On War and Healing

Source: OrthoCuban

The Opposite of War is Not Peace — What the Orthodox Byzantines retained was an older Greek notion that war inevitably damages the soul. Even in a just cause, in self-defense or to protect innocents, participation in war still harms the soul in some measure. And so I came to the realization that the Byzantine employment of religious rituals around war—inviting priests to bless troops and weapons, to pray before battles—was not a blessing of warfare as such (although they certainly prayed for victories, partly because they saw them as the quickest route to peace). Rather the reverse: the primary purpose of such prayers was to inoculate the soldier against a particular kind of damage that could occur to his soul during war—what we refer to as traumatic stress. These acts of blessing, still retained in Orthodox countries, are not to be understood as the Church pronouncing war good, but exist precisely because we know that war is always evil. …

Today in the secular West, we are recovering that ancient understanding.  For every war America has fought for which we have data, we have sustained far more psychological casualties than physical casualties. In his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, David Grossman—a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and a practicing psychologist—talks about periods in World War II where the Army was discharging psychologically wounded people as fast as it could bring new soldiers in. The old notion that because a war is “just” it is somehow not going to hurt you is gone. No serious person in the psychotherapeutic or American military community accepts that at this point. …

From our eastern Orthodox perspective, just to witness combat is already a terrible burden on the soul. Whereas the mere fact that a particular war can be proved intellectually to be the lesser of two evils—and therefore unavoidable—doesn’t resolve anything. …

PTSD is an awful evil. The quotes above come from the Road to Emmaus: A Journal of Orthodox Faith and Culture. It speaks to a major difference between the East and the West. The West believes that certain wars are justifiable. The East does not believe that, but simply believes that no war is good. All wars are evil, but sometimes wars are the lesser of the possible evils present in a particular historical situation. “… war inevitably damages the soul,” is the Orthodox belief. Again, this does not mean that war may not be the least of many evils, but it does mean that all wars incur damaged people. Not all damaged people end up expressing what is now called PTSD. But almost all who participate in war experience some type of moral trauma.

It is crucial to understand that the more that the American psychological establishment probes into PTSD, the more that we are realizing the vastly negative effects of war. War breeds trauma. Trauma breeds PTSD in some people. But war also breeds some type of moral injury on many more people than those who express an outward form of PTSD.

Does this mean that we should fight no wars? Well, uhm, yes, that is exactly what it means. However, question two, does this mean that no war can be fought? At this point, the answer is not so simple. Remember what I commented about the lesser of various evils. As odd as it seems to say it, war sometimes produces fewer evils than not-war. At the same time, those who wage war need to recognize that those who participate in war will emerge damaged, to one degree or another. Any country that simply treats its returning veterans as those who simply, and only, need to be cheered is a country that will be surprised at the high percentage of damaged expressing veterans found within its population. So, we have to tread a fine line. On the one hand, we do not wish to approve war. On a second hand, we wish to say that the waging of some wars is a lesser evil than no war. On the third hand, we need to recognize that any war leads to several degrees of trauma within the fighting population. On the fourth hand, we need to understand that any country involved in a war will need to have some type of follow-up program available to those who return from the war that was fought, so that the country’s responsibility to care for its own go unfulfilled.

But, wait, you have listed four hands, you say? Yes, and that is the challenge of war. There is so much going on that our systems can be overwhelmed. Nevertheless, somehow, it is crucial that our post-war systems include not only complete care for our veterans, but also the education of society to know how best to welcome the veterans back home.

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