For the last couple of years, I’ve used the Super Bowl commercials as a platform for blogging about what might be going on in the nation’s collective psyche. This year, I didn’t feel like writing what I have come to think of as my annual Super Bowl blog post. Maybe it was the Newtown massacre—I’ve become dismayed by too many aspects of our popular culture, and my already limited interest in sports withered. But I took a look at the commercials anyway, for the sake of my personal tradition, and was impressed once again by the Chrysler Corporation’s attempt to inject meaning into the national Super Bowl experience. Just before the lights went out in New Orleans, stunning the nation’s fans, Jeep’s “Whole Again” commercial aired. Oprah Winfrey narrates the two-minute commercial, which pictures children, spouses and communities waiting for loved ones to come home from war time service.
Too often we think about war as something that happened to “them”, to the service members and veterans who were deployed too many times in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. I have been preoccupied lately with the wars that we, the civilian population, have fought. We have been at war, prosecuting two long campaigns overseas. Military personnel don’t decide to go to war, they conduct wars on behalf of the civilian government that represents the civilian society. Whether we agree with the war or not, we civilians are responsible for it.
The dangerous psychological defenses of disavowal,splitting and projective identification are useful here. I see those of us who are civilians as engaged in “splitting off” our own warlike aggression and projecting it into those who fight on our behalf. I have read more than one psychiatrist comment that we teach soldiers to be killers but we don’t debrief them; we should invest in training them to be civilians again. While those expressing this concerned are well intentioned—and may be right that this is an unmet need—I react to these descriptions with discomfort. What about those of us for whom they fought? What about our need to return to peacetime life? We can’t do that if we don’t take responsibility for having been at war.
At a recent community meeting, I asked what was being done for veterans in our city ward. It became clear that no one in the room knew who the veterans in our ward were, or how they were doing.
In a recent study, the Pew Research Foundation carefully examined the demographic and other factors that made re-entry into civilian life more or less difficult for a veteran. The 17 factors considered were intrinsic only to the veteran. None of the factors examined the community he or she comes home to. Are there jobs? Are her kids safe? Does he see a future? Are there people who understand her experience and recognize its value and importance? The concepts of a whether or not the community is welcoming to a returning service member, and what went on in that social environment while he was deployed, are entirely ignored.
As my colleague Judith Broder, founder of The Soldier’s Project, wrote, “We are ultimately responsible for finding a way to truly ‘support our troops’ and bring them all the way home. This is no easy task. Most of us live lives divorced from the realities of war.”
We need to recognize that we ourselves have been fighting a war (or two), with young men and women as surrogates but not substitutes. Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom may be the most disavowed wars our country has ever fought; the decision to prevent press coverage of the dead coming home to Dover Air Force Base was a mere part of this. We are numb.
As citizens we haven’t even watched much of the war on television, we don’t have strong memories or images of people burned, bombed or maimed. We don’t feel the immediacy of the war imagery that was available to us during the war in Vietnam. Instead, perhaps for political reasons, perhaps for cultural ones, we have become increasingly isolated from the war we bought and for which we must now pay.
Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists such as Judith Broder and Jonathan Shay have written about how “things fall apart” for combat troops who return home without the sustaining belief that the world is a stable and predictable place. Returning troops suffer a massive loss of innocence and are forced to encounter their own aggression and vulnerability.
I think the problem for the civilian population is that things don’t fall apart enough. War damages an entire society, civilian as well as military. We civilians need to find ways to forge connections to the war experiences our military have undergone. We can’t afford to see them as the “other.”
To help all of us come back home to peacetime, we have to make sure veterans are not invisible. One study has shown that the majority of mental health and primary care providers never even ask their patients if they, or someone close to them, have been to war.
Certain traditional cultures hold purification ceremonies to help reintegrate the warrior with the community and some clinicians and writers recommend something similar for our homecoming service members. Seeing our veterans, listening to their stories, and asking them to help us understand their experiences offers a model of civilian purification, and assumption of responsibility for the wars we all fought.
I thank Jeep for reminding us that we, as a nation, have been at war. I hope our service members and veterans will feel welcomed home, and that they will help the rest of us learn to take responsibility for the wars they have fought for us and the loss and injury these have caused.