Travis P here. The picture I’ve included above is by Tom Lea, an artist who traveled with US Marines in the Pacific during World War II (this particular painting is called “The Two Thousand Yard Stare”). The image captures better than words ever can one of the effects combat has, a particular example of what the aftermath of combat can be.
I first meant this post to talk about long-term after the fact effects of combat, how it changes the warrior who fights in battle permanently. But I’ve found the actual information on this topic more elusive than I believed it was. So I’m going to broaden the topic a bit to talk about the effects of combat after the fact in general, not just long-term.
Let’s start with the “thousand yard stare.” I read one source that suggested that eyes staring unfocused in the distance is adaptive for survival, because by not focusing on any particular thing, the peripheral vision expands, so any potentially dangerous motion is easily detected. I mention this source more to illustrate that many of the actual realities of why human beings do what they do under various circumstances is in fact still at least partially a matter of speculation. And sometimes a whole lot more than “partially” speculative.
Unlike the source I just quoted, I think it’s more normal to see the thousand yard stare as a product of information overload to the brain. Normal eye movement, normal inquisitive engagement of the environment ceases, because the brain has seen enough and engaged enough. It may be true a person in that state defaults to a form of vision designed to pick up motion, but the primary reason for such a reaction is sensory and emotional overload.
Such a state of staring is usually temporary, as are all the effects of what is now commonly called a “Combat Stress Reaction.” In addition to the stare, troops coming off hard fighting often share the following traits:
Slowing of reaction time
Slowness of thought
Difficulty prioritizing tasks
Difficulty initiating routine tasks
Preoccupation with minor issues and familiar tasks
Indecision and lack of concentration
Loss of initiative with fatigue
Inability to relax
Shaking and tremors
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Frequency of urination
Heightened sense of threat
Loss of adaptability
Mistrust of others
Extreme feeling of losing control
Obviously not everyone experiences all of these traits. In fact, a number of these reactions cannot be experienced together because they are opposites, e.g. excessive sleep versus insomnia. For most people exposed to combat, a have a number of these reactions (but not all of them) are normal. And for most warriors, the bulk of these effects fade after a few days. The experience of US Military medicine in WWII indicated that a person was in fact more likely to fully recover from “battle fatigue” if after only a short break he returned to his unit and continued to engage in combat. Why this is true is a matter of speculation, but it may be the case that someone who disengages from combat stress can see himself as a permanent failure if not allowed to return to duty with the rest of the “normal” soldiers.
Acute or short-term combat reactions are fairly well understood. Most people experience them at a level that will hamper their ability to continue fighting if under enough combat stress–that amounts to something like 96% to 98% of all combat soldiers if under continuous contact with the enemy for an extended period (6 weeks or more). This figure comes with a very small group of exceptions, as previously noted in the previous post, The Fearless Elite, who show no observable reaction to combat, even of the sort that causes most warriors to become psychological casualties. Yet a reaction to combat stress can exist at a level which affects a warrior without fully paralyzing him or her and is in fact common.
The list of affects above starts to morph into longer-term effects when it lists depression, substance abuse, loss of adaptability, attempted suicides, disruptive behavior, and mistrust of others. These particular traits can become long-term conditions. And acute reactions, from nightmares, to depression, hyper-vigilance, heart palpitations, and more, can occur in someone who has been long removed from combat if something occurs that triggers the memories of warfare. A mild example would be how for a long while after returning from Iraq (where I was subjected to rocket attacks for an extended period), I would “excessively startle” at loud banging noises from firecrackers to slamming doors.
Other reactions include a sense that life outside of combat is ridiculously trivial, which is understandable when dealing with life and death in war versus dealing with running errands in regular life. In addition, a person who has experienced extremes of emotion on the battlefield often shows signs of emotions being fused in ordinary life. So a person can rapidly become angry or experience other rapid shifts of emotion. I found myself experiencing some of the sense that ordinary life doesn’t matter much, as well as quicker-than-normal anger.
My reactions, such as they were, faded in me over a period of several years. They do in fact fade for most people, but for many, never very much. True stories of veterans who suffer from nightmares, or who can not be safely awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night, or who always sit in the corners of restaurants to keep an eye on an entire room due to hyper-vigilance are extremely common.
Note that modern warfare is different from ancient or medieval in the fact it can put stress on a person day and night for extended periods of time. Usually, in the past, warfare was only fought during daylight hours. Yet even though ancient times record less of people being disabled by psychological stresses, the type of stresses that became greatly evident for the first time during World War I, there still exists evidence that combat stress was a “thing,” even in the distant past. Travis C is going to share how both the Iliad and the Odyssey show elements of how war changes warriors, not just in modern interpretations of those texts, but also in the way these accounts were first composed.
