Magazine article USA TODAY

The Collateral Psychological Damage of War: The Horrors of Armed Conflict and Battle Often Leave Lasting Scars on the Psyches of Military Personnel as Well as the Civilian Population at Large

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Collateral Psychological Damage of War: The Horrors of Armed Conflict and Battle Often Leave Lasting Scars on the Psyches of Military Personnel as Well as the Civilian Population at Large

Article excerpt

SOLDIERS, who minutes before were moving quickly across an arid portion of unoccupied land while attempting to avoid land mines and gunfire, now huddle together in a small trench. Fatigue envelops them, but sleep avoids its capture. An enemy plane zooms overhead. The rat-a-tattat of the machine gun accentuates the ear-splitting noise of the roaring engine. The men inch closer together, not only for warmth, but for the tranquilizing touch of their comrades. The soft, sobbing cry of a soldier fills the air. A quiet, repetitive humming from another provides a soothing background.

The beleaguered unit bad been ambushed several miles back. Joe reflexively stands up to determine the group's direction. A bullet catches him in the neck. An enemy soldier is seen moving towards them, a dear target for rifle fire. Torrents of blood, it seems, immediately gush out of his forehead. Tony cautiously creeps toward what appears to be a fallen American soldier. His body slithers over a land mine, and he instantly explodes, Ed feels compelled to retrieve his buddy's remains. Creeping on his belly, a mine spatters him into oblivion as well. Their trek started with nine; six remain.

Four of the six eventually are diagnosed with a psychological disorder. They had been affected mentally by their war experiences. When a soldier is described by his superior officers as having a "nervous breakdown," "acting strange," or "being different," and this behavior is corroborated by a licensed psychologist and/or psychiatrist, he or she usually is placed in a hospital for further observation and treatment. Among other possibilities, he or she eventually may be discharged from active duty with the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Typically, this refers to the re-experiencing of traumatic events that occurred during military service. Recurrent nightmares about the battlefield may disturb the patient's sleep. Often, interest in the world around such individuals diminishes. Perhaps the person has trouble concentrating, or shows significant memory impairment. Deep feelings of guilt regarding the fact that he or she has survived, while others have not, may be overwhelming.

These types of physical and emotional reactions to the unfortunate events of war are understandable to many of us. War indeed is a scary thing. The extent of the damage doesn't stop there, however. Nonmilitary individuals also may be indirectly affected psychologically, especially those who are closely associated with the serviceman, such as parents, wives, husbands, lovers, friends, business associates, etc. Though they have not been exposed to fierce war conditions, they may develop stress disorder symptoms. Their strong concern, worry, and anxiety about someone they love--who has been placed in harm's way--can bring on such psychological effects. The term collateral damage, when used in the context of war, ordinarily refers to the injury or killing of innocent civilians as well as the destruction of homes, buildings, and any other property which has no strategic military significance. A close, personal relationship and strong identification with a soldier living under very dangerous battle conditions often can create emotional responses that seem to accurately fall into the descriptive category of collateral psychological damage.

War typically has been defined as armed, hostile conflict among states or nations. We think of groups of soldiers who have been trained to shoot and kill, under the leadership of a commanding officer. Yet, the definition of war and its soldiers recently has been expanded to include terrorists--also known as suicide or homicide bombers. We are at war with terrorists. Pres. Bush formally has defined our relationship with them in that way--and every form of war potentially presents significant dangers to the human minds of those who are somehow seriously threatened.

Imagine yourself in a world that is totally at peace: No nation is at war with any other nation. …

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