soldier-in-tears

An excerpt from Dark Gold: The Human Shadow And The Global Crisis, by Carolyn Baker

PTSD is presently classified as a “stress and anxiety disorder.” But “stress and anxiety” does not begin to describe the emotions people experience during warfare. We don’t really have words for it. Also PTSD classifies veterans as “disabled” by how far they are from the civilian norm. But veterans are not disabled civilians. They are war-wounded soldiers and have different values and expectations about life. When we require that they get on with “business as usual” now that they are home, we put the blame on them for having broken down in the first place, and we pressure them to take sole responsibility for their healing. But everyone who participates in a war is changed. No one comes through unscathed.

~Ed Tick, “Like Wandering Ghosts,” Sun Magazine Interview, June, 2008~

Historically, veterans of US wars are not well-honored. As far back as the Revolutionary War, a denial of their pain and a lack of emotional and economic support are shamefully obvious. We pay elaborate lip service to the “war hero” in this culture, but once he or she has accomplished the mission, they are easily discarded and become as ordinary as any citizen who has never spent one hour on the battlefield.

In the Iraq War from 2003-2010, more than 155,000 Iraqi civilians were killed as well as more than 3,000 US troops. In addition, more than 32, 000 US troops were wounded, and currently, nearly 22 veterans of US wars commit suicide every day. [United States Military Casualties of War, ]  Behind the glory stories of military recruitment publicity and “support the troops” hysteria are gory stories hundreds of thousands of shattered bodies and psyches. These are the shadows of military heroism and guilt-laden propaganda campaigns that attempt to convince us that “freedom isn’t free.”

The vibrant eighteen year-old who craves an authentic initiation by the elders of his community where none is to be found, his body reverberating with the hot blood of heroism or perhaps the young man who knows that through his military service, he will become an American citizen—despite everything either young man may know about the devastations of soldiers returning from war—they enthusiastically walk out of the recruiter’s office and into a permanently life-altering underworld journey. Throughout his basic training, a young man discovers the thrill of enervating physical conditioning and the intoxication of entrance into a brotherhood of warrior comrades. Undeterred by bland food and meager pay, he is delirious with the role of “professional soldier.”

At this moment in his young life, no amount of logic or statistics could convince him that he is a pawn—putty in the hands of a military-industrial-security state that will profit lavishly from the war in which he will fight and by which he will be permanently devastated. Should he encounter a war protestor, he would risk life and limb to correct their “anti-patriotic” views. Isn’t this what manhood is all about? Fighting for the values of America, being part of a brotherhood of warriors, making one’s family proud, being willing to pay the supreme sacrifice for one’s country?

Tragically, this young man, should he survive physically, is likely to return home in two or three years with body parts missing and a psyche shredded by the horrors of war. He will continue to applaud his branch of service and particularly his combat unit. He will be a man whose insides have been hollowed out by trauma and loss. Perhaps no day will pass that he does not contemplate suicide. He will likely to be taking a host of medications, he will not sleep well at night, and he will find previous relationships with family and civilian friends exceedingly difficult to maintain. His body is “home,” but his soul is not. He may obsess about his combat unit and how he should have done more for them—how he should have saved more lives or how he didn’t deserve to survive in the midst of the carnage.

Psychotherapist, Ed Tick, who specializes in working with war veterans states that “Moral and spiritual trauma is at the core of PTSD, and no matter how well-intentioned various therapies are — such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, stress-reduction techniques, and medications — none takes on the moral and spiritual dimensions. Therapies like these can sometimes be helpful in restoring everyday functioning, but they do not bring healing. We need public apologies, public confessions, and public grief for all that we have done to our veterans, to other nations, and to the earth.”

