natures and established identities.
The soul is our aesthetic sensibility, the aspect of ourselves that hungers for beauty and both perceives and appreciates it. As such, beauty is food for the soul. Ancient philosophers and modern scientists alike have described the soul as the expression of the universal principles of harmony and proportion. Plato named beauty as one of the perfect and universal Forms of which all creatures and things are less-than-perfect reflections. Beauty offers order, purpose, and grace. It reminds us of the inherent goodness of life and the creation.
Walt, a combat zone machinist, lived in the mud and gore of a besieged firebase in Viet Nam for a year. He declared, "Imagine what happens to your soul when it spends an entire year in a place of no beauty! It shrivels and dries up. It disappears. Without beauty your soul dies."
Excerpted from War and the Soul by Edward Tick. Copyright © 2005 Edward Tick. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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