Sharing War’s Burden

We need modern rituals to heal our wounded warriors

| September-October 2008

  • War's Burden

    image by Christiane Grauert

  • War's Burden

Guilt, shame, slaughter without purpose, alienation from homeland and life itself—this was the legacy that Günter passed on to his son Walt from his combat service in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Walt was born in the United States shortly after his parents emigrated here from Germany. Growing up in the Cold War 1950s, Walt longed to be an all-American boy, but he was always the Indian to his friends’ cowboys, the “Kraut” to their G.I. Joes.

When he turned 18, Walt volunteered for Vietnam. “I wanted to finally be one of the good guys,” Walt said. He could not know that, instead, he would return with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), feeling less than ever like “one of the good guys.”

Our troops do not enlist because they want to destroy or kill. No matter the political climate, most troops seek to serve traditional warrior values: to protect the country they love, its ideals, and especially their families, communities, and each other. In my work counseling veterans of several wars, I’ve seen that PTSD is, in part, the tortured conscience of good people who did their best under conditions that would dehumanize anyone.

Almost all cultures, past and present, have had warriors. They have also had complex stories and rituals to help them recover from combat and guide them through the life cycle. In traditional cultures, boys and men studied a “warrior’s path.” In these societies a warrior was not the same as a soldier—not merely a member of a huge, anonymous military institution used for the violent execution of political ends. Rather, warrior was one of the foundational roles that kept societies whole and strong. Warriors were fundamentally protectors, not destroyers.

People respond to the same call today. Michael, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, proudly declares that at age 18 he was the first in his state to enlist after 9/11. Nick, an Army officer who served in Iraq, signed up because of a lifelong desire “to be like Hector defending the gates of Troy.”

Warriorhood, however, is not valued or nurtured in modern society. A veteran, especially one with disabilities, appears to many, and sometimes to himself or herself, as a failure in terms of normal civilian identity.