Learning compassion from combat

Wars end. Nations move on. But for those who fought, the memories of combat -- of pain, loss, and desperate choices -- don't easily fade, which is why compassionate, effective ways of coping with war's aftermath are so important.


Memories are a blessing. We pay good money to make them when we plan a wedding, organize a reunion, or fund excursion. Our photos and videos are evidence of that. The selfie is nothing if not an “I was here” aid to memory. Even with that sort of assist, however, most memories fade. Which is both sad and healthy. We can’t embrace the future if the past is too much of a presence.

 But there is a certain class of memory that persists. As the United States closes the book on the wars touched off by 9/11, its veterans’ memories of combat — of physical and psychological pain, lost comrades, desperate choices born of desperate circumstances — live on. In a Monitor cover story, Martin Kuz takes us inside programs helping veterans deal with post-war trauma. This is not a condition that fades gently, even if for the public the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already transitioned from top-of-mind concerns to chapters in history books. In time, those chapters will be reduced to paragraphs, then simply dates. Not so for people who have been through combat. As one veteran tells Martin, “the military trains fighters. It doesn’t untrain them.”

 The programs Martin explores show that there are compassionate, effective ways of helping veterans cope with the aftermath of war. These are not quick-fix programs that dispense pills and off-the-cuff counseling. They are slow efforts to build trust — to replace troubling memories acquired in war with new ones acquired at peace. 

 One thing such programs cannot do, however, is make sense of war itself. None of us — soldiers or civilians — has ever been good at that. In a thoughtful essay in the May/June Foreign Policy, Elizabeth Samet, a professor of English at the US Military Academy at West Point, argues that, at a minimum, we should avoid the trap of romanticism when we talk about war and warriors. “It is much harder,” she writes, “to speak of war in a pellucid, forthright mode. Doing so has become alien even to our own wised-up age, entrenched as war has become in absolutism and what remains a misguided faith in the cleansing, redemptive power of violence.”

 If there is value to be extracted from anything as destructive as war, it can only be discovered through cold-eyed realism, not romanticism. Honor, pride, and leadership are not inconsequential. And the debt we owe those we send into combat — whether at the Somme, Omaha Beach, or Fallujah — must be paid for the rest of their lives (which is why allegations of shabby treatment and prolonged waiting at Veterans Administrations hospitals are so disturbing). But as time goes by, it is too easy for writers, filmmakers, and even old soldiers to put a gloss of romance on war, to spellbind the young with images of handsome uniforms and cool weapons systems, tales of valor, and big-picture ideas about what was accomplished. We can avoid that without diminishing the sacrifices of the men and women who have fought. 

 Some happy day, war itself will be a fading memory. Until then, let’s never forget that the decision to go to war is a decision to put men and women into peril. At a minimum, we must keep faith with them afterwards. And we can do better than the minimum. We can think long and hard — and longer and harder still — the next time we ask them to fight.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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