War—The Shock and the Trauma
“WE HAD been on a patrol that had proved uneventful. Our officer, a mild, kindly man, not a professional soldier, was leading us back to our own lines. A sentry challenged us. Before our officer could reply, a nervous soldier behind our lines fired, hitting the officer in the face. The poor man died, choking in his own blood.” For Edward B——, a British soldier, that summed up the trauma of World War II.
Some try to hide the real face of war. World War I, for example, was portrayed by some propagandists as “part-Armageddon—the final battle of Good against Evil . . . and part mediaeval joust, with a touch of cricket thrown in.” (The Faces of Power) It was neither. It was better described by news correspondent and author Ernest Hemingway when he wrote that it was “the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth”—up to World War II.
Such butchery has marked all the wars of this century and before. “Every war in history,” wrote Malcolm Browne, “whatever its cause or justification, has been filthy, agonizing and degrading to all concerned.” In Vietnam, he saw firsthand much of the well-documented slaughter and agony of war, but he still felt that “the spectrum of horrors perpetrated in Viet Nam represents nothing new in human experience.”—The New Face of War.
Similar horrors were certainly experienced during World War II. Germany and Japan were laid waste and totaled their military and civilian war dead in the millions. The United States lost about 400,000, Britain 450,000, and France over half a million. The Soviet Union lost an estimated 20 million. Listing what it described as “this toll of human suffering,” the book World War II stated: “Overall casualties in the war, including civilians, numbered at least 50 million.”
The civilian casualties were part of what Gerald Priestland in his book Priestland—Right and Wrong described as “total warfare: war for men, women and children, regardless of where they are or what they are doing, how old or helpless they may be.” It was typified, he said, when “the allies incinerat[ed] Hamburg and Dresden, and the Germans wreck[ed] Liverpool and Coventry.”
The annihilation of tens of millions in war has been obscene. But what about those who survive the “filthy, agonizing and degrading” trauma of war? How are they affected? And how can they cope with the aftereffects? The following articles will examine these questions.