For centuries we have seen casualties of war; soldiers who have had various physical injuries and scars that last a lifetime. Yet until the 20th century little was known about the emotional effects of war on soldiers and it wasn’t until soldiers were studied psychologically that we began to understand what had happened to them.
You may have heard of psychological disorders associated with war, such as shell shock or ‘Combat Stress Reaction’ as it is otherwise known. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a diagnosis made by doctors on a regular basis for patients who have suffered major traumas such as rape or a car accident. It was due to soldiers of the Vietnam war that the disorder was discovered, yet their symptoms had been synonymous with war veterans from hundreds of years before.
The actual emotional effects of war on soldiers can be distressing and it seems so unfair to the family and friends of veterans that after all they’ve been through, they continue to suffer. PTSD and shell shock are essentially manifestations of the brain’s attempts to cope with trauma and failing to do so adequately. With PTSD in soldiers, the sufferer will often recall and re-experience the specific trauma of war, perhaps when they dream, or even when they think or close their eyes. Hallucinations are not uncommon either, with soldiers feeling as if they are back in the traumatic war environment during sleep, when drunk or on drugs and even during normal wakefulness. They will also react strongly to anything that reminds them of the trauma and begin to avoid anything they associate with it. This often means a distinct reluctance to mix socially, due to loud noises that remind them of bombings, or crowds of people reminiscent of trenches.
It’s no surprise, once you understand the distress that soldiers experience during war, that they find it hard to be the same, emotionally, ever again. Some may say that their inability to form close bonds with loved ones is due to the experience of near death and the fear that they will leave someone behind. The emotional effects of war on soldiers very often hinders their future achievements too as they find it impossible to imagine or plan. Veterans of war who experience PTSD without adequate counseling and care often do not marry or have children, perhaps because they have experienced near death and have severe difficulty letting go of the idea that they may die any day.
War can be and has been proven to be a deeply scarring experience for many soldiers. Of course, nothing can prepare them for warfare, seeing close friends die and narrowly escape death themselves. Some veterans of past wars have recovered from their traumatic experience with the right care, but what we need to ask ourselves is how we can protect them from mental trauma before they are even sent to fight, as opposed to treating their symptoms once the deep psychological damage has already been done.