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
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
function. First there will be an
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
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
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
, 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;
to do the unthinkable ‘for the sake of’;
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
to that cause.
“We ask that you become an Elder Spiritual Warrior, from whom and by whose example we may learn the value of
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
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
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.