Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Remembrance Day call for a change to army culture

Remembrance Day is a day to think about war, and I have been, although not in the way pop culture seems to encourage these days. I do not fetishize war or worship soldiers as heroes. When yet another young man (or woman, but usually man) comes home in a flag-draped casket, it doesn't make my heart swell with patriotic pride. Quite the opposite, if anything.

What I was thinking about was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Soldiers lucky enough to return alive often suffer from it. There is growing recognition of this problem, but the focus tends to be on getting soldiers treatment once they get back home. And that shouldn't surprise anyone. The army is a well-honed system that was created to do one thing only: maximize kills. An important part of this is desensitization. Soldiers are trained to see the enemy, whoever that may be at a given time, as less than human. Disregarding the humanity of the enemy means discarding some of one's own humanity. This is inevitable. One can't become desensitized in one area and remain sensitive in others. Therefore, the army is a culture where nobody is allowed to have feelings.

This produces an efficient army, an array of killing machines. It also produces an environment where PTSD becomes entrenched. After all, a soldier who has suffered through a traumatic experience is not free to talk it over and have a good cry. He has to pretend to be strong, "masculine" and unaffected. The feelings that cannot be expressed have but one place to go: into the body, where they manifest as physical problems, behaviour disorders, flashbacks and nightmares.

Rather than concentrating entirely on dealing with the damage once the soldier has come home and the disorder has had time to become well-established, wouldn't it be nice if some measures were taken to prevent PTSD while the soldiers are still in the field?

Of course, when you're at war, there's no way to prevent traumatic events from occurring. What could be prevented is the blocking of expression. If, following a traumatic event, soldiers were free to express themselves as needed--not only with therapists but with each other--there might be less occurrence or severity of PTSD.

Clearly, this would take a major change to army culture, if not to our culture as a whole. I say it's high time for such a change. We haven't had an appreciable and permanent change in our cultural attitudes towards war since the days of the Roman empire. All we've done is come up with better chemicals and machinery for wreaking mayhem. Not much of an accomplishment.

So I say, let's start changing culture, including army culture. The time is late and the need is desperate. And if it leads to a loss of killing efficiency, so be it. There's something worse than not being stronger than everybody else, and that's being stronger than everybody else, at such a cost. Death may well be preferable.

Links of Interest

Broken Heroes

This documentary by the CBC News show The Fifth Estate looks at three soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan and suffering from PTSD. You can watch the entire documentary online, see clips of each soldier's interview, or read transcripts of all three interviews.

Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS)

A support network founded by Lt.-Col. St├ęphane Grenier, one of the soldiers interviewed in Broken Heroes.