Life After War, Thinking the Unthinkable


Courtney Hampton
Staff Writer

The statistics aren’t pretty.

According to the Department of Defense taskforce on mental health, 30 percent of members from the Armed Forces returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Another 10 percent have been diagnosed with depression.

The most chilling statistic is that in 2012, 152 active-duty servicemen committed suicide—more than the number of servicemen killed in action.

In her talk entitled “Knowing Terrible Things: Thinking the Unthinkable in Time of War,” Martha Bragin from the Hunter College School of Social Work in the City University of New York claimed that the healing of veterans is affected by  society’s ability to recognize its connections to the soldiers who fight war in its name. The process of post-combat reintegration is impacted by the society’s ability or failure to incorporate the soldier’s experiences as its own.

The Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC) sponsored the talk as a part of the series “Fallout: In the Aftermath of War” and took place on Thursday, Jan. 24, at 4 p.m. on the University of California, Santa Barbara campus.

“If veterans do not heal, the society cannot grow,” said Bragin during the talk. “The goal would be for the larger society to own the narrative that a combat veteran enacts during wartime. A welcome home should provide reintegration services that enable [the veterans] to use what they have learned to improve their own lives and those of their family and community.”

Bragin said that some of the symptoms of PTSD do not surface until long after the combatant has returned from duty, especially if the combatant has not been properly aided by reintegration programs.

“Neurobiological research indicates that extremely violent events are processes differently by the brain, causing them to be segregated and fragmented outside the narrative [of war],” said Bragin.

She explained that neurologist Sigmund Freud claimed that the sound of shells exploding near the helmets of World War I combatants was not the cause of “shell-shock,” what we now know as PTSD. Instead, shell-shock in veterans was caused by the fear of making meaning of the impulses connected to those sounds.

Later psychologists theorized that the problem was that the rest of society repressed and ignored the connections that the veterans had made to the sounds of war. Members of society not in combat construct a collective idea of war that does not match up to the combatants’ idea of war. This false image protects civilians from having to know what may be too terrible to know.

“We know that when soldiers return from war they are changed,” said IHC Director Susan Derwin when introducing Bragin. “We also know that when soldiers come home from war, their loved ones are often at a loss to understand what they have gone through. The violence that soldiers have experienced can seem far removed from the everyday lives and ordinary events of the people at home.”

According to Bragin, research suggests that since the brain processes violence differently than normal experiences, both the body and the brain are altered. When combatants must repress these memories of violence because they do not feel they can confide in others about their experiences, they recall these memories as vividly as they first experienced them.

By taking these memories and narratives out of the shadows, breaking down the boundaries between combatants and civilians, and accepting the horrors of the warriors as the horrors of a society that sponsored war-making, we can help soldiers reintegrate into society. In short, we must think the unthinkable.

The next event in the IHC series “Fallout: In the Aftermath of War” will be a performance of actors reading scenes from ancient Greek dramas about soldiers returning from war. After the reading, a panel of veterans and community members will offer their personal responses to the play to inspire an audience discussion about the homecoming of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. “Theater of War” will take place on Thursday, Jan. 31, at 4 p.m. in the Hatlen Theater at UCSB.