The Trauma of War by Paul Nyklicek

In its comparatively brief history, the United States of America has been at war with someone, in some way, for almost our entire national existence. Within American society itself, various forms of violence are part of everyday life, whether as barely noticeable “slow burns” or as major eruptions that become front-page news. What is less obvious is the question of why this is the case. What causes Americans, as a people and a nation, to be so inclined toward violence both internally and internationally?

America is a deeply traumatized nation. We have been traumatized by what was done to us and what we have done to others. As a nation and as a people, we are more traumatized than we know or want to believe. Like the proverbial fish that doesn’t know that it’s wet, our collective trauma is in the air that we all breathe. It’s so pervasive that it feels “normal” to us. Our political leaders are not immune to this. Neither are our military or business leaders. All who are human are susceptible. Those in positions of authority are all the more vulnerable to the temptation of misusing their power in an attempt to negate or escape their own pain.

Our behavior as a nation is a manifestation of our unhealed collective trauma. This aspect of our history goes back to a time well before 1776. It actually goes back generations before that famous year, before Europeans eventually started to travel across the ocean to the “New World” to try to make a better life for themselves than the one they left behind in the “Old Country.” Why would people undertake such a long and dangerous ocean voyage to unknown territory? Why would they take such a risk if things were fine where they were? They wouldn’t. People leave their homes behind if circumstances are dire. Except for those with a good deal of wealth and status, life for the rest was very hard. They left because of their great suffering.

It did not take long for those traumatized Europeans to start projecting their pain onto the human beings who were already living in the proclaimed “New World.” Assuming an inherent superiority, those Europeans declared the land to be theirs for the taking. They proceeded to do just that. The human beings native to this land quickly became an obstacle for those Europeans. The “othering” of native peoples began by labelling them as subhuman savages. It quickly went downhill from there. The subsequent history of European immigrants, the ancestors of future Americans, includes the dehumanizing of various groups of “different others” such as the people abducted from Africa who were forced into the abomination of slavery. These and other ethnic groups were regarded as second class at best, and often as far worse. The pattern is one of trying to escape our own trauma by projecting it onto whoever is designated as “not one of us.”

Present-day America remains highly traumatized, not only by the events of centuries ago but also by current events that cause tremendous emotional pain and reactions of fear, rage, indifference, and psychic numbing. The evidence of this is in almost every news story you read or watch on any given day.

Going back just a little over a century, America has endured World War I, the Great Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and our subsequent entry into World War II, our firebombing of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo as well as the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Cold War. We have lived through the Korean War, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the My Lai massacre and the Vietnam War as a whole. We have suffered the brutality of individual and institutionalized racism in America. We have seen the vicious opposition to the civil rights movement by substantial portions of our people and our government. We have witnessed the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy.

We have been shocked by the abuses of government power through the public revelations of the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate hearings, and the national humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis. We were shaken by the near assassination of President Reagan, the Iran-Contra scandal, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. We were devastated by the events of 9/11, and we were then coerced and compelled into the “War on Terror.” We were sedated into accepting the Patriot Act, which opened the door for American citizens to be spied on by branches of their government.

The revelations via Wikileaks of the blatant murder of civilians in Iraq by US armed forces personnel and the news of the torture of detainees at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prison left us more numbed than outraged. This was also the case when we learned of the practice of “extraordinary rendition” in which persons are abducted and transported to undisclosed locations, where they are held indefinitely and subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques (i.e., torture) that could be utilized without the inconvenience of due process or any semblance of the rule of law we so proudly claim is the bedrock of our society.

This is by no means a complete list of the collective experiences that have traumatized us and produced an internalized national shame. We have endured all this in our own lifetimes, the lifetimes of our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents. This a snapshot of the collective trauma accumulated in the American psyche over the past several generations. Over time, our silence has become our complicity, which has become our collective trauma.

This pattern has not stopped because the healing has yet to begin.

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As individuals and as a nation, we buy into the fantasy that we are primarily rational beings who make choices and act upon those choices in a rational manner. Admittedly, it is a very attractive story, if only it were true. Individually and collectively, we continue to act irrationally. Two of the most toxic sources of our irrationality, fueled by pain and fear, are the beliefs that “might makes right” and that “the end justifies the means.” These pernicious siblings set us up to hate and oppress. They set us up to dehumanize and to kill, to go to war and to commit genocide. They seduce us into believing that domination, destruction, and death are the way to solve problems.

When we make choices and act from places of great pain, we are much more likely to think and behave with a singular agenda. In such a compromised state, we are tempted into a kind of “magical belief” that we won’t have to feel our pain anymore if we can offload it somehow.

On some primal level, present-day Americans feel the moral weight of what our ancestors have done and of what was done to them. Some cling to forms of justification for why previous generations acted as they did: “They just didn’t know any better.” “They were desperate.” “It was culturally ‘normal’ for them.” “They were just trying to preserve their way of life.” Ultimately, those veneers wear thin and don’t hold up. Deep down we know that our ancestors, our people, have both oppressed and have been oppressed, have degraded and have been degraded, have killed and have been killed. This is a historical truth we cannot escape.

We want so badly to do away with this very painful truth, but how can anyone escape what is inescapable? It is exactly here that addiction seduces us into a fantasy of escape. It appears on the scene when we are desperate for something to put out the fire of our agony. Like a heroic firefighter, addiction arrives to save the day, and it is only after we have given our hasty consent that we discover that we were trying to put out our fire with gasoline.

Addiction is a reaction to trauma. When we are in enough pain, regardless of the nature of that pain, we seek relief. That is the nature of addiction. Addiction hijacks individuals, families, and whole societies. There are pockets of resistance within each, but the power of any addiction should not be underestimated. The drive to stop feeling intense pain is very hard to resist.

