On Veteran's Day, Be Careful with the Word Hero

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small piece of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.
— Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

Be careful with the word hero. I know it’s Veteran’s Day. I know the instinct and intention to use the word is good. I know you are trying to show respect and gratitude. But the problem with the word hero is that most people who live through war, most people who live through any long and repeated trauma, and most people who witness war and repeated trauma do not feel heroic.  Most trauma involves experiences of helplessness and terror. These experiences usually result in shame, not courage; in fear, not bravery; in despair, not resilience.

There is a tacit agreement between a population and its soldiers: you go to war, we call you a hero, and we never have to know what really goes on during a war. If we call you a hero, we never have to hear the real war stories, because we have made it so that you can’t tell them. We call you a hero to make ourselves feel better, and it keeps you quiet.

In old Native American culture, warriors returned home from battle and shared their stories with the community in a big ceremony. The community as a whole had to hold these stories –not the individual warriors. We don’t do that and we ask our warriors to hold the stories themselves.

The injuries to soldiers are vast—with TBI on the increase. And the public is now widely aware of PTSD. But there are other injuries that are difficult to measure, discuss and treat. Yes, a soldier can suffer the traumas of flashbacks and anxiety of the war. But PTSD doesn’t cover the complete loss of self: the loss of who I was before the war, the loss of my sense of dignity. How do I hold the me I thought I was with the me who knows what I did during war?

Surviving war doesn’t feel heroic. Surviving any trauma doesn’t feel heroic. When you use the word hero you need to know that the people hearing that word can feel miles away from your intentions. You say hero and they remember shooting a screaming old woman or a dog. You say hero and they remember feeling frozen and not being able to do what they wanted to do. You say hero and they remember themselves at their most helpless.

Psychiatrist Jonathon Shay calls this injury to your sense of self a moral injury. The invisible wounds of war that keep soldiers injured long after the symptoms of PTSD clear. PTSD is what Shay calls a primary injury--it's symptoms are visible like the break of a bone. But a moral injury is like internal bleeding. It is a silent killer. Soldiers often report feeling like a piece of them died during the war and others have referred to it as ‘soul murder.’ Soldiers fear telling their stories because they think people will hate them for what they have done. We ask them to go to war and then we ask them to hold their stories by themselves. This is likely too big a burden. The suicide rate among Veterans is staggering: 22 Veterans die from suicide a day.

As citizens we can be grateful for their service, but we shouldn’t be naïve about their sacrifice. We need to have a more complex view of the impact of war and trauma and expand the conversation of healing all the injuries of war—not just the medical symptoms we can see and treat more easily. We need to support the soldiers in their healing by not telling them who they are and what their story is, but instead creating the possibility that they could tell it. We need to change the conversation about trauma to include the long term impact and the symptoms that we can't see. On this Veteran’s Day, let’s thank them for their service and ask to hear their story with the reassurance that we will hold their story with them.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015

The Things They Carried
By Tim O'Brien