WAR, WARRIORS, AND ELDERS:
THE TRIANGLE THAT CAN MAKE US OR BREAK US
By Vincent P. Ward, Ph.D.
NOTE TO VETERANS AND THOSE WHO LOVE THEM: Please read this. Then read the "Silo Nightmare" page.
One of the cohorts of constituents in South Carolina that political candidates court is veterans. There are lots of them. They come for the services, or for the climate to retire, or for the sake of family already here. Politicians see them as votes.
I see them as deeply wounded and troubled.
The young veteran, call him Will (a composite of several different vets), sits across from me in my psychotherapy office. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD. He looks at the wall over my shoulder for most of our time together this day.
“What’s in your nightmares?” I ask at one point. “You don’t want to know,” he answers.
“Yes, I do,” I reply. Will is silent.
After a while I ask, “Did you see battle buddies die?” “Yes. That happened. But I don’t dream about what happened to me.” He pauses, and finally looks at me. “It’s what I did.”
Will went on to describe a number of incidents in which he’d killed, or been responsible for others killing, enemy soldiers. The violent and bloody images haunt him.
In modern war, soldiers experience horror, fear, anger, grief, self-hate, and regret. When they return home, those emotions need containment. It turns out that how the containment happens makes the difference between a healthy return to civilian life, and PTSD.
When a man goes to war, or even earlier, in boot camp, his deep psyche wakes up a “psychic organ” that might otherwise stay asleep. It’s the Warrior. “He” is to take on the task of protecting his family and his people from danger of any kind, natural, animal, or human. The Warrior carries some built-in qualities that equip him for this: protectiveness, service, courage, willingness to kill, focus, commitment, sacrifice, and others.
The awakened Warrior brings with him some ancient, hard-wired (but unconscious) expectations of how his growth will go, how he will be shaped and matured into his protect-and-serve function. First there will be an Ordeal that will test his strength and mettle. That’s battle (or its supportive functions like supply). Will did well with his ordeal.
Then, eventually (unless he’s killed), the Welcoming should be the Warrior’s return home to his culture. This is where containment comes in. All the psychic and physical energy, the battle-readiness, the courage, the commitment, the readiness to kill and sacrifice, the emotions named above, still surge and spin in him. The primary emotions still surging in Will were anger, self-hate, and grief.
The expectation of the Welcoming is, in our culture, mostly unconscious, but it has a certain shape and content. Done properly, the Welcoming helps the Warrior unwind, stand down, going into a sort of “inactive reserve,” and the man becomes able to re-enter family and community in a healthy way. The less his return fits those unconscious expectations, however, the more likely and severe PTSD becomes.
The Welcoming rituals must convey messages powerful and moving enough to register deep in the Warrior’s psyche. He must hear:
“You went to the brink by acts of destruction and killing for our sake. We therefore share responsibility for the outcomes of what you did – death and destruction and damage. Now we must hear you tell the stories of your deeds. Leave out no details, no matter how brutal or gruesome. We must not be protected from taking in the truth of what you did in our name, nor of what you gave of yourself to do so. We and you will rejoin each other in this way.”
The people and the Warrior then grieve together, for the cost to him and his soul, and for the human suffering left in war’s wake. He must experience their gratitude for his service in protecting the lives and ways of his people. He must experience them opening their ranks and drawing him in, Welcoming him home.
And they must call him to continuing service to his people in a new role: “As you return to us, we ask that you continue to serve, following the Warrior’s path to the wisdom of the Elder Spiritual Warrior. Become our teacher. You have lived firsthand the functions we must preserve in daily life to remain mentally healthy: Protection of life; Facing Death; Responsibility for others at home, for brothers-in-arms, and for life itself; Courage to do the unthinkable ‘for the sake of’; Sacrifice of a piece of one’s own soul, and perhaps life and limb, ‘for the sake of”; Recognition of a cause greater than oneself; and Service to that cause.