There is nothing inherently pathological about seeking relief from pain. The problem has everything to do with how we go about it. The “War on Drugs,” for example, was most certainly not a solution. In fact, the war paradigm itself is a big part of the problem. If you have cancer and your doctor told you that the course of treatment required injecting more cancer cells into your body, you would probably seek a second opinion—imagine if someone came up with the notion of declaring “war on war” as a way to peace! War does not solve problems any more than cancer cures cancer. War always creates new problems that then have to be solved. We go to war to attempt to relieve our pain and our sense of powerlessness from which we feel shame. It is our national painkiller, our prescription opioid, our “heroin.”

This is the recent history of our “War on Terror.” We suffered the horror and agony of 9/11, and then we lashed out with rage at “those people” thousands of miles away who “did it to us” because they “hate our freedom.” We were badly hurt and we craved revenge. Our desire for “justice” served as a veneer of legitimacy for our craving for retribution. America often boasts of being the most powerful nation in the world, yet the events of 9/11 were not only intensely and legitimately painful to our nation, but our sense of vulnerability and our helplessness to stop the attacks were deeply shameful to us as well. Shame ignited hostility and opened the doors wide for our violence to be projected outwardly. We did so in a “patriotic” fever. We compensated for our self-perceived weakness by going all-in with a sustained demonstration of our military omnipotence. American exceptionalism, now on steroids, was loudly proclaimed once again.

Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. | D. Lamar Hanri / Unsplash

We needed to show ourselves and the world that we were not weak, and when we waged war we felt powerful again. Our willingness to destroy nations and end life on a massive scale was our proof. We filled ourselves with a nationalistic pride that covered our shame. The problem is that this pride is unsustainable and we have to keep inflating it. If we don’t, we are left to feel the pain of our vulnerability and helplessness. That would be tantamount to a hardcore heroin addict quitting cold turkey and going through a dangerous withdrawal and an agonizing detox. We avoid it at all costs. This is also an intolerable option because we are loyal subscribers to the idea that it is shameful to be vulnerable or helpless, to rely on another’s mercy. As long as we continue to believe in that story, we are its prisoners. We are the addicts convinced that there is no way out of our addiction. So we keep going to war, injecting our “heroin,” and we postpone the inevitable “hitting bottom” as long as possible.

And what has been accomplished in the years since 9/11? So many more human casualties and massive destruction, and yet another traumatized generation. Those not physically killed often carry invisible wounds. These men and women hear a well-conditioned civilian population say “Thank you for your service,” as if it is the last piece of the puzzle allowing veterans and civilians alike to get on with their lives. “Service” has become a cruelly silencing euphemism.

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In a manner of speaking, America needs to go through detox. It will be difficult and painful. As a nation, we have become dependent on war, our drug of choice, both psychologically and economically. Our current way of life has emerged from this addiction to war. It is a retreat into fear that has been well camouflaged by national bravado. If we are to be free of it, we must see it for what it is: an attempt to escape from our collective pain. It is not a means of rationally solving domestic problems or international conflicts. It is an escapism that perpetuates our denial of who we really are and leaves us with a cheap, fictitious belief that we are nothing more than separate biochemical machines. That belief is the biggest lie. We have too long been seduced by it and enslaved to it.

This will not change until we remember who we really are to each other. Recovery is the process by which we rediscover and reclaim our true identity as spiritual beings having human experiences. The fact that we are relational beings is central to our innermost truth. Our reality is one of community that is enriched by diversity and impoverished by conformity. We are conceived out of love, and love is what we are meant to be part of.

Recovery is the most natural response to any addiction. Unfortunately, natural does not mean easy. Recovery will require letting go of long-cherished narratives of our superiority, our sense of entitlement, our “greatness.” It will require embracing honest humility and committing to courageous love as our path to the future. It will require an ongoing process of reconciliation within ourselves, with each other, and with our neighbors around the world. We will need to adopt and live out a set of values that prioritize the inherent sacredness of all human beings and all life in our world. No human being nor any part of the natural world can continue to be regarded as merely a “resource” to be used for the benefit of a privileged few. We must free ourselves from slavery to a materialism that sees only “things” regardless of who or what we are looking at. This freedom is our birthright. It waits patiently for all of us to know it and claim it as our rightful inheritance as children of the Ultimate Mystery. ♦

Paul Nyklicek is a husband and a father. He works in Farmington as a psychotherapist and is a member of the Campaign Nonviolence Central CT Group.

Image: Still from a Civil War reenactment in Andersonville, Georgia, home of the National Prisoner of War Museum. | Scott Umstattd / Unsplash

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2 replies
  1. Eugene Ciarlo W-1
    Eugene Ciarlo W-1 says:

    This piece by Paul Nyklicek is truly an inspired work. The truth of it is so obvious and yet at the same time we are blind to it all. We are so inclined by time and conditioning, propagandized and indoctrinated by popular news media to believe in our infallible greatness and that war can ever, has ever, produced good results for anyone in the long run. Have we travelled too far down the well-trodden path to see the truth of who we are and the barbarity of continuous war and self-deceit? Have we lost our way interminably?

    We often speak of ourselves as a Christian nation, or better yet in broader terms, a God-fearing nation, open, welcoming and peace-loving. We deceive ourselves in multiple ways. Our southern border and our racism expose our open sores. We know it and it makes us sick but we cannot muster the courage to do the right thing, what we know, in our hearts, is the right way to go.

    I hope that this piece gets broader coverage, perhaps in a national Catholic or religious publication or even a more widely circulated secular journal. Can anyone make it happen? I wonder.

    Thank you, Paul.

    • Paul Nyklicek
      Paul Nyklicek says:

      I’m glad you liked the article Eugene. Thank you for your kind words of praise and also for your own insights on this troubling and difficult topic.


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