On War and the Soul

When I wrote up my reflections on military trauma after the JustPeace Conference, I had not yet read Edward Tick’s book, War and the Soul: Healing our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (Quest Books, 2005). It further deepens and expands some of the key themes I raised in that earlier piece. It also challenges us with insights that cut across the grain of many of our assumptions.

Tick is a psycho-therapist grounded in the work of Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, and practitioners of “soul work” like Thomas Moore and James Hillman. From this perspective, the traumas we see in soldiers (Tick uses “warrior”) is not a medical malady to be healed with medications or treatments. Neither is it a failure to flip some interior switch to get us back from fighting to civilian normalcy.

For Tick, what we now call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a failure to provide cultural practices and rituals that enable people to integrate their war experiences into an identity that both claims their warrior soul and enables it to contribute to the healing of the society around them. Instead of integrating the experience, they (and we civilians) drown it in drugs, romanticize it in movies (see John Wayne), or deny it altogether by denying its costs .

Tick then ransacks Greek legend, Biblical story, and Native American lore to lift up ways that the warrior “archetype” can be claimed within us, placed in its proper ritual and developmental contexts, and brought to bear on the actual experiences of veterans from the horrendous wars of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. Unless we do so, we fail to guide military action in wartime and integrate its experiences into socially useful lives for the survivors.

Tick himself has spent over twenty-five years leading surviving warriors and people of their generation, such as war resistors, through purification rituals in sweat lodges and reconciliation visits in Vietnam. His stories provide compelling grounding for this book.

As a person who came of age in the civil rights movement and the struggle to end the war in Vietnam, I was able to retrieve some of the grief and lost “normalcy” of that period and begin to integrate it more adequately into my later years. That is an ongoing task. Tick’s book was not only helpful on the personal level, but also challenges me with some questions. Here are some of them.

If the Warrior (as distinguished from the “berserk killer”) is an archetype in our lives – both male and female, it seems – then how to we integrate that into the life of one who builds up society and the natural environment? Tick’s later pages give some helpful pointers.

What I think is important, is that those of us who tend to begin with an emphasis of peace-building may contribute to the unhealthy failure of reintegrating warriors and their experiences. We deny this dimension of our natural being and therefore fail to creatively integrate it into our other aspects of social cooperation, care for the earth and for life.

Peace-building proceeds at its peril (and ours) if we neglect this task. In this regard I thought of Worf, the warrior Klingon in Star Trek: Next Generation, who personified that alien culture’s warrior tradition of self-restraint, self-sacrifice, courage in the face of death and danger, and skill in using force to avert hostility.

Just as there is a point when an emphasis on peace-building can block healing and therefore real restoration, so can a narrow focus on the warrior archetype and its claims on us can lure us into the glorification of war and violence that denies the reality of war and leads generation after generation into its horrors. Tick is aware of this. He is trying to present an adequate culture, religious, and ritual “container” for it so that we can deal with the tragedies of human conflict.

Even as he seeks to retrieve the Warrior archetype in order to reconstruct a healing process for veterans, he also is driven to argue that the conditions of modern warfare have made it impossible to accomplish the personal transformation at the heart of the classic warrior’s quest.

Modern technology has separated the soldier from the warrior experience even as it bathes us in blood and destruction. Warfare doesn’t test individuals in a clear public way; it severs the bond (yes, bond) between combatants, drawing non-combatants and the natural world into its destruction. Its destructiveness has escaped the bounds of public policy and personal achievement that once made it “meaningful” in Chris Hedges terms [War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (Anchor, 2003)].

This makes it even more urgent that we find ways to enable survivors of war to integrate this experience into a personal identity and social mission that builds up non-violent means for resolving conflicts and caring for the earth.

In Red Clay, Blood River, I was trying to get at some of these healing connections in terms of our experience of slavery, exploitation of the earth, and “removal” of peoples from their ancestral lands.

In juxtaposing contemporary searches for meaning and vocation with stories so deep and forgotten that only Earth can remember them, I was struggling with a question similar to Tick’s – how can we honestly integrate our past into a present vocation to care for each other and the earth? His book is a critical addition to my reflections on this question.

2 thoughts on “On War and the Soul”

  1. Thanks, Elaine!
    Yes, Judith Herman is one of the sources for Tick’s reflections. She takes in a whole array of trauma, especially the trauma experiences of women. Very insightful stuff.

  2. One very good book on this subject is Trauma & Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman. She talks about how revolutionary it is for war veterans to be able to talk about their experiences. Not only is it part of the process of recovery for the soldier but for the whole society.

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