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Can a Soldier Come Home From War?

May 26, 2023

It has been said that a lifestyle arose after 20 years of the war on terror. People lived in the war long enough that it became an alternative to everything else. Better than a video game. Better than boredom. Going to war “was the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else,” as Hemingway wrote. But the portal to war’s mystery closed once the fighting stopped. You feel the need to talk but there's no one who can listen. People have heard “too many atrocity stories" to be entertained by the simple truth that you liked it, that war magnified who you were. Once you lose the quality that made you vital, you discover the hardest part of going to war is coming home to face yourself.

For combat veterans, the process of resuming normal life has meant a series of abstract labels and diagnoses. It began with post-traumatic stress disorder. Then came anxiety disorders. "Moral injury," discussed among mental health professionals if not operationalized for diagnosis, appeared somewhere along the way, but there have been many others. Daniel Swift, a Navy SEAL who died fighting in Ukraine earlier this year, had been diagnosed with something called "adjustment disorder." Evidently, it's a term encompassing feelings of hopelessness and anxiety experienced after a complex, stressful life event. For Swift, that event was coming home from war and attempting re-entry into civilian life. 

Though war is among the hardest things a person can survive, it's not the only hard thing. Countless events unrelated to combat trauma can trigger dark feelings. Love, loss, and death form parts of everyone's experience, and the totality of their effect on our psychology and behavior can change who we are. When combat infantryman Bill Bee wrote about holding a Marine's hand as he died of a gunshot wound to the head during a tour in Helmand, most of us could imagine how it might feel (or remember how it felt) to be similarly helpless, holding a parent's hand as life fades away.  

In her new book Night Vision: Seeing Ourselves Through Dark Moods (Princeton, 2023), philosophy professor Mariana Alessandri argues persuasively that so-called "dark moods" should not be shamed and covered in stigma. She frames these moods as natural responses to the skin-of-your-teeth, emotionally rich experience of living. "[In life], I don't think suffering is optional," she told me by telephone. Life, especially one that includes combat, will inevitably agitate and stir our "arsenal of feelings," and wanting constant positivity and success creates unhealthy expectations. Though her book does not contemplate how and why veterans deal with "dark moods" as they reassimilate to life after war, Alessandri was quick to acknowledge how cold the world can feel when a person is open about sadness, grief, and suffering. Perhaps medical health professionals and "superstar bloggers" have claimed too much responsibility for "narrating our psychic lives," she writes. It is okay to feel sad; the world has always been full of tragedy. We spoke about her book and inspiration, and how this brand of philosophy might apply to combat veterans. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Why did you write Night Vision?

My book is getting categorized as self-help but that’s not my cause. I want to reserve a space to let people be themselves. I want to help people create spaces to allow one another to be truthful in their moods. I’m not telling people that you need to share your pain, but I am saying that if you want to share the pain, it gives other people an opportunity to love you. We’re not yet in a world of “night vision,” and so people might squander that opportunity and make it worse. Personally, my father passed away three months ago. Instead of hiding it, I just emailed all of my colleagues and told them my father passed away. It was a low-stakes touch. I saw the most beautiful outpouring of love from colleagues. People were volunteering themselves to me in ways that were beautiful and also surprising. When we choose to share (with eyes open, of course), we might find that people are waiting for an opportunity to care and respond well. It’s totally the individual’s choice.

Do you believe we've developed a formula for living badly?

We’ve developed a formula for living emotionally impoverished lives. In terms of how we treat ourselves and how we treat our emotions, and how we treat others, too. There is an emotional anemia. Emotional nyctophobia. I don’t think we’re good at handling people’s darker moods. We have been trained to celebrate being well, and we treat people better when everyone is doing well.

As a philosopher, I’m very influenced by Plato’s Cave. I think the world is full of walls, that society is just walls with writing on them. The posters, pillows, coffee mugs—they all tell us messages. I’m getting my ideas from reading the world. I think philosophers ought to look closely at the world and read what it’s telling us. For example, my son’s soccer coach has a t-shirt that says #NoBadDays. Or, consider the poster in my local airport that shows a man in a dark tunnel with a small light at the end. The poster reads “It will get better.” You see book titles like “Eliminate Anxiety.” For all these signs, I read them and think: “Well, people must believe that these things are actually possible.” And so, though it’s well-intentioned, there is a focus on the bright side and not knowing what to do when we’re dark. The word “toxic positivity” is being used and it’s quite helpful.

You write that “sooner or later, we pay the price of living […] No medicine is so powerful it can turn off pain.” How does the price manifest?

The price manifests in suffering. Loving is the number one thing that invites suffering. Because everything you love will die or end, and that attachment when it breaks is what causes disappointment and pain. I don’t think suffering is optional. There is no getting rid of suffering, and my point in the book about pharmaceuticals is saying that there’s no way to get rid of something that is a part of the human condition. My idea is that we have to live with suffering in a way that honors the pain and honors the person or the love behind the pain.

But you say the pain manifests in particular moods, no? Grief. Depression. Anxiety. Tell me about them.