Tick asserts that this culture has never understood the difference between the warrior and the soldier archetypes. In his book The Hidden Spirituality Of Men: Ten Metaphors To Awaken The Sacred Masculine, Matthew Fox states:

To me, the key is understanding the distinction between a warrior and a soldier. A Vietnam veteran who volunteered to go to war at 17 described this eloquently: “When I was in the army, I was a soldier. I was a puppet doing whatever anybody told me to do, even if it meant going against what my heart told me was right. I didn’t know nothing about being a warrior until I hit the streets and marched alongside my brothers for something I really believed in. When I found something I believed in, a higher power found me.” He quit being a soldier and became a warrior when he followed his soul’s orders, not his officer’s; in his case, this meant protesting war and going to jail for it. The late Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa talks about the “sad and tender heart of the warrior.” The warrior is in touch with his heart—the joy, the sadness, the expansiveness of it. [Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality Of Men: Ten Metaphors To Awaken The Sacred Masculine, New World Library, 2008, P. 78]

Ed Tick describes the approach he takes in working with veterans and the perspective of some indigenous peoples in relating to men returning from war:

I use treatments given to warriors in traditional cultures, which expected that the invisible wounds of war would be deep, penetrating, and transformative. Indigenous cultures limited the extent of warfare and its damage, and they watched over their warriors in the midst of battle and after their return. For example, among the Papago [Tahono O’odham] people of the American Southwest, after a warrior had his first experience of combat, they held a nineteen-day ceremony of return. He might have been in battle for fifteen minutes, and for that he’d get almost three weeks of ritual healing and community support. He’d be put in isolation and not allowed to touch food or feed himself, because he’d been poisoned by the war experience. He couldn’t see his family, and he certainly couldn’t have sex with his wife, or else he would bring the war pollution back into the community. Elders and medicine people used purification techniques to cleanse him, and also storytelling techniques, which we would call “expressive-arts therapy.” The war dance wasn’t what Hollywood portrays it as: a bunch of savages whipping themselves into a frenzy before battle. It came after battle and was a dramatic reenactment of the conflict for the tribe.

Instead of having a parade and going shopping, we could use our veterans’ holidays as an occasion for storytelling. Open the churches and temples and synagogues and mosques and community centers and libraries across the country, and invite the veterans in to tell their stories. Purification ceremonies and storytelling events are also opportunities for the community to speak to veterans and take some of the burden of guilt off them and declare our oneness with them: “You killed in our name, because we ordered you to, so we take responsibility for it, too.”

The final step is initiation into the warrior class. We need to train our veterans in the warrior tradition and not just expect them to behave as typical civilians. Many of them can’t, but they are looking for ways to be of service. Labeling a veteran “100 percent disabled” only ensures that he or she is not going to do anything for the rest of his or her life.

Traditional societies understood that warriorhood is not soldiering but a path through life — a “warrior’s path,” not a “warpath.” In traditional societies, warriors strove to live up to the highest moral standards. They hated the destruction caused by war, and they sought to preserve what was precious to them. They served as police during times of peace and used violence only as a last resort. They had responsibilities that kept them busy throughout their lives, including mentoring younger men. [“Like Wandering Ghosts,” Ed Tick, Sun Magazine interview, June, 2008]

Going to war, being wounded, and returning from battle is a profound emotional and spiritual initiation. Unfortunately, it is a profane initiation not intended or structured to transform consciousness and mindfully transition the soldier from childhood to adulthood. In fact, the initiation is carried out by the wrong people at the wrong time, for all the wrong reasons. It mindlessly catapults the young person into battle where “good” and “evil” are superficially assigned to the warring sides, and the principal concern is the triumph of “us” over “them.” In combat training, the state attempts to dictate morality and convince the soldier that the taking of innocent lives is simply the collateral damage that goes with the territory and that somehow they will be forgiven for committing atrocities. However, as Ed Tick notes:

Almost all of us want to be agents of good. For many soldiers the motive for being a warrior is not to kill and destroy, but to preserve and protect. Then they find themselves in immoral wars where they are forced to be agents of destruction. I was recently discussing this issue with army chaplains, and I asked what they did to counsel soldiers who have just come back from a firefight or have committed atrocities. One chaplain said, “I teach my soldiers that they have to renegotiate their covenant with God.” The assumption that God’s going to forgive us for, say, killing a child just because we had no choice doesn’t wash with many soldiers. Their relationship with the divine is quite often damaged. As the chaplain said, they have to renegotiate it. Veterans and soldiers have to find ways to reconnect with the divine and undo that moral inversion and become again agents of creation. [Sun Magazine interview, 2008]

Thus the soldier returning from combat is psychically shattered not only by the trauma of war, but by the incessant moral dilemmas that war foists upon everyone in its wake.

