Healing the Trauma of War
By Charles Rush
May 27, 2012
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
(mp3, 6.3Mb) ]
is Memorial Day weekend, an appropriate time to stop for a moment of somber silence, as we remember the high cost of war. The last few years, it seems, I’ve heard more about it- at funerals unfortunately- as the generation of World War 2 passes on.
One of the
veterans from Summit was part of the invasion at D-Day with the Navy. That
invasion was as top secret a mission as we had in the war, so they were on
black out for communications. He sailed a mid-size vessel that we used for
rescue missions, out of a port in the south of England. Leading up to the
invasion, they were ordered out on patrol, but no sooner had they gotten to
open water than something broke in the engine room that was big enough that
they had to be towed back to the dock. He was elected with a skeleton crew to
ferry the ailing boat back to the port. Meanwhile another one came, and 230
sailors piled on to man the ship.
night, when they were on patrol, they were spotted by a German U-boat that
fired on them, hit the boat precisely, sank it, killing everyone on board.
Communication with base just went dead. At command, they decided that the
security risk to the entire operation was sufficiently at risk that they
decided not to acknowledge that it happened in any way. And for the next couple
days, there was no communication and then D-Day started.
I’m thinking to
myself, let me get this straight. You were a 19 year old kid in college that is
drafted. You train with these guys for the last 9 months, all the people you
hang out with. Almost all of them are killed almost instantly upon assuming
their assignment in war.
You can’t call
your girlfriend about it. You can’t write your Mom. You just have to deal with
it, possibly the first time you’ve even known death that close, with just the
other guys left on the boat, that were chosen randomly to stay behind.
And two days
later, we sent you in to get the wounded off the beach at Normandy. God bless
you my son, I’m thinking, even now that he is 80. We asked more of you than
should be asked of any boy. I want to pray for his healing, of course.
What a terrible
thing to put someone through. But at the time, if you recall, the reward for
their very fine work in the Atlantic, was to be re-deployed in the Pacific to
do it all again, under more difficult conditions.
The human costs
of war are enormous, even if we haven’t been able to scientifically catalogue
them yet. A couple years ago, I finally asked the obvious question. My
mother-in-law was in college when the war ended. I asked her what campus life
was like right after the end of the war.
Now in her mid-80’s, genteel Episcopalian and avid birder, educated at
a progressive private liberal arts college, I just asked her the question in
the middle of nothing, what was it like?
“It was crazy.
There was a lot of drinking, every night was like the
weekend. There were fights, boys just doing crazy things. And the police on
campus all of the time, breaking things up, bringing boys home… And the Dean never
said a thing, none of us did.”
generation, the texture of that trauma when soldiers came home was quite
different and so was Viet Nam. One of our cousins finished his tour, came home,
the family gave him a party of welcome. The next morning he went and bought a
Harley Davidson motorcycle, came home, told his family that he was going for a
ride. And he came back… a year later. He never really said much about it and no
one really much asked either.
met a wonderful woman and they married. He eventually became solid citizen,
family man. But he has had some demons from that trauma that have been
life-long challenges. A lot of healing has taken place but there were parts of
his personality that never bloomed either.
I don’t know
what the statistics are but the homeless guys that we meet on the streets of
New York, the ones 60 and older, the overwhelming
majority are Viet Nam vets. They don’t mention it right away but if you ask
them what they were doing this time of year in 1969, almost invariably they
will reflect and say, “I was in Da Nang”. Who can say
what the cause and effect really are on Veterans but there is no question that
it is palpable and substantive.
It is true that
I think about these things more because one of my sons is a veteran. And I’m
really lucky because he was in recon, so it was a really bad day if they ever
fired their weapon. Nevertheless, at 19 and 20, he had something like 9 guys
that he knew that died. It is stress inducing.
In the Bible,
war is given as a kind of constant in the human condition. No one can ever
remember a time that there weren’t ‘wars and rumors of wars’. So it is lifted
up as something of a symbol of the brokenness of the social order, a brokenness
in which we all participate. Before we are able to even able to formulate a
sense of justice, we are imprinted with the wounds of a previous generation.
As a child in a
Southern family, I was taken to Shiloh and Vicksburg, by my relatives. And we
were told a story about our people, who were on both sides of the battle, but
what struck me later in my life is how I had these primordial and visceral
reactions to Yankees before I was even old enough to really hate people.
When I was an
adult, I watched a video of Serbian boys pledging themselves for the defense of
the homeland, to inflict revenge grievances that their ancestors fought over
some 700 years ago…, like it was yesterday.
And then I
watched another with Hamas leading Palestinian boys through a ceremony pledging
themselves to martyrdom at the ripe age of 10, to redress grievances for the last
3000 years. Thank God we Americans have such a short history. The bitter memory
of defeat and injustice stays alive for millennia and it becomes a factor
itself in what is possible in the memory of two groups in conflict.