II Samuel 20:12 likewise records how people passing by reacted to an Israelite named Amasa who had been disemboweled and left to die along a road (by Joab). The sight stopped them in their tracks to the degree that Amasa had to be pulled off the road and covered with a cloth for people to keep moving. In other words, even in times where people saw more bloodshed than we do, the sight of a disemboweled man painfully wallowing in his own blood wasn’t something people could ignore. They were clearly affected by it, almost certainly horrified.
And historical accounts of medieval behavior, in which knights seem to show very little emotional control, also function as examples. That is, the knights seem to have demonstrated signs of the kind of emotional swings experienced by someone exposed to traumatic stress. Please note that these stresses are not limited to combat–people can experience this from other kinds of trauma, especially when they are exposed to it as children. Please also note that many children in the medieval world were exposed to violent trauma that would have impacted them strongly–and this would also be common in many worlds of epic fantasy.
This situation is a bit like the fact that nearly everyone in Medieval Europe had at least some scarring from smallpox–yet since everyone had it, they simply considered that condition normal. Having eliminated smallpox from the world, today we see such scarring on people as unusual. Likewise, in modern societies that have eliminated much of the gruesomeness of childhood that was common in the past, we see post-traumatic stress reactions as abnormal. Our ancestors took far less notice of people acting in a way we’d associate with post-traumatic stress–most likely because it used to be far more common.
What exactly is the connection between acute combat reactions and long-term post traumatic stress is difficult to say in a broadly meaningful way. Some people have a greater tendency to suffer from long-term problems than others, though why isn’t clear. Note though that a person is not necessarily disabled by continuing to have (a) post-traumatic reaction(s). People can have sudden unexpected reactions to certain smells or sounds or other stimuli that remind them of their combat stress without being paralyzed by such reactions. People can suffer from black moods and have suicidal thoughts and overcome such conditions, especially with help from others who have gone through the same sorts of things. In fact, it’s important for veterans to realize such reactions are to a degree, normal. And that talking to one another, or at times to professionals, about their experiences is healthy and good.
One factor that seems to relate to how soldiers react to combat over the long-term stems from whether people are able to justify their actions in combat to themselves. A person who looks back and feels he acted morally and correctly does much better in dealing with post-traumatic stress than those who look at back at their own behavior and see it as reprehensible. Note the sense of “morality” I’m referencing does not necessarily mean a person is good–a knight judging his actions from a warped view of Christianity may have felt morally justified in killing defenseless Muslims and Jews (say when Jerusalem was taken in the First Crusade)–that doesn’t mean he actually was justified in a broader moral sense. But the ability to feel justified has always helped warriors deal with the aftermath of combat. Those who cannot justify their actions to themselves have a harder time.
Let me emphasize there is a difference between having post-traumatic stress or a post-traumatic stress reaction and having PTSD–Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder occurs when veterans are disabled by their experiences, when their lives are interrupted significantly. A person can have a certain amount of permanent effects from combat–it is normal in fact to have some–while still functioning in life in a normal way. Or mostly normal…
Stories that include combat should at least consider these realities for both human and non-human characters.
Travis C here with some illustrative resources for writers of combat. As Travis P notes, we’re talking about two broad categories of combat impact: physiological and psychological responses in the midst of action or shortly afterwards (often labeled as combat stress response), and the responses that last after a warrior withdraws from combat and returns to “normal” living. I was at a training session for the Coming Home Dialogues which uses the humanities as a means for veterans to process their war experiences and during a poetry-writing exercise one veteran wrote the following conclusion to a poem about “things every soldier should know”:
You don’t come home.
Sounds harsh, but the message was beautiful. The “you” that began a deployment or mission isn’t the same as the one coming back, and while many effects will pass with time, the experience is etched there and for many the effects do not always pass.
Instead of analyzing the popular media which often captures the physiological responses to some degree (movies can do well as focusing on bodily responses, for instance) and may use story narrative to expose a warrior’s psychological reactions, I’d like to very briefly introduce two resources that helped me work through my own challenges by unpacking two fantasy works of literature: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Jonathan Shay is a psychologist and counselor of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Two of his popular works are Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Each work analyzes the main character of The Iliad and Odyssey respectively and posits that Homer is writing about warrior issues of moral injury and betrayal (Achilles) and the psychological impact of returning home from war (Odysseus). For writers looking to hone their ability to write about warrior culture I can’t recommend each book highly enough.