“We ask that you become an Elder Spiritual Warrior, from whom and by whose example we may learn the value of these things.
PTSD is not a medical condition needing treatment. It’s what happens to a Warrior who has been unable to stand down from battle readiness.
Will’s return was woefully inadequate. So is that of most veterans.
What would be “adequate?
The Warrior’s purpose, his mission, is the protection of human life. But in modern war the goal is to kill as many of the enemy as possible. So the Ordeal is participation in the destruction/violation/rape of human life. This is an unthinkable paradox: To protect life by killing. To live with it, the soldier must go to the brink of the Dark Side of “The Force” – The Force of life itself. Within the psyche, the issue is why – what is the motivation or goal? Do you go for personal gain, revenge, or power? Then you cross over the brink, like Darth Vader. For the purpose of Protection of Life? Then you are eligible to turn back from the brink, with the risk that you’ll be unable – seduced or imprisoned – to do so.
How do you turn back? Through the Welcoming: the people of the community, and Elder veterans who’ve been where you’ve been and returned safely, conduct rituals of gratitude and shared responsibility. If this works, it will keep you in touch with the reason you went there, and bring you back to the Light. This is the “containment” referred to above.
Note that the Warrior, that hard-wired organ of the male psyche, wants and expects the containment to be done externally, by Elders and the people. If that doesn’t happen, the Warrior must do it himself, alone. Those emotions fight for expression, and their need to escape causes symptoms (e.g. flashbacks, frustrated rage) of PTSD. This keeps the Warrior “at the brink.” And sometimes, that waiting Warrior will wait no longer, and turns his chaotic energy outside himself, crossing the brink into Darth Vader territory. This is the vet with PTSD who turns on family, friends, fellow soldiers, or coworkers, exploding, perhaps even killing them or himself.
The consequences for our culture of our failure to share the Warriors’ responsibility and grief are devastating. Dr. Edward Tick, in his book War and the Soul (2005, Sounds True) says the epidemic of PTSD among our “unfinished” Warriors is a signal that “the social order is breaking down and the savage is breaking through.”
Without the people themselves participating in the Welcoming, and without the Elder Spiritual Warrior, those values on which a mentally healthy people must stand are lost to the culture. The people lose their connection to their own deep selves and to their culture. And the unfinished Warriors themselves will fail to reconnect with themselves, will not experience the Welcoming, and will not move on to the cultural function of Elder Spiritual Warrior.
They will be diagnosed with PTSD.
So the unrecognized and unvoiced deep message from vets who have PTSD because their initiation, though opened, was never made sacred or finished, is this: “Without us, ‘The People will disintegrate.’ Violence and chaos (The Dark Side) will win.”
Will feels the savagery, an is trying hard not to participate in it. He feels Welcomed by his wife, and by me, and by some other vets, but not by his people. Not enough to bring him home.
In sum, Initiated Warriors are the only ones among us who understand – are wise about – how to implement “The Force” for love of life. Savagery is inevitable if we don’t have Initiated Warriors. So our neglect of the truth of PTSD – that it’s caused by refusing to finish their initiation – is resulting in a sort of “slow apocalypse,” in which the institutions of modern cultures, like politics, economics, and the law, slowly unravel into chaos.
The poverty of spirit resulting from the absence of Elder wisdom creates deep spiritual anxiety. Our unconscious hunger for Elders (especially Initiated Warriors) to tell us the truth about the meaning of life may eventually require a scapegoat with whom we can go to war, because ultimately, we need those Warriors. We appear to be grooming the Muslim world for this role.
Perhaps the people who support Donald Trump or Ted Cruz are really (but unconsciously) clamoring for someone crazy enough to start a war, intentionally or by mistake, to generate the Warriors. Of course, it won’t work – it will only give us more soldiers with PTSD.
Best use the Warriors with PTSD we already have. They are here now, waiting for their initiations. Before we can save ourselves without war, we must save them.
I am not optimistic.