In the Bible,
this brokenness is depicted as the essential metaphor of our brokenness
socially speaking. There is a phrase in Deuteronomy that says, “The sins of the
fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
The damaging effects of war trauma last that long.
In contrast, the
Bible lifts up the image of a genuine peace as a supernatural hope for the
future. We’ve never known such peace in our personal history yet. Isaiah says,
“The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the
kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall
lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Imagine if we were as gentle as a nation as small
children. If the Spirit of God were to fill our imaginations, so that it might
transcend our revenge scenarios, it would start to heal us.
Ezekiel has this
wonderful image of the healing nature of the Spirit of God. He says it will be
like breath coming back into dry bones. Then he goes through this extended
process whereby a skeleton reverses the natural process of decay and begins to
re-graft, reassemble, and finally to come back to life again. The Spirit of God
is healing in our lives. It is life giving.
The Prophet Joel
predicted that one day the Spirit of God would begin to manifest itself widely
in our world and when it does, he says, “Your young men will dream dreams and
your young women will see visions.” It is life-giving and inspiring, the way
that you feel when you get a shot of hope that lifts you our
of your doldrums.
I loved the
wonderful movie ‘Cocoon’ that takes place in South Florida. One day a group of
bored guys at a retirement center find an alien pod.
When they touch it, it is like the get a shot from the fountain of youth. They
have this new lease on life. They are full of energy. They start cutting out of
exercise class to plan adventures together.
They concoct a
party in the middle of the day, invite their wives, start flirting again,
dancing again. They have the whole ‘ooohlaahlaah’ in
their step. It is just a wonderful renewal. You just come back to life again.
That is what the
Spirit is like. More than that, when the disciples had their fullest connection
with the Spirit, it transformed them from frightened, dispirited men, and
pulled them back together with each other. It gave them a vision that the
message of Love they had known in Jesus was so powerful that they could connect
with people from all over the globe. And pretty quickly, they were moved enough
that they decided to start missionary churches and they went out in pairs,
doing just that.
First to Damascus, and Alexandria, but pretty quickly to Baghdad
and then on to India. From Alexandria, they went to Ethiopia, Athens,
Rome, Turkey, Armenia, and even Ireland. Back in the ancient world, those were
the four corners of the earth. They were emboldened with a vision and a mission
that was healing, life giving, inspiring.
There is this
fanciful, beautiful dimension to the movement of the Spirit in our lives. I was
reminded of it in a video that a couple women made, watching Starlings gather
in nature. It is a kind of movement in nature that takes the lightness of the
wind and creates a moment of transcendent wonder that the Spirit is like when
it moves in the world. [Youtube “Starling and Murmuration” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRNqhi2ka9k]
Lilting, aesthetically invigorating, wonder. The Spirit of
God restores us like that.
I suppose if we
could zoom out enough, we might just see that our lives kind of move between
these two polarities, between human trauma (some natural but
most of our own making) and the holy spirit of healing and inspiration that
restores us to a new day. And how do we live like that? How do we live in a way
that honors those who have sacrificed on our behalf? How do we live in a way
I’m touched by
the simple images that comprise the Old Testament. They suggest a guide and the
Middle East is a place that knows about destruction and rebuilding. All of the
ancient cities, like Jerusalem, have been built and rebuilt more than a dozen
How do you live
in a time of peace?
Micah 4:4 says,
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning
hooks, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their
own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” The
simple pleasure of harvesting and keeping the fruit of your labor… And enjoying your family.
Psalm 128 says,
“May your children be like olive shoots, may peace and
prosperity rest upon you, may you live to see your children’s children”. Think about how blessed we are. The simple
honor of enjoying and developing our families, the hope of living to be 70, the
full span of life in that time…. Today, think how many of us live well beyond
that; some of us live to see not just our grand children but our great
says, “You shall build houses and inhabit them… no longer shall your work be in
vain.” It is so horrendous to stand atop the ruin of things built over
generations like is happening today in Aleppo, Syria, those beautiful ancient
buildings and squares reduced to rubble with inept soldiers using imprecise
methods of overkill. You live a life of simple honor when you are able to build
something important and beautiful that will outlive you.
It is a simple
but profound vision. It reminds us that we cannot undo the trauma that people
have suffered in the past. Nor does actual honor require us to live heroically
in peacetime. But we can transcend the trauma that they have experienced and
release healing when we are able to develop communities of normalcy, full of
the humanity that releases love with our families and our friends, when we
build something together that outlives us, when we reap something hopeful for
What we can do
it live out of our gratitude, be aware of the blessings that we are privileged
to actualize, to relish the ordinary things that they did not get to
experience, to live our lives with meaning and purpose, that is enough. Set
yourself in that direction. Channel the Spirit of healing and hope. Touch
others around you with grace as we turn towards the summer season this weekend.
And may you know the mystery, the wonder, the unbearable lightness of being.