Let’s begin with Achilles. The Greeks have been fighting the Trojans for some time, and Achilles represents the noble, honorable Greek warrior fighting for a just cause. He and his Myrmidon are spectacular in battle, winning many engagements and bringing honor and encouragement to the Greek forces. Then Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks (though not Achilles’ ruler), decides to take back part of Achilles’ rightful war spoils for himself. The movie Troy attempts to capture this moment but fails to fully reveal the cultural and personal affront this is to Achilles. He is enraged at the dishonorable actions of his leadership and is wounded in a moral way: the Greeks no longer serve someone who holds the ethical high ground. In fact, maybe they never did. After losing his brother Patroclus, Achilles goes into a berserk rage as his worldview of rightness and honor comes spiraling down, ultimately leading to his death.
The Iliad shows us the warrior’s response to several specific traumas of battle. The death of a close comrade. Wrongful substitution (i.e., survivors guilt). Revenge through a berserk state of mind. The impact of dishonoring the enemy and having the enemy dishonor your own. The destruction of trust in the social and moral order the warrior exists in. A betrayal of what’s right.
The Odyssey represents another interesting case study for writers. If Achilles represents the honorable warrior operating from a worldview of moral rightness, Odysseus represents a different worldview. He is cunning and wily. It is Odysseus who suggests the use of the Trojan horse as a means of breaking through the Trojan forces and winning the war from the inside. Sneak inside, open the gates, kill as many as possible, and the Trojans will break. Prey upon their religious beliefs and lie to them. Odysseus inappropriately takes Achilles’ armor when it should have gone to Ajax. Not exactly honorable conduct.
Once the war is ended the remainder of the Greek forces sail for home after ten long years of sustained combat. Odysseus, King of Ithaca, tries to bring his men home but fails. After ten more long years he washes ashore and becomes a guest of the King of Phaecia. Among the civilian court, trapped in riches and focused on trivial things, Odysseus’ identity is learned and he recounts his tale of wayward misadventures that have cost him his entire army (none of the Ithacans come home except Odysseus).
Shay unpacks the Odyssey in much richer detail than we can do justice to here, but consider the tales of cyclops, sirens, Scylla and other monsters as a metaphor for a returning warrior’s internal challenges to coming home:
- A success warrior’s repertoire of skills looks a lot like a criminal’s. Cunning, critical thinking, adaptability, focus on a task, control of fear, control of violence, capacity to respond skillfully and instantly to danger, disregard for fixed rules if it endangers the mission. Odysseus’ men raid the island of Ismarus and find their warrior training has prepared them for a career as thieves.
- Odysseus’ crew tempt the island of the cyclops for only one apparent reason: to see what would happen. They knew danger lay there, but wanted to see what would happen if they prodded the beast. Returning warriors often find regular life boring and will find ways to create dangerous situations and thrill-seeking even in the midst of peace.
- Odysseus encounters his friend Ajax in the Underworld, and finds within himself “a lack of moral pain, guilt, self-reproach, and self-criticism.” Warriors must wrestle with returning home and often suffer from internal agreements they’ve made, including a relentless search for the truth, an acceptance that anyone close to them will be harmed, and that the losses they suffered are irretrievable. In Shay’s words, “The lone wolf feels at home nowhere.”
- It’s often forgotten that the sirens weren’t calling out to the ships’ crews in a sensually seductive manner; they were calling out seductive truths that Odysseus heard nowhere else. They called out selective truths, but truth nonetheless. A warrior will often find themselves on a search for the truth (Why were we really there? What was our true impact? Did ____’s death really matter?) and that struggle may persist for a lifetime.
- To be frank, Odysseus has problems with women. Relationships are challenging to begin with, but combine that with extended time away from one another, limited communications, and the added stress of homecoming expectations and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.
These are but a few examples from each of Homer’s works that describe the challenges a warrior faces when returning home. We recognize the risk of physical injury to the warrior on the field, and can paint a picture of maimed and broken soldiers back in society. The mental tax, the psychological impact of warfare, may not be as well appreciated. We recognize the impacts through secondary effects of the aftermath of combat: the veteran who can’t relate well to others, the warrior who never lets go the memory of a fallen comrade, the pent up anger and frustration if the system has failed them. Good writing will attempt to capture those impacts and show our readers the holistic story of the warrior’s combat experience.
Lastly, as we’ve pointed out before, these are realities for human combatants. Shifting our view to different races or species, the impacts may be different. How a culture processes the aftermath of combat might play a pivotal role in your story. Maybe there are genetic or physiological differences that make a character work different. The contrast to what is recognized as a human condition will be that much more important.