November 12, 2010

Veteran's Day, PTSD, and Classic War Literature

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the great guns finally fell silent across Europe.  The First World War, the War to end all Wars, was over.  Unfortunately in just over 20 years the world was again at war; and again tens of millions of humans would be killed and millions more displaced.  Yesterday, the 92nd anniversary of the end of World War I, was Veteran's Day in the United States; and as a veteran myself, I first want to take this opportunity to thank all of my brothers and sisters who have served and are serving in this nation's armed forces.  Where ever you are now please take care of yourself, and look out for your comrades too.

Last night I watched James Gandolfini's HBO documentary, "Wartorn: 1861-2010" about the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon combat veterans, their families, and society as a whole.  While we still have a long, long way to go to fully understanding the psychological impacts and effects of intense combat upon the human mind, both in the short-term and over the long haul, I do believe that we are finally beginning to address this issue and the obligation that society has to treat and care for those afflicted with PTSD.  We simply must do the right and honorable thing for all of those who served our country with honor and dignity themselves.  I highly recommend taking the time to watch Gandolfini's documentary.  It was hard to watch, but an important step in the right direction toward helping these men and women cope with combat-related PTSD.

As most of us who read know, there are great classics of war literature that have been written over the ages.  One can go back nearly three-thousand years to Homer's The Iliad and find descriptions of the savagery and horrors of war, including descriptions of soldiers that were probably afflicted with PTSD.  In fact, Sophocles in his play, Ajax, tells the story of what happens to Great Ajax after he loses the competition with Odysseus for the right to claim the armor of the slain Achilles.  Ajax awakens from a dream, and while 'under the spell' of Athena, he slaughters a flock of sheep thinking that they are the Achaean leaders, including Agamemnon and Odysseus.  When he comes to his senses, he realizes what he has done and is so shamed that he commits suicide.  To me, this sounds like the actions of a combat veteran suffering from PTSD.

Other great examples of classic war literature that describe the horrific effects of combat upon the human mind include Stephen Crane's novel of the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage.  Erich Maria Remarque's novel of World War I from the German perspective, All Quiet on the Western Front.  World War I from the American perspective can be found in Dalton's Trumbo's horrifying novel, Johnny Got His Gun.  World War II combat literature includes James Jones' From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.  More recently, the American novelist, Charles Frazier, looked back at the Civil War through the eyes of a young Confederate soldier leaving the war and his odyssey to return home in the beautiful novel, Cold Mountain.  This literature, while extraordinarily painful to read, has the power to inform us of the human costs associated with war, and the lesson to us all that war should never, ever be casually entered into.

As this country enters its tenth year of having its armed forces engaged in fighting wars abroad, I ask that you spend a few moments reflecting on the price being paid by our men and women--our soldiers, sailors, and airmen--and the impacts upon their families and our society.  Some of you may even have brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, or fathers and mothers who are abroad, in uniform, fighting in this global war against terrorism.  Thank them for their service for me, and tell them that I am ever so profoundly grateful for all that they do, and what they endure on a daily basis.

Finally, I included the image of the poppies in this posting as poppies have become the symbol representing veterans because of the poem In Flanders Fields, by the Canadian military physician, Colonel John McCrae. In the poem, McCrae wrote of the poppies that bloomed in some of the most bloodied battlefields of Flanders during World War I.  Here is Colonel McCrae's poem--

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(December 8, 1915)



  1. I found All Quiet on the Western Front to be really moving. I agree that we don't know enough about PTSD.

    I'm in the UK and here we call the 11th of November rememberance day. I'm a teacher and at our school, all the children bought a red balloon (money going to veterans), tied on a thank you message to the soldiers and released them together at 11am. It was actually really moving to see 400+ balloons floating off together.

  2. Sam, that is so cool! Thank your kids for me too. I can only hope that none of those children ever have to experience war themselves. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that with me. Cheers! Chris

  3. I love the Flanders Field poem. It's always very touching to read, or better still, to hear being read.

    P.S I noticed that you've got Les Mis in your TBR. That is also one I plan on tackling soon!

  4. Thank you for your service, Christopher, and thanks for this post. My son and I did our part on Veteran's Day placing flags on graves for his cub scout troop at our Civil War monument here in Buffalo. It was very moving for both of us, and it gave me an opportunity to discuss war and veterans with him so that he can start to understand. Red Badge of Courage was a pivotal novel for me in understanding just how bloody and horrendous a war it was, but, as with most war, it did have a higher purpose.

  5. Oh I love this poem. My high school choir did an arrangement of it and I remember crying the first time we sang it all the way through. Thank you for this post! It is a great reminder to put more thought into this holiday and pay tribute to those who have served our country.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful essay.

    Now that you mention it here (an in a comment on my Veterans' Day post), I do remember seeing poppies when I was a kid in Omaha. We don't see them here in Portland very often, but then, this is Portland.

  7. Johnny and I were in Ypres (or Ieper, if you're Flemish) a few years ago. I memorized this poem for the occasion and I can tell you it was an awesome experience being at Flanders Fields. There are many of them and we only got to a few but at that time, there was an incredible exhibit at the Flanders Fields museum. If you ever get the chance to go to Belgium, Ypres is a must!

  8. I forgot to add that All Quiet on the Western Front is a truly amazing book. I read it this year and can't believe I never picked it up before.