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Heroism, War On The Mind, and Contemplating Memorial Day

Updated: May 30, 2023

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Joseph Campbell, American writer, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Memorial Day for me is a day of contemplation. Thoughts and reflections around a lot of things. Heroes, war, veterans, freedom, patriotism, death, courage.

Somehow, I was reminded of my sons many years ago going into the basement, telling me not to come in, they were going to watch the movie, Braveheart. (This was before Mel Gibson became kinda wacko and was doing some really good work).

I read a larger message into their words... it went something like, “Leave us alone, Mom. We are about to watch a movie about courage, betrayal, sacrifice, freedom, and heroism. It moves us. And we do not want you or anyone else to see us bawling when the one with the brave heart, William Wallace, gets heinously executed as he screams "FREEDOM!"

We, humans, are elevated to the point of tears by heroism. People who will lay down their lives for others or for a great cause. It touches us way down deep.

But here’s a little-known secret which the generals, but few others, are privy to. Though we humans love heroes, killing each other does not come natural to us. We do not like to kill. As far as I'm concerned that is something to celebrate as we remember those who have sacrificed their lives.

Research from the pre-Vietnam era, which some would rather keep under wraps, uncovered that out of every hundred men along the lines of fire during a combat period, only 15 or 20 would actually fire their weapons at the enemy. No matter how long the period of engagement.

They weren’t running away. Many times, they helped in other ways. Risking danger while rescuing others.

Military psychologists have tried to understand what is happening in these situations. What they came up with is this.

“Within most people there is an intense resistance to killing other people. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.”

A French military officer was one of the first to document the “common tendency of soldiers to fire harmlessly into the air” rather than fire at their enemy.

Again, more recent studies conclude that it is not about battlefield fear. It is about an “unwillingness to take part in combat.”

Let me take a little side trip here.

At Christmas our local little music theatre presented Christmas in the Trenches. To give a little background...As most of us know, The Christmas Truce was a series of unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front during the First World War. The performance was a musical based on a true story of one such little truce.

The production starts with young men full of enthusiasm, eager to get in the action, to fight. Then the reality of what fighting means set in. They experience the horror of their predicament.

And…then, a truce. Why? Well, it's Christmas and peace-on-earth sort of thoughts roll around. It begins with a German soldier singing a carol from inside a trench. The British respond with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Then the Germans start singing “Stille Nacht.” And the British join in singing the counterpart in English – “Silent Night.”

The men start coming out of their trenches. Exchanging gifts. Smiling and laughing together. One finds a Christmas tree. It all goes well until an officer finds out what’s happening. The killing sadly resumes.

The young couple sitting next to my husband and me sit dumbfounded. After the show, they turned to us in amazement. “Could this have really happened?” they asked.

We assured them it was based on a true story (there is a book called Christmas In the Trenches which outlines many of these same sorts of true war stories. I don’t recommend the book simply because the print is small and hard to read. But I just ordered the children’s version.)

From what we know now, it appears that throughout history when the “moment of truth” came, many soldiers could not kill each other.

If you’d like to know more about the whole thing, look at the book War on the Mind. So very apropos while we still are in a month dedicated to mental health awareness.

Some people did pay attention to this killing aversion (the U.S. Army of which I was a part for a few years, see enlistment photo below. I joined as a pact with my brother). The military leaders realized that they needed to conjure up contempt for the enemy. Figure out some way to de-sensitize the soldiers. Glorify killing…which was almost unheard of in early combat situations.

And they figured it out. They became more successful at getting soldiers to shoot at each other. But it all comes with a cost, this ability to pull the trigger on another human. When our natural safeguards against killing are overridden, severe trauma can result. In Vietnam where 95 percent of soldiers DID fire their weapons, it’s estimated that between 18 and 54 percent of the 2.8 million military suffered from PTSD. Far greater than any previous war.

What does that mean for these men suffering from PTSD? It means higher incidence of divorce, use of alcohol and drugs, heart disease, ulcers, and loss of jobs. Depression, anxiety, and suicide are not uncommon (though my brother was never officially diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, I do believe he had it. I can't totally blame it all on his Vietnam experience, but I can safely say it greatly exacerbated his problems. His life did end in suicide).

I’m not saying that PTSD cannot be treated or that it is inevitable, but rather making a point that killing people is not what we humans want to do. What we want to do is be noble and courageous and heroic. And on this Memorial Day we can congratulate ourselves on being human. Figure out ways to hold on to our humanity.

Memorial Day is a day to remember that we want to dedicate ourselves to something great. Killing is against our nature as humans. When we are traumatized, we must bring ourselves back to ourselves.

And I’m reminded of a story about an early gathering for Memorial Day done in the South in 1868 (originally called “Decoration Day”). A few years after the Civil War. (which is how Memorial Day came into being---remembering those who had died in the Civil War. Up until the Vietnam War, the number killed in the Civil War surpassed all other wars combined. Twice as many died from disease as were killed in action).

For a while, Decoration Day celebrations just refreshed antagonism. On this day in this place, the Southern women went about throwing flowers on the graves of their dead sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. They mourned.

Then…they looked over at the “lonely” graves of the Union boys and scattered flowers there too.

Eventually over time the day has become one of remembering all those who lost their lives.

There’s much to consider on Memorial Day. Much to remember. Perhaps some new ideas to mull over. And please do while you're thinking and before you go for a picnic and cookout with friends, take a couple of moments to watch, listen, and remember (and if you've been in the military, I wager it's hard to do without choking up...rightfully so).

How might we continue to journey together to the Good Life by finding ways to be courageous, heroic…committing ourselves to great causes and honoring those before us, holding on to our humanity as best we can, and reclaiming it when we have lost it?

[And, on a related note. We are learning more about trauma in general including secondary trauma stress. Bad things happen. Things that go against the grain of our humanity. We are figuring out ways of bringing us back when we’ve been separated from ourselves.

One of the most "fun" ways…actually three-in-one: soft belly breathing, shaking the body, and dancing.

Soft belly breathing is inhaling and exhaling from the belly. With ease and gentleness. Shaking and dancing obviously is about body movement and expression (eyes are supposed to be closed if doing with a group).

The music makes a difference. The best way to get the idea is to watch a video done by Dr. James Gordon who works with military, law enforcement, health care, and the many who have experienced trauma. once you are in site, go to expressive meditation. You will see shaking and dancing explained and demonstrated]


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