The psychic and spiritual cost of war

On Memorial Day, it is especially important to remember the toll of war is also psychological and spiritual. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have required multiple and extended deployments in a type of combat where there is no front line or escape from repeated threat.

Bob Herbert wrote in the NYTimes last week about the psychic toll of war.

Wars are about killing, and once the killing is unleashed it takes many, many forms. Which is why it’s so sick to fight unnecessary wars, and so immoral to send other people’s children off to wars — psychic as well as physical — from which one’s own children are carefully protected.

The fallout from the psychic stress of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been vast, but there was no reason for its destructive effects to have surprised anyone. There was plenty of evidence that this would be an enormous problem. Speaking of Iraq back in 2004, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, who had been an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration, said, “I have a very strong sense that the mental health consequences are going to be the medical story of this war.”

He describes the multiplying effect of a comparitvely small fighting force:

Because we have chosen not to share the sacrifices of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrible burden of these conflicts is being shouldered by an obscenely small portion of the population. Since this warrior class is so small, the same troops have to be sent into the war zones for tour after harrowing tour.

As the tours mount up, so do the mental health problems. Combat is crazy-making to start with. Multiple tours are recipes for complete meltdowns.

As the RAND Corporation reported in a study released last year:

“Not only is a higher proportion of the armed forces being deployed, but deployments have been longer, redeployment to combat has been common, and breaks between deployments have been infrequent.”

Recent attempts by the military to deal with some of the most egregious aspects of its deployment policies have amounted to much too little, much too late. The RAND study found that approximately 300,000 men and women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan were already suffering from P.T.S.D. or major depression. That’s nearly one in every five returning veterans.

And the crisis does not remain with the soldier. Unresolved combat stress and combat related PTSD affects spouses and children, extended families, communities and workplaces. As Herbert says, "the toll includes the victims of violence and drunkenness and broken homes and suicides. Most of the stories never make their way into print."

It is not surprising that in a political environment where we hid those killed in combat from public view in the name of privacy and routinized torture in the name of safety, that we have become unconscious of the psychic and spiritual toll of unending war. As we begin to find ways to care for the psychic wounds of our soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, we may begin to address the spiritual wounds of war for our service-members, their loved ones, our communities and our country.

While many combat veterans successfully come to terms with their trauma, and we now know that psychological trauma has accompanied every conflict, the way we currently fight wars has increased the risk to our troops. As we honor our veterans and remember the sacrifices of those who have served in combat in every war, remember also the often unseen injuries of war with no end in sight.

Read: NYTimes: Bob Herbert "War's Psychic Toll."

Comments (1)

Praying for those in the military and veterans on Memorial Day and Veterans Day is good. Praying for them every week is better. Praying for them and actively supporting the ministry of our chaplains and the Bishop for Federal Ministries is best. The Episcopal Church can rightly be proud of our ministry to those who wear (or wore) their nation's uniform, regardless of what one thinks about the morality of a particular war.

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