Can the Trauma of War Lead to Growth, Despite the Scars?


But another current can be found in theories developed during the Vietnam War. The study of psychological trauma suffers from what the psychiatrist Judith Herman has called “episodic amnesia,” in which periods of active interest, frequently following wars, are followed by “periods of oblivion.” But the generation of soldiers disaffected from war during Vietnam organized and demanded the first systematic, large-scale investigations of war trauma’s long-term effects. In addition to a medical diagnosis — PTSD was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual in 1980 — many of these same veterans and their allies argued for the spiritual and moral significance of their condition.

Psychiatrists like Robert Jay Lifton and writers like Peter Marin argued that the suffering of Vietnam veterans was not simply neurosis, but appropriate moral response to horror. “All men, like all nations, are tested twice in the moral realm,” Mr. Marin wrote. “First by what they do, then by what they make of what they do.” Rather than numbing themselves to pain, they needed to sensitize themselves, to become alive to the “animating” guilt they supposedly lived with. Guilt forces the suffering consciousness outside of itself, the theory goes, sparking empathy and a drive to make reparation.

Whether guilt results in healing, though, is debatable. Some of the most fascinating research on growth after war trauma emerges out of a four decade-long study initiated by Zahava Solomon, which followed the PTSD trajectories of veterans of the 1982 war in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War. A 2016 analysis of Israeli P.O.W.s from the 1973 war, who faced systematic torture, deprivation and social stigma, did find that those who reported the most guilt about their experience also reported the most growth. However, those veterans also had greater reports of PTSD symptoms as well. As Aeschylus warned, the wisdom they felt they had gained came with deep scars.

None of this would likely have surprised Ignatius of Loyola. In his tradition, suffering was at best a mystery: God never really answers Job, and Christ’s prayer to “let this cup pass me by” goes ungranted. As a Jesuit friend recently told me, suffering is never a gift, never truly willed by God; suffering is real, and awful, and not to be forgotten. “Consider how the Divinity hides Itself,” Ignatius’ followers have been directed to ask for hundreds of years, “how It could destroy Its enemies and does not do it, and how It leaves the most sacred Humanity to suffer so very cruelly.” But of course, that doesn’t mean that we cannot respond to such suffering with grace.

Phil Klay is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, a visiting professor at Fairfield University and the author of “Redeployment,” winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, and the forthcoming novel “Missionaries.”



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