Nor does the moral burden weigh only on male soldiers. Tick notes how female soldiers suffer emotionally and spiritually the wounds of war for different reasons:

Many women are suffering terribly in the combat zone. One woman veteran I’ve met returned home from Iraq in a horrible depression because she had machine-gunned women and children. She refused help and was redeployed. She told her family she wanted the Iraqis to kill her as punishment for what she had done to them.

Some women veterans suffer because they feel they were created to be life givers, not life takers. So the moral trauma of war is more severe for them. But if we understand the warrior’s role to be not destroying and killing, but preserving and protecting, then we can find many women serving honorably in our military. Some of the most admirable women I have ever met are combat nurses, chaplains, and career officers.

There have been traditional cultures with women warriors and chiefs. Some Northwest Native American tribes had women warriors who were combatants. Among the Iroquois, clan mothers were given the ultimate power to declare war, because they were the ones who’d given birth to those who would be sent into battle. [Ibid]

Yet a female soldier need not enter combat to exit the military with massive Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The sexual assault of women in the military has skyrocketed in recent years. A Mother Jones Magazine photo series on “Women Who Risked Everything To Expose Sexual Assault In The Military” reports that “Women in the US military are being raped and sexually assaulted by their colleagues in record numbers. An estimated 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place in the military in 2012, the last year that statistics are available; only 1 in 7 victims reported their attacks, and just 1 in 10 of those cases went to trial. According to mental-health experts, the effects of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) include depression, substance abuse, paranoia, and feelings of isolation. Victims spend years drowning in shame and fear as the psychological damage silently eats away at their lives. Many frequently end up addicted to drugs and alcohol, homeless, or take their own lives.” [“Women Who Risked Everything To Expose Sexual Assault In The Military,” September 8, 2014]

Not only are women in the military incessantly vulnerable to sexual assault, but when it occurs, it is frequently not reported because prosecutions of offenders are rare, the chain of command appears to allow it, and female victims often believe that reporting is futile.

Michael Meade, found of Mosaic Multicultural Foundation which offers retreats uniting returning veterans and their families, also elaborates on the ghosts of war:

Even those who found a sense of purpose in going to war can wind up lost upon return and living on life’s anguished margin. Leave all the politics aside, whether a war is deemed successful or disastrous, the effects of battle continue to rage inside the soldiers in wounds that torture the body, in dreams that shatter common reality, and in traumas that continue to trouble the soul. Veterans can become literally homeless — abandoned in and by their own communities after sacrificing parts of their bodies and souls for their homeland.

There is a great and growing disconnection that leaves many men and women out in the cold, unable to adapt to civilian circumstances, feeling unwelcome in the exact communities they intended to serve. Make no mistake, the war always comes home with the warriors and too often makes simply being at home impossible. As one officer wrote at a recent retreat for vets, “I walked down my ramp alone, returning to a reception of none. No welcome home party, because like so many others, I’m not home.” [“Can The War Be Taken Out Of Warriors?”]

The Culture of War

Chris Hedges in War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, states that “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” [War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Anchor Paperback, 2003, P.3] Hedges elaborates on the culture of war, asserting that offers “excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty.”

What is fascinating to me, however, is not so much the reality of brutality in combat or the manner in which some individuals become addicted to it which is not only inherent in war but has been characteristic of all wars throughout history. Rather, in any consideration of the personal and collective shadows, I feel compelled to notice how modern war is manufactured, packaged, delivered, and sold to the masses as necessary—the lesser of two evils and something on which we are assured our lives depend.

In his extraordinary book The Evil Hours: A Biography Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ex-Marine and Iraq War veteran, David Morris, offers a stunningly brilliant assessment of the collective shadow of the war on terror and the attendant PTSD that resides in the psyches of Americans since September 11, 2001:

It would be foolish to diagnose an entire nation with a mental health disorder, but as Susan Faludi points out in her 2007 book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America, the country as a whole continues to exhibit certain aspects of post-traumatic stress, including a compulsion to re-enact the events of September 11 in movies and television as well as nurturing obsessions with homeland security and surveillance that, according to many military analysts, is out of proportion with the actual threat and smacks of a kind of national hypervigilance. Moreover, the ongoing militarization of American culture—in the form of first-person shooter video games, the rise of the Navy SEAL “brand” in books, films, and other media, and martially themed endurance races like the Tough Mudder series—points to a fixation with the post 9/11 hyper-masculinity and ubiquitous violence reminiscent of the disorder.

