War—The Bitter Aftermath
THE juggernaut of war has crushed millions of men, women, and children, combatants and noncombatants alike. It has left many physically, emotionally, and psychologically scarred.
Many soldiers who survive the carnage of conflict do so maimed and mutilated, with their future life prospects blighted. Typical is one old soldier who survived the first world war—only to spend the next 30 years of his life in continual suffering due to the aftereffects of the mustard gas used in that war.
It is often the emotional and psychological wounds, however, that are the hardest to cope with. “No man who took part in the First World War ever completely shook off the experience,” wrote Keith Robbins in The First World War. “Men who appeared to retain their poise and composure were secretly scarred,” he continued. “Many years later they would wake up in the night, still unable to shake off some lingering horror.”
Think of the horror, for example, of just one day in 1916 during the first battle of the Somme—21,000 killed and 36,000 wounded among British troops alone! “The men who came back from the Somme rarely spoke of their horrific experiences. A shocked numbness set in . . . One man was haunted all his life by the thought that he’d been unable to help another wounded comrade who called out to him as he crawled back across No Man’s Land.”—The Sunday Times Magazine, October 30, 1988.
“You are afraid that you will hurt those you love,” said Norman J——, explaining the consequences of his intensive battle training and combat. “If you are awakened suddenly, the instinctive reaction is to attack.” Men in prolonged traumatic situations find their emotions deadened. “It becomes difficult to show any emotion at all,” he continued. “I have also seen men severely disturbed by the strain. I saw men break beer glasses and chew the glass.”
Norman’s reactions are not uncommon. “One in seven Vietnam veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder,” said one report. Another carried the headline: “For many, the war lives on.” It continued: “As many as 1 million Vietnam veterans have yet to leave behind a war that still terrorizes them every day . . . Some have committed suicide and abused their families. Others suffer flashbacks, nightmares and withdrawal . . . They suffered a psychological wound that is deep and abiding.”
At times this results in criminal behavior. How much value can men put on life and high moral principles when, as Gerald Priestland put it, “an act of killing which could have me convicted of murder in one set of circumstances, could win me a medal in another.” (Priestland—Right and Wrong) “We were hired assassins out there,” said one Vietnam veteran. “Then the next day we’re supposed to go home to the Ford [automobile] plant and forget everything. Yeah, right.”—Newsweek, July 4, 1988.
The two world wars, said Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “had an effect on the psyche of a whole generation . . . Having lived through such events, people were left with scars, these being handed down to grandchildren and great-grandchildren . . . Four decades later the symptoms of delayed injuries are becoming visible.” Such injuries have been felt worldwide.
Mary C——, for example, lived in England near a target for German bombing missions during World War II. “Keeping my emotions to myself so as not to produce fear in my children resulted in my smoking heavily,” she said, “and I eventually ended up with a nervous breakdown leading to claustrophobia.”
On the other side of the battle lines was Cilly P——, in Germany. “As refugees,” she said, “we learned the meaning of hunger.” She also learned the meaning of grief. “Whenever there was talk of those killed or missing,” she continued, “we thought of our men. Anni, my fiancé’s sister, got news of her husband’s death in the war just before she gave birth to their twins. The war robbed many families of their men, their homes, and their possessions.”
Anna V—— from Italy was another one stung by war. “I was embittered by the horror of war and the sufferings of my family,” she said. “A year after World War II ended, my mother died, without ever seeing her son return from a prisoner-of-war camp in Australia. My sister died from malnutrition and lack of medical care. I lost my faith in God because he allowed the suffering and the atrocities.”
The shock of such displacement, separation, and bereavement is difficult to bear. The cost in human terms is usually too high. One young woman, widowed during the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in 1982, expressed the feeling of millions of bereaved and widowed people when she said: “It wasn’t worth it for me, losing my husband for a little place in the middle of nowhere . . . It is coping with the emotional shock that is the big problem.”—Sunday Telegraph, October 3, 1982.
Think, too, of the physical and emotional wounds inflicted on the survivors of nuclear war. A report written in 1945, Shadows of Hiroshima, gives a shocking reminder of the terrible aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima:
“In Hiroshima, thirty days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly—people who were uninjured in the cataclysm from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague. Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence.” Over 40 years later, people are still suffering and dying from that explosion.
Some of the most tragic victims in the war zones of the world have been the children, many of whom have been drafted into armies in places such as Ethiopia, Lebanon, Nicaragua, and Kampuchea.
“What is clear, from Iran, when young boys were sent across the minefields is that boys are more malleable, cheaper and can be wound up to pitches of emotional fervour for long periods in the way no adult soldiers can be,” said The Times of London. Commenting on the brutalizing effect this must have on such children, the chairman of a human rights organization asked, “How can they ever grow up as sane and balanced adults?”
That question is echoed in Roger Rosenblatt’s book Children of War. He interviewed children who had grown up in areas where they had known nothing except war. Many showed remarkable resilience in the face of their horrific experiences. But others, like “a great many boat children, especially those whose parents were left behind in Viet Nam, seem deeply troubled and disturbed.”
How can the surviving victims of war—men, women, and children—cope with the problems this has produced in their lives? How might other family members help? And will there ever be an end to such tragedies?
[Blurb on page 6]
‘We were hired assassins out there. Then the next day we’re supposed to go home and forget everything!’