Yes, and some of the moods run into each other. For my purposes, grief is when a loved one has died and depression is taken to be a state without a cause, like an uncaused grief. I’m dubious of that explanation because we might be looking for causes when depression might be caused by a big success, such as when the author William Styron won a literary award and then fell into a state of depression. The point in the chapter on depression is that we don’t have to only medicalize these moods. I’m not trying to redeem the mood of depression or grief, but I’m trying to redeem the person. I don’t think you’re broken because you suffer depression. Anxiety, meanwhile, is a different beast. It’s the voice that will not stop. It’s so loud that you cannot stop hearing it.

I’ll note that I use other languages in the book because using English only elicits reactions. Pain doesn’t just mean skinning your knee. There is pain of the heart, too. English-speaking readers might get hung up on the word itself and what they think it means when I want the thing to mean more. I find readers are more passive and open to listening when I use dolor or another word from a foreign language—it frees them up to understand.

Are your views on dealing with grief, depression, and anxiety at odds with those of the medical community?

I think before writing this book, I was leaning more on the side of being super suspicious of the medical-industrial complex that makes so much money off the suffering of others. But it’s a difficult question to answer. Therapies, diagnoses, medical treatments—they do a lot of good. Depression is the one that makes it very, very challenging to say “go on without medication,” though. The book Noonday Demon was a very good book on this. It’s dangerous to be completely anti-medical—depression can be a real force. But even medicated people are still living with depression, and so we need to understand the underlying emotion without casting ourselves or others as broken. There was a book in the 80’s called “Plato, not Prozac.” I would be happy if my book were called “Plato and Prozac.” My book is about seeing these moods and understanding them, rather than how to resolve them or treat them.

Military experience teaches us that life is going to be hard. Troops train so rigorously to prepare themselves for inevitable hardships. Then, once service ends, we send them back home as civilians to lead lives that society says should be fun, happy, effortless, and free of inconvenience. When life isn’t immediately any of those things, there is confusion and suffering. What is this suffering trying to teach us?

I’m struck that veterans have a potential understanding with each other that goes beyond the rest of society. If you can assume that people in your position have experienced something similar to you, then you don’t have to pretend. The world you come back to might be too light to understand you, and people want you to leave that behind and not have that hardship or combat continue to be a part of your life. I can imagine that the sort of connection among veterans can be profound. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno writes that suffering can unite us in a way that is joyous. Bodies are joined by pleasure but souls are joined by pain. Instead of trying to cheer each other up, people who share pain together have an ability to connect with one another that others cannot really touch. We don’t get to choose whether we do or don’t have suffering, but the suffering allows us to see other people in a new, profound way.   

Your passages on anxiety made me think about how veterans struggle to find a new mission. Sometimes this struggle plays out in dramatic changes to their personal lives or professions. Divorce. Job-hopping. Is it possible that we have too many choices to make?

Maybe. Classic existentialists think that we spend a lot of our time denying death. Kierkegaard calls anxiety a feeling of dizziness. When you tell a young person that they can do anything, you may think that you’re giving them hope and possibility but you’re also messing up their life. Freedom is a double-edged sword because it means you have the freedom to mess up your life. We take measures to tie ourselves down to reduce the options. For example, think about the midlife crisis. The midlife crisis is the time at which our bodies stop letting us fool ourselves and say, “Could it actually be different?” I see my students with their heads down and gently try to suggest that they’re not always going to be able to stay inside there, that something will eventually give. Psychologists call it drift, going with the non-controversial or least difficult option rather than sitting with it and figuring out what you want, probably trying different things. Why would we want to go through life sleeping? It’s easier, yes, but we don’t really stay asleep. I believe that philosophy is a discipline of awakening, not letting people sleep through life. 

Intense experiences have a way of stretching our emotions. Many combat veterans relate experiencing extreme emotions after returning home from war, and how the expression of these emotions shocked their family, friends, or co-workers. Has it become unacceptable to express chaotic emotions?

I don’t know. Some of my students tell me there’s funny social media outlets where they try to cry or look like they’re crying, like a feigned emotion. That seems strange to me, but professional society is different because the goal is not to look chaotic. I would love for the world to go down a few notches and not panic. It’s not cause for alarm. I think the more pressure we have to keep it under, the more harm that’s done to ourselves and the more opportunities are missed.

Do you think a soldier ever comes home from war?

The metaphor of coming home is very beautiful, but it’s not like home doesn’t have suffering, too, and so a lot depends on people’s attitudes. You cannot just advise people coming home from war to leave themselves behind. You will have grief with you and you need to be allowed to keep that. You have to have a family or community that’s willing to take you as you are, people who are not demanding that you just be happy already. I find that the phrase “adjustment disorder” is really funny. It shows that the adjustment is about how you need to adjust to the world, that the world doesn’t adjust to you, that society is fixed and unbending and that you’re going to have to change yourself to live here. But who should adjust to whom? Ultimately, I think the answer to your question depends on who is around him. I can picture it going very well or very badly.

John Waters is a writer in Nebraska. His novel River City One publishes this fall. 

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
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