Saturday, November 26, 2005

War Is Not Hell, It's a Broadening Experience

I can just picture Michael Ruane pitching this article idea to his editor. After all, doesn't every reporter love the story that contradicts what everyone believes?

Although the shattering psychological impact of war is well known, experts have become increasingly interested in those who emerge from combat feeling enhanced. Some psychiatrists and psychologists believe that those soldiers have experienced a phenomenon known as "post-traumatic growth," or "adversarial" growth .

Although war left him with a leg of plastic and steel, [Hilbert] Caesar, 28, of Silver Spring, appears to be among those who return home with psyche intact and a sense that they are in some mysterious way improved.

"I'm the same person," he said, "but I'm a different person now."

Combat's potential to inflict psychic wounds has been recognized as far back as the ancient Greeks, but so has its ability to exhilarate, intoxicate and instruct those who experience it, experts say.

"If you think about all of the heroes and heroines in cultures across the world . . . all of them, in one sense or another, faced some sort of a dragon," said Matthew J. Friedman, director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School. "The transformation from that encounter has been celebrated from antiquity."

When you think about it, this is not news. The Quest has been the basis for countless myths, folk tales, books, and movies -- and war is the ultimate Quest.

Chris Hedges, the New York Times reporter and independent journalist who covered war for 20 years from El Salvador to Kosovo, wrote a whole book about the view of war as an addictive experience that can produce almost a drug-like high.

Any intense experience that involves great fear, physical or pyschological trauma, or suffering can and often does have the same effect. Survivors of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, who experienced the terror of two jet planes crashing into the Twin Towers and killing almost 3,000 people, no doubt could say, with complete truthfulness, that going through an event like that changed them, made them different people, made them more aware of the preciousness of life, made them stronger, and so on. Does that mean that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was a positive thing, or that those who survived or those who witnessed it or those who lost loved ones are glad they went through the experience because they grew from it? I don't think so.

There's something else that needs to be said here, as well. There's an entire element to this story that is completely -- I mean, completely, utterly, absolutely -- missing: the other country, and the other people, involved in war. Where are Iraqis in this article about the gloriousness of war? Men like Hilbert Caesar chose to participate in this war -- albeit that for many, that choice was greatly influenced by the reality that they had few if any other economic or professional options in life. It might make some sense that volunteering to go to a foreign country 10,000 miles from home and fight for what you believe is a Noble Cause has its exhilarating and rewarding side. But what about the children, women, and men in Iraq who have been killed, maimed, widowed, seen their families decimated and their homes destroyed, and who live in a constant daily state of terror? The Iraq war may not be as positive an experience for them as it was for Hilbert Caesar and men like him. They cannot leave Iraq and go home, to a country where there is no fighting and dying, when their tour of duty is over, as U.S. troops can.

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