Words of War, Words of Peace

The curative power of writing combats war.

Posted Jul 25, 2008

It’s a form of emotional reparation that goes by many names: poetry therapy, poetic medicine, and creative journaling, to name a few. The use of writing to heal goes back as far as the fourth millennium BC in Egypt when words were written on papyrus, dissolved in liquid, and ingested by the sufferer. And in more modern times, poetry therapy has emerged as a formal discipline whose practitioners use to address emotional disorders or simply as a means personal growth.

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become a barely audible hum in the background of the daily news, the reality is that over 4100 US soldiers have died in these conflicts. Many are fortunately making it back home and of those, some are readjusting to civilian life. But others are less fortunate and find themselves in the recurring nightmare of a war raging within. That war comes fully-loaded with posttraumatic stress (PTSD), mood disorders, and other challenges that most of us who have never seen combat cannot begin to imagine.

Veterans of recent and past conflicts are using words to bear witness, find their way through horrific memories, and to battle back emotional reactions and PTSD. While in the past there were few programs that encouraged returning military to use writing as part of recovery from war’s inner wounds, today the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Veterans’ Voices, and numerous websites provide both opportunities and examples for soldiers to tell their stories. Documentary film Operation Homecoming, recently nominated for several Emmies, has provided the springboard for a series of national writing workshops for military and their families at Walter Reed and other veterans hospitals across the US. In contrast to the Viet Nam war whose returning military often remained silent for 20 years or more before putting pen to paper, more and more veterans are courageously confronting their feelings, memories, and nightmares through poems, prose, autobiographies, and stories.

One of the most recognized role models for the use of poetry and writing as forms of recovery from combat experiences is Larry Winters, a veteran of the Viet Nam War, a mental health counselor, and poet. His one-minute poetry reading captures the power of words to convey combat’s mark on the human soul and helps us to momentarily bear witness to the universal nature of war’s impact:

A veteran of the Iraq conflict recently explained to me how writing saved his life over the past year’s readjustment to civilian life, saying, “The phrase, “welcome home” makes no sense, because the battle never leaves me. Writing has given me power over the conflict that is now inside me everyday. Because I write, people can read what military go through long after the media and everyone forgets.” What this former soldier says tells us is that the catastrophic effects of war are not thousands of miles away in the streets of Baghdad; they resonate with urgency in the minds of those who return to the US each day. Fortunately, for a growing number of returning soldiers the curative power of writing combats the soul-destroying nature of terror and war. And the power of those healing words ultimately transforms those of us who read them.

Photo Credit: Zoriah, at http://zoriah.com. A young soldier displays a tattoo reading "Walk Peacefully on Heavens Streets, You've Done You're Time in Hell." Baghdad, Iraq - July, 2007.

© 2008 Cathy Malchiodi