As noted above, war provides a profane initiation for young men hungering for one that is sacred and soul-enhancing. Additionally, war seduces humans to believe that by engaging in it, they are opting for higher moral ground. Deluded by the polarity of good vs. evil, the human ego becomes inflated with the “righteousness” of its cause and the “wickedness” of the enemy. The Savior archetype as noted above in the power dynamics of Victim/Tyrant/Rebel/Savior becomes constellated, attended by the cultural injunction to “protect and serve.” Suddenly, ethical justifications for doing whatever it takes to win are legion, and the collective unconsciously colludes in the notion that the end justifies the means. The definition of the word collusion is instructive because it literally means, the sharing of an illusion. The shadow’s projection mission is accomplished when the masses have become convinced that their military and political objective is not only honorable, but irreproachable and that at the end of the day, they are essentially “doing God’s work.” To this end, myriad propaganda techniques demonizing the enemy are invaluable tools for perpetuating the collusion.

As industrial civilization continues to wither, along with a planet raped, pillaged, and plundered for its resources, we can anticipate ongoing wars, endless wars, and wars that destroy not only human lives, but ravage the economies and infrastructures of both defeated nations and triumphant ones. Yet the culture of war could not endure without the personal and collective shadows that rationalize the carnage and periodically resuscitate the chimera of an impeccably professional military that exceeds all other nations in caring for its wounded.

However, the assertion that the United States government cares for its wounded warriors well is unequivocally false. In a trenchant 2015 article entitled “Troop Worship,” journalist Abby Martin notes that:

As of March, 2014 the backlog of Veterans benefits was a staggering 400,000 cases with an average wait time of 125 days to process the claims, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. At least one million servicemen and women have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to 300 thousand during the Vietnam War, despite the lack of a draft. The number could be even higher, but the VA abruptly stopped publishing the number of injured troops, citing national security reasons for the censorship.

The disgraceful way veterans are treated in this country exemplifies how little this government actually values life. Amidst all the ritualistic pageantry immortalizing fallen soldiers, we lose sight of the military mind, one that dominates policy and breeds new generations of sadists, who are taught that other human beings have lesser value than them. This toxic mindset seeps into every facet of American society, teaching every citizen that force is the answer to every problem. [“Troop Worship,” ]

Perhaps the worst trauma of war—the most intrusive and insistent ghost, is an inner knowing in the depths of the psyche that one has been deceived and betrayed by the designs of politicians and a national security-weapons industry that values only economic gain, resource acquisition, and geo-political hegemony. The betrayal experienced may appear in the guise of protest regarding the loss of benefits or scandals in government bureaucracies that delay or undermine adequate medical care for veterans. However, these are only symptomatic of an empire that pays lip service to the wellbeing of its military personnel while seducing them into the culture of war. Conversely, when the shadow of “thank you for your service” is fully exposed, the wounded warrior has an opportunity to return to wholeness.

The dark gold in healing the ghosts of war is sometimes attained through an inner conflagration—a formidable journey into the warrior’s heart that allows him or her to finally return home and experience a profound sense of belonging to family and community.

“Many traditional cultures,” says Michael Meade, “developed ways to ‘take the war out of the warriors.’ Native American, African, Irish, and many other groups understood that those who send souls into battle must also retrieve those souls from the underworld of war. A genuine rite of return involves a caring and careful clearing of the soul as well as a thorough healing of the body. In years of working with vets I have found that no matter how confusing or devastating it may seem, the unique story of each veteran becomes the language for healing, the essential ground for recovery, and the path towards finding a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. Not only that, but the stories must be heard and the souls must be welcomed back by caring and compassionate representatives of the community that sent them off to war. [ “Can The War Be Taken Out Of Warriors?”]

David Morris argues that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an affliction not exclusively of the individual veteran but of the society at large. In The Evil Hours, he informs the reader extensively of the variety of approaches to treatment of PTSD and notes that the standard protocol in current time is a focus on the biology of the disorder with emphasis on “finding a cure.” In response, Morris argues that “…if a ‘cure’ for post-traumatic stress can be found, then society as a whole won’t have to bother with trying to deal with the events that cause trauma, which have deep roots in social justice issues.” [Evil Hours, p. 159]

The enduring ghosts of war are not only the nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, insomnia, hair-trigger violence, emotional distance and psychic numbing of the tormented war veteran. These ghosts only echo and pantomime the ghosts of a society detached from war other than to manufacture and applaud it. “These two worlds, war and home,” says Morris, “could be kept isolated, one living in almost perfect ignorance of the other,” which he names as “an obscenity surpassed only by the obscenity of the war itself.”

