PTSD Therapy: Restoring Honor to the Enemy
The golden rule has some effectiveness as a therapeutic tool, even in treating combat stress.
One side of post-traumatic stress that not many people talk about — maybe because it’s so hard to separate from waging a modern war — is the way a nation and its military tend to dehumanize the opposing side. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, took dehumanization as its theme, and it still has a lot to say about war trauma even if Americans have cornered the market on clinical descriptions of PTSD.
All Quiet follows a young, German soldier named Paul Bäumer through the trenches of the war in France. He’s a tough-skinned narrator with no evident pity at first. “If Paul [and his friends] treated the enemy as fellow human beings,” psychologist Nigel Hunt writes in a rare psychiatric analysis of Remarque’s novel, “they could not be effective soldiers; they would be unable to go out and kill the enemy if they for one moment perceived they were human.”
But glimpses of sympathy break through, even during the war and when he’s home on leave, Bäumer not only shows symptoms of post-traumatic stress (alienation, anger) but starts to think the enemy is not all that bad. This crack in his psychological armor hurts him when he returns to the front. The tension is crucial to the novel, and Remarque later said he wrote it “simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
The psychologist Jonathan Shay, in his essential book on combat stress called Achilles in Vietnam, points out one difference between the Trojan War and America’s war in Southeast Asia: “The Iliad contains no derogatory nicknames for the enemy used by soldiers when talking among themselves; we hear no hint of ancient equivalents of ‘Gook,’ ‘Dink,’ ‘Zip,’ or ‘Slope,’ used so freely at all levels of the American military in Vietnam.”
Shay says honor for the enemy — for his fighting skills as well as his will to live — helps a soldier maintain common sense during a war and stay sane afterward. Officers who underestimate the Japanese fighting ability, he argues, may fail to predict something like Pearl Harbor (which really happened); and a soldier who comes home feeling he fought a war against subhuman vermin is in trouble whether his side loses or wins. “The veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers as long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy,” Shay writes. “Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from PTSD.”
Hunt argues this element of PTSD isn’t “dealt with well in the psychological literature,” and, in fact, it’s hard to quantify — maybe it takes a novelist to really paint it in.
But Shay — referring to his own pet author, admittedly, rather than historical data — says disrespect for the enemy is a modern development. He argues the Greek and Trojan soldiers in the Iliad aren’t just formal classical stick figures incapable of filthy language, because they show plenty of lust and skill in heaping insults on their buddies. But for the opposing side they hold their contempt. And he cites Vietnam vets in his own practice who see PTSD symptoms lose their strength when they start to pay conscious respect to their memories of enemy fighters, no matter how nasty they were.
“The impulse to dehumanize and disrespect the enemy must be resisted, whether its basis is religious, nationalistic, or racist,” he writes. “The soldier’s physical and psychological survival is at stake.”