The Hidden Emotional Cost of War

Maddening boredom. Utter numbness. Comradeship so intense that it threatens family ties. War’s worst psychological effects can be the ones you’d never expect.
  • Transcript


Question: What are the major short-term and long-term traumas of war?

Nancy Sherman: Sometimes the symptoms don’t show up right away, and there’s a kind of natural healing that can go on just like leaving a war zone and sometimes it’s not good to talk to people, we think now, right afterward, but rather to almost let the wound heal a little bit on its own.  But some of the symptoms that we’re aware of and they will be a hyper vigilance, being in a hyper-sensory mode; so walking the perimeter, listening with acuteness the way you would in a battle area, or it might also be flashbacks, inability to sleep.  One of my soldiers, Rob Kissler, just found himself in a bar with his arms around someone’s neck.  He strangled this guy and then he realized that he had heard something and thought he was in fighter mode, and had just slipped into fighter mode imperceptibly.  And that was about a year after battle.  He was a long-term patient at Walter Reed and being treated, by the way, for physical injuries, a loss of an arm use, a titanium arm replacement and a leg replacement.  

Other times it could also just be this numbing that you’ve had to—you’re exposed to the sort of stresses that are so superhuman that you have to protect yourself by numbing, and you continue to dissociate afterward.  So those are some of the physical—the physiological effects that we are familiar with. 

But what I’m trying to explore are the spectrum that doesn’t necessarily, or may include some of these, but also includes these conflict feelings, consensual feelings.  Feelings of guilt for what you did or what you saw and did your best, but couldn’t help to do even better than you wished you could have done. To survive a battle when your buddies don’t, to be part of an accident when there’s no fault at all, no culpability, but you were implicated, causally implicated and you hold yourself really accountable.  Or to love your buddies more than you love your spouse, or your family, and one of my soldiers said to me, “You know, I’m in a tent with someone day in and day out and I know when he passes wind at night.  I know that fart.”  You know, and he said, “How can I tell my mother that I was that physically close to someone?”  So that feeling of a betrayal almost of your home family because you've reattached to others who got you through it. 

Also feeling that life is darned boring at home when you’ve been so ramped up and revved up and hepped up, and it’s hard to find the same kind of thrill and adventure, even though it’s filled with danger.