“Thank you for your service,” rings hollow in the ears of men and women who are valuable to society when enlisting, training, fighting, and dying, but have become hollowed-out, throw-away phantoms upon their return from war. The industrialization of war facilitates the distancing of citizens from those purportedly defending them. Or in the incisive words of David Morris:

The industrialization of war is a relatively new phenomenon, and no other country sends as many men and women overseas to kill as we do. No other people in history has sent as many as far away with as little sacrifice demanded of the average citizen as we do. No other people in history is as disconnected from the brutality of war as the United States today. Were the truth of war to become apparent to Americans, we wouldn’t continue to train, equip, and deploy warriors the way we do. Nor would we ask them when they came home if they killed anyone. [The Evil Hours, p.251]

The War Hero Vs. The War Villain

In July, 2013, Private First Class, Chelsea Manning, born Bradley Manning, a US Army Intelligence Specialist, was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Manning released thousands of secret documents to Wiki Leaks, an international, non-profit journalistic organization founded by Julian Assange, which specializes in exposing government secrets. Among the secrets exposed by Manning was an official policy by the US government to ignore torture in Iraq; the systematic cover up of child abuse by military contractors in Afghanistan, the overwhelming innocence of the majority of men detained at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp; U.S. military officials withholding information about the indiscriminate killing of Reuters journalists and innocent Iraqi civilians; known Egyptian torturers who received training from the FBI in Quantico, Virginia; the fact that the Japanese and U.S. Governments had been warned about the seismic threat at Fukushima; and the Obama Administration allowing Yemen’s President to cover up a secret U.S. drone bombing campaign.

The whistleblower, whether it be Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Coleen Rowley, Daniel Ellsberg, or a host of other men and women throughout history, is the one who exposes the shadow of some entity that is deceiving, oppressing, or betraying the masses. The archetype of the whistleblower is ancient and deeply imbedded in our consciousness. Socrates was the philosophical gadfly of Athens who demanded that citizens contemplate meaning and purpose. In the Greek myth of Cassandra, it was said that Apollo gave her the power of prophecy in order to seduce her, but when she refused him, he gave her the curse of never being believed. Like Cassandra, the whistleblower, or simply the inconspicuous activist, may have the courage and discernment to expose the shadow, but there will always be a price to pay. He or she will always be vilified in some manner.

As anonymously stated in a January, 2015 Atlantic article “The Tragedy of The American Military,” by James Fallows, a man who worked for decades overseeing Pentagon contracts stated that, “The system is based on lies and self-interest, purely toward the end of keeping money moving.” According to this former Pentagon official, what kept the system running, was that “the services get their budgets, the contractors get their deals, the Congressmen get jobs in their districts, and no one who’s not part of the deal bothers to find out what is going on.”

This succinct description of the US military summarizes how it functions and to what end. When the shadow is not exposed, it produces many ghosts, such as the ghosts of war. When it is exposed, its collateral damage in terms of lives permanently altered or destroyed is vast and often incalculable. Just as the military insists that “freedom isn’t free,” exposure of the shadow often take a brutal toll. Losing one’s job as a result of whistleblowing is often the least of one’s woes. Many truth-tellers have lost incredible amounts of money; been victimized by extortion or arson; endured bankruptcy and the loss of all material possessions; received death threats; succumbed to chronic, catastrophic illnesses; and many have been murdered or found dead as a result of an “apparent” suicide. Choosing to expose the truth about a government, an institution, or a corporate behemoth may literally cost the whistleblower everything—including their life and almost always catapults the truth-teller into an underworld initiation of suffering, alienation, and excruciating dilemmas of meaning and purpose.

Yet many report that speaking the truth was the most pivotal and defining moment of their lives. In spite of all it cost them, they could not have done otherwise. Not infrequently, the shadow’s tentacles can reach so far into our lives that we cannot extricate ourselves from them without losing parts of ourselves, yet the dark gold is discovered when we realize that our truth-telling has made us someone we no longer recognize but joyously embrace because it was what we came here to accomplish.