War Trauma History

Culture of War – Warrior Hero to PTSD

Christel B. D’Agostino, MSW, LCSW-R, CtH


Warrior Hero – Universal Archetypes

History is filled with tales of the warrior, one of the universal archetypes: The young man goes to war to prove himself and returns a hero, worshiped and honored as one of the future leaders of his tribe. He will use his acquired experience wisely and protect his clan.

Cleansing Rituals – Early Tribes

The custom of certain indigenous tribes has been handed down to us:  Outside the village members of the clan would expect their fighters return from war and lead them directly to the river. There,  rites would be performed to chase the ghosts of war away and cleanse their heroes. Only then, the warriors would be allowed back into the village.

In the Native American Indian tradition, healing ceremonies used to be held in sweat lodges. In other cultures, warriors would dance around the fire to scorch evil energies from the war.

Culture of War – Values

The Greeks and Romans used to celebrate their victorious warriors as men of character and power. Uncontrollable bursts of hate after battle seemed more culturally acceptable than signs of weakness or illness on the battle field. A fearful warrior was considered a coward and would be ostracized by his clan. Suicide often appeared the only solution.

In 490 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus described an Athenian warrior who became permanently blind after having witnessed a comrade’s death.

After glorious victories Alexander the Great is said to have suffered from battle fatigue. At one point, his soldiers were too exhausted and refused to march any further. Were they justified or judged as cowards?

Emperor Ashoka of India became depressed after his Kalinga War. He renounced violence and became a Buddhist. Conqueror Tamerlane became obsessed, had pyramids built of human skulls. Napoleon Bonaparte became seriously depressed after his final defeat.

World War I – Shell Shock Controversy

In more recent history we’ve learned how soldiers fared during or after battle. During World War I soldiers with combat stress would be called Shell Shocked. The army would rather accuse soldiers of cowardice and disobedience, punished them severely, even with death.

Shell Shock or Psychoneurosis was indicated when soldiers relived scenes of horror and developed physical conditions. Cardiac hypertrophy would also be diagnosed caused by the extreme physical effort,  heavy marching and weight of heavy packs. The army did not favor this diagnosis.

Shell Shock was also called a Soldier’s Heart and attributed to overwhelming mental fatigue. Railway Spine or Railway Hysteria, the syndrome which many people had acquired after a catastrophic railway accident, seemed to be quite similar to Shell Shock.

British soldiers would be hospitalized, treated with rest, massage, proper diet, electro-shock. When it became known that after accomplished hospital treatment, only four-fifth of the British soldiers were able to return to the battle field, the British Army shifted the focus from an ‘organic’ condition, i.e. “nerves” to “cowards”, “lack of masculinity”.  The Army would rather accuse soldiers of cowardice and disobedience, punished them severely, even with death.

World War II – Soldier’s Moral Obligation – Redefined

During World War II one situation deserves to be mentioned where so-called cowards were considered heroes, albeit years later. It happened in Stalingrad where one of the bloodiest battles in history took nearly two million lives.

Over 100,000 of Hitler’s soldiers realized they had lost and surrendered to the Russians in February 1943. Years later after they had returned from Russian prison camps, they had a chance to explain in public hearings why they had deserted:

Their intent had been to force Hitler to end the war so their families back home would no longer sacrificed through aerial bomb attacks the way they had been sacrificed on the battle field. They had encouraged their comrades to follow their example. They had not.

The war and carpet bombing over civilian cities would continue for more than two years. For many years the families of these courageous men had endured hardship and ill repute. After public hearings the German Bundestag had ruled that a soldier has the moral obligation to disobey orders if given by a criminal mind.

First considered cowards, then declared heroes. Honor reinstated. A crucial judicial precedence for future generations had been set.

WWII Survivors – PTSD in Elderly

Recent studies of German WWII survivors and Jewish holocaust survivors have found that in old age PTSD was still prevalent. War trauma and certain symptoms of PTSD may also traverse generations.

U.S. Wars Abroad – Additional Stress Factors

The wars of World War I and II, Spanish Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places transplanted U.S. soldiers into uncharted territory, with unacquainted culture, customs, language. These variables may account for a rather high stress level before even considering combat stress.

Physical Reality of PTSD

While PTSD has been firmly embraced by the American Psychiatric Association in 1987 as primary diagnosis for a psychological condition, potential physical ailments of veterans are of as much concern as mental aspects.

Already during the Civil War Dr. Jacob Mendez Da Costa had observed a “Soldier’s Irritable Heart”, a state of hyper-arousal, in Union soldiers.

In this connection, the University of California undertook a research study about the  “Soldier’s Heart” and compared military and medical records of 15,000 Union soldiers  from the time of enlistment until death years later.

It was found that the youngest soldiers exposed to most brutality and bloodiest battles experienced the highest percentage of combat stress. They also had the shortest life span. War horrors experienced were linked to increased signs of cardiac, gastrointestinal, nervous diseases and emotional difficulties during the veteran’s life.

While the researchers drew many conclusions, they suspected short-term resilience which helps humans cope with traumatic stress may have detrimental long-term health effects.

They concluded that the lessons learned from their research may also apply to today’s veterans.

Studies, research and treatment modalities have been branching out into different directions to find ideal ways to heal our veterans’ post traumatic stress caused by the brutality of war in different country and culture.

Our National Responsibility

It is our obligation to facilitate our veterans’ healing from war trauma with compassion. They have put their lives on the line in patriotic duty. Their noble ideals may have been destroyed. Their intent to carve out a better future for themselves and the world may have been crushed in a split second.

Can we become the facilitators for our veterans to turn tragedy into human achievement and triumph?


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