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The Naval Medical Center in San Diego "is studying whether an anesthetic used during childbirth could help relieve symptoms" of war trauma. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/01/16/144672190/ending-nightmares-c...
 To help relieve the emotional and/or moral anguish of those we have sent to war - for the United States government sends our servicemembers to war in the names of all of us citizens - is a wonderful thing. Anyone who has listened to the story of any war veteran who has experienced even one of what I have called the Eight Plagues of War (When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans, MIT Press, 2011) and which include profound grief, terror, shame and guilt, despair, moral and existential confusion and crisis, and loss of innocence, will want to reduce that pain.

If you look, though, at the article about the San Diego center, what you find is unsettling: The researchers wondered what caused war veterans to relive horrific war experiences repeatedly in their dreams. Does it not occur to them that perhaps that very horror and any of the Eight Plagues leads veterans to relive those experiences while they sleep? These are not mentioned. It is unimaginable that people actually working in a military medical center are unaware of these emotional plagues. So what keeps them from naming them and looking head-on at how they lead to the nightmares? Perhaps it is because those in the military are not allowed, as I suggested in my book, to point out that war itself, not some curious, highly specific, chemical reaction in the brain as the researchers in the current article propose, is the source of the trouble. I have learned that some employees of the military and the VA are fearless about naming war as the cause of veterans' emotional pains, but others have been taken to task when have done so. The unpredictably of one's superiors reaction would be intimidating.

These researchers may understandably recognize that they themselves lack the power to stop the wars and are no doubt admirably eager to help ease the suffering they see.

A somewhat less justifiable reason is that they may be so immersed in the medical model, and especially the "psychiatric drugs can cure all" part of it, perhaps also fueled by money from Pharma, that they do not think outside that narrow box.

So what are they investigating? They are looking at a chemical property involved in part of the sleep cycle and want to see about treating it with drugs. Despite the serious harm I have seen come to people because of many different drugs, if the Naval Medical Center researchers discover a way to reduce the veterans' nightmares without causing them still more trouble, then good for them. But it cannot ever be sufficient, because their approach is explicitly symptom treatment.

What is wrong with symptom treatment? Sometimes, though not always, but often when war is the cause of emotional pain, it is important to look at the symptoms as cries for the veteran and those who want to help the veteran to look at what led to the symptoms. As a society, we are quick to say that people who drink to try to forget their troubles should not do so, that they need to look at the problems and figure out what to do about them. With regard to veterans, as every veteran I have listened to has told me, even if alcohol or prescription drugs or illegal drugs suppress some of their symptoms, the problems do not go away, and they often take other, sometimes more dangerous forms. The technical term that therapists use for this is "symptom substitution." Taking a drug does not eradicate the fact that your best friend died in your arms as you carried him to the medic. Veterans need to have us share and help them bear the pain of such memories, and it can help some, just as when any civilian loses someone close to them, talking with others about the person who has died and how desolate one feels can help.

With respect to the emotional consequences of war, what has been shown to help is veterans having the chance to tell their stories, just speak their truth, to a civilian non-therapist who will not ask questions, not make comments, not interpret, not grill the veteran but just listen with respect and without judgment. American civilians are often astounded to learn how rarely a veteran has had the chance to tell their story fully and in this way. And our recent Harvard Kennedy School study showed that veterans from World War II to the present wars were grateful and relieved to have that chance and found it extremely helpful. The brilliant Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, calls this the healing power of the communalization of suffering through the telling of the stories.

Regardless of our politics, all of us civilians have the chance to help end the covering up of the real effects of war by resisting the temptation to believe that studies like the one addressed here will solve veterans' problems, and all of us need to help educate this nation about the fundamental importance of learning what war is really like. That will make us a more responsible citizenry, which can only be healthy for the United States, and it will create environments where civilians have listened to veterans' stories and understood what they have been through, thereby helping breaking down the soul-crushing isolation so many veterans experience.

Every time we look away from the real causes of veterans' suffering and just aim for symptom treatment, every time we manage not to think about what war is really like, we distance ourselves from the torment with which many veterans live, we shove them farther from the rest of us, and we increase their isolation, which makes their pain that much harder to bear.(1)

(1)Those wishing to participate in The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project, which is the simple listening session described above, please get in touch with me via the Contact form at whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com You might want first to look at the two short videos on the Home page there. I will look forward to hearing from you.

©2012 by Paula J. Caplan                           All rights reserved

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