International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Effects of War Unfold in Literature, Art and the Humanities Throughout History

Posted 1 January 2001 in StressPoints by Chaim Shatan, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York, New York, USA

Our field can gain many fresh insights from literature, art and the humanities. Sigmund Freud recognized this early in the 20th century when Thomas Mann presented him with the Goethe Prize for the excellence of his writing in German. Mann saluted Freud as the discoverer of the unconscious. Freud replied that it was not he but poets and writers through the ages who should be credited with this discovery.

Our own Jonathan Shay mined the ancient poets in his original study "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character." Inspired by Shay's work, Larry Tritle, a Vietnam veteran and a professor of ancient history, has been teaching a popular course of the same name at Loyola/Marymount University in Los Angeles. Tritle also has just come out with a book, From Melos to MyLai (Routledge, London, 2000). Melos was a small, weak island-state whose citizens were massacred by the deceitful Athenians during the Peloponnesian War.

In 1999, a young New York dramatist, Clarinda Maclow, adapted Homer's Odyssey in her production "Odd-Sea," a brilliant dance-cum-choral work staged aboard an old ferry boat. In it, Ulysses' (Odysseus') veteran soldiers and sailors became Vietnam veterans, and the experiences of both groups were interwoven. Maclow's tapestry was a modern realization of the weaving of Odysseus' wife, Penelope, evoking the suffering of soldiers' women, then and now.

William Shakespeare's work illustrates many emotions aroused by war and trauma. In "Macbeth," Macduff is urged to "dispute it like a man" when he gets the news of the murder of his family. He replies, "I shall do so; But I must also feel it as a man." He insists on mourning and remembering, although he does refer to tears as "play[ing] the woman with mine eyes." Eventually, he agrees to "let grief convert to anger" and "be...the whet stone to [his] sword." In the words of crown prince Malcolm, he will "make us med'cines of our great revenge, to cure this deadly grief."

At the end of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I," Falstaff gives a biting discourse on the futility of honor in combat, as he debates whether to take part in the battle of Shrewsbury. Earlier in the same play, Lady Percy, wife of Harry Percy (Hotspur), gives us a sophisticated rundown of her husband's hyperalertness and combat nightmares.

Francis Bacon, the great essayist and a contemporary of Shakespeare, advised European princes to do as the ancient Romans did to help veterans adjust to homecoming- provide ceremonies, financial rewards and public acknowledgment, and recognize that "some hospitales for maimed soldiers" were not enough. Bacon felt that if veterans' needs were disregarded, rulers might be confronted with revolts by discharged soldiers as were some Roman emperors who ignored veterans.

World War I saw an outpouring of artistic expression in such well-known works as Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That, not to mention poets such as Wilfred Owen and John MacRae ("In Flanders Fields"). The British poet Siegfried Sassoon fictionalized his wartime experiences in a trilogy "The Memoirs of George Sherston." Recently, his experiences were further fictionalized by the Booker prizewinning Pat Barker in her "Regeneration" trilogy. She not only gives superb descriptions of combat stress and post-combat stress reactions, but also lays out in detail the therapy of "shell shock" at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland. The portrait of the treatment approaches of the pioneering British psychoanalyst/anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers is a revelation. Barker's 1998 novel Another World vividly portrays the power of old memories to erupt into the present.

The great French Cubist painter Fernand Leger wrote in his World War I letters from the front about the permanent influence the sight of dismembered bodies had on his art. The German artist Otto Dix created searing etchings entitled "War" in the tradition of Goya's "Los Desastros de la Guerra" (The Disasters of War).

This brings us to writing about Vietnam. I'll mention only a couple of books and say nothing about poetry or film. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried evokes the quotidian horror of the grunt's life in Vietnam as few others do. Wilbur Scott, Vietnam veteran sociologist, gives a detailed history of Vietnam veterans' movements and issues in The Politics of Readjustment - Vietnam Veterans Since the War. He includes a fascinating analysis of the research significance of the sociology of veterans' studies. And to grasp the universality of these issues, there is nothing more appropriate than The Sorrow of War - A Novel of North Vietnam, by the North Vietnamese veteran Bao Ninh. Unfortunately, his government has not welcomed his work wholeheartedly.

More general works by scholars and mental health professionals have much to offer. Jacob Mendez DaCosta, writing more than 125 years ago, described "soldier's heart" during the U.S. Civil War. James McPherson, an outstanding Princeton historian, offers us a moving investigation of civil war soldiers' verbatim experiences culled from hundreds of diaries, both North and South (For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War).

Broader ground-breaking studies of the myths behind war, weapons and ethnic cleansing appear in the following: Bloodlines: from Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism, by Vamik Volkan, Chief of Psychiatry, Medical College of Virginia. His earlier book, On the Need to Have Enemies and Allies: From Clinical Practice to International Relationships, is a pioneering work.

Colonel David Grossman, formerly of West Point, tackles issues that few others have approached in his book, On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, students of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, have given us an eye-opener about myths people fight by in Blood Sacrifice and The Nation: Totem Rituals and The American Flag.

A new book, which debunks the myth of the armed colonial settler and Indian fighter, is historian Michael Bellesiles' Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. At the same time, he gives a vivid portrait of early American attitudes - both European and Native - about war, weapons and the militia up to the Civil War.

I limited myself to war and the military because I know these best. And yet, this is only a partial list. Similar compendia can - and should be - drawn up about the contributions of the humanities in relation to sexual abuse and genocidal violence.

Chaim Shatan is a founding director of ISTSS. He formed the Vietnam Veterans Working Group and recently joined the faculty of Mt. Sinai Medical Center's special program for treatment of holocaust survivors and their children.

Correction
The Spanish Society of Psychotraumatology & Traumatic Stress (SEPET) is completely independent of the Spanish Society of Victims of Terrorism. StressPoints apologizes for any confusion in the fall 2000 issue's "An ISTSS Founder Helps Launch Spanish Trauma Society."