The 100th anniversary of Armistice Day has not passed by me unnoticed. This milestone that marks of the end of the First World War is something that I have felt to the core.
The day after Remembrance Day, I met with a friend who gave me this link to the Canadian government’s military heritage site: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/personnel-records.aspx
Library and Archives Canada has an extensive collection of records on the men and women who served in the military, going back to the war of 1812. The databases include muster rolls, war diaries, medical documents, photographs, medal registers and more.
I made a beeline for the World War I collection and found my grandfather’s records. All my family knew is that my father’s dad had served in France during World War I. He had fought at Vimy Ridge and he’d been buried by a shell. I found his attestation papers along with a 156-page PDF that included all his medical files. He had a lot of them because he had been ill with diphtheria and pneumonia even before he got to France. He also had a chronic condition known as Banti’s syndrome, which is an enlargement of the spleen that causes pain and the destruction of red blood cells. When he arrived in France in November 1916, he was not a well man. I can’t even begin to imagine how he must have suffered in the trenches through the exceptionally cold winter of 1916-1917.
Andrew Bain of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders described the conditions:
Mud and cold. Oh, for weeks we were up to the thighs in mud. And if we were moving forward to the trenches, many of the shell holes were filled up with muddy clay. And if a man fell into that he couldn’t get out. And they were simply drowned in mud. There was nothing could be done about it.
The severe cold drove some men to disobey orders and take matters in their own hands:
The winter of 1916-17 was notoriously a very, very cold winter. And for my part, I think I almost in my own mind then tasted the depths of misery really, what with the cold and all that sort of thing, you see. We were forbidden to take our footwear off in the front line. Although, I myself disobeyed that on one occasion. I was so cold when I came off sentry go, and we had a bit of a dugout to shelter in, when I went in there – this was before leather jerkins were issued – there was an issue of sheepskin coats. And I took my gumboots off and wrapped my feet in the sheepskin coat to get a bit of extra, you know, to warm them up a bit. (https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-winter-1916)
This morning I read an article in the New York Times called “Fighting the Spiritual Void,” written by columnist David Brooks. He is talking about PTSD wherever it shows up – in veterans recovering from the psychic wounds of fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, in women experiencing the aftershocks of sexual assault, or even in people who are trying to help others who have undergone extreme trauma.
“Medication can rebalance chemicals in the brain, but it can’t heal the inner self,” he writes. People who are suffering the psychic shock of traumatic events are experiencing a “moral injury.” They don’t feel themselves. Time keeps rolling backwards, cycling around the trauma. Some people feel tainted. They don’t feel like good people anymore.
In his book, War and the Soul, psychoanalyst Dr. Edward Tick writes about his decades-long work with veterans and suggests that PTSD is best understood as a “soul wound.” Over the forty years he has worked with soldiers, he has heard graphic descriptions of how the core self or soul flees the body during trauma. One of his patients, a machine-gunner at Khe Sanh during the Vietnam war, told him that after massacring waves of attacking North Vietnamese soldiers, the North Vietnamese overcame his unit. He was forced to retreat and while he was on the run, his soul “ran out” of his body. The connection to his soul wasn’t broken entirely, he explained. It went everywhere with him, but it didn’t want to return to his body.
As Dr. Tick said to his patient, the goal of the therapy was to get his system out of combat alert – in other words, “to try and make your body and this life a safe place for your soul to return to….”
“There is a spiritual void in our culture,” writes David Brooks. We have no ritual for cleansing and purifying the psychic wounds and rejoining the community after trauma. People like Joseph Campbell have helped to revive a mythological perspective which has enabled trauma survivors to see their experiences as courageous initiations and spiritual returns. Myth gives us a language for expressing psychic wounds in ways that we can bear; in ways that others can bear. And the burden needs to be shared, I feel. How else can we heal as families and societies?
For years, I’ve been haunted by what Walter Benjamin said in his essay, “The Storyteller,” about the silence of soldiers returning from World War I. He wrote: “With the (First) World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poor in communicable experience?”
He goes on to say: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.” (Page 84, Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections.)
The silence of my grandfather resonated through my childhood. I can’t remember anything he said because he never spoke.
Silence doesn’t heal trauma. It doesn’t just magically dissipate. It seeps into the bones of the family, of the children, of the community. I believe we are all still dealing with the psychic wounds of two world wars and many other wars since. Trauma that can’t be absorbed, trauma that leaders deny, ricochets around us all. Consciously or unconsciously, we feel it. We vent our anger and outrage. We focus on the negative and the sensational. We hate the news and yet we need it, somehow, like a fix. We look for sources of hope, but our eyes are stung with cynicism. We eschew sentimentality for good reason. To believe all those happy feelings, we need to absorb what can’t be written on a Hallmark card.
Lots of people reject fairy tales because many are violent and politically incorrect. Yet they contain human trauma, set in an otherworld that is jammed right up next to this one. Mythic stories, told and retold, have long provided a safe place where people can find their broken selves and put them back together. The psychic wounds find their own reflections in a host of discharged soldiers and wounded initiates. To name just a few, there’s Ian in Ian the Soldier’s Son, the worn-booted soldier in The Boots of Buffalo Leather, the penniless veteran in The Devil’s Sooty Brother, the lively-stepping soldier in Andersen’s story, The Tinder Box, and, of course, the one-legged soldier in his beloved tale, The Steadfast Tin Soldier.
What percolates up out of all of this for me is that the return journey from any form of soul shock must involve a belief that it is possible to come to peace. Many people are afraid of peace, I would suggest. I remember my father at the dinner table expressing the fear that if everything became peaceful there would be nothing to talk about. But I would say, if we could only quiet ourselves long enough, we might learn about who we are, what lives in us, and what kind of futures we imagine. As long as we’re fighting one another and defending our own positions, we can’t come out of hiding. We stay locked into the stone statues that we become when we are soul-shocked.
i don’t have an antidote to the old spell that “war is necessary,” but surely it must begin by making peace with ourselves and creating habitable places for our souls.
I leave you with a little flash from the Grimm’s story, Bearskin, where we find a dismissed soldier confronting the possibility of peace:
“When I received my dismissal, my captain said I might go where I liked. I had no money, so I went to my brothers and asked them to take me in until war broke out again. “What can we do with you?” they said. “You are no use to us. Go make your own living.” I slung my gun over my shoulder and went on my way. I came to a wide and desolate heath where nothing stood but a circle of trees. I sat there, staring into the earth. I had no other trade but fighting.
How would I live in peace?
I heard a rustle, looked around, and saw a strange man standing before me. He had cloven feet and wore a stately green coat. I knew who he was, for I am a solider, and even the Devil doesn’t frighten me.