There’s no doubt that experiencing events that are foreign to our daily lives through the eyes of fictional characters is a way of broadening our understanding of the world around us. At times, a well-written novel can open our eyes and hearts to issues better than news reports. T.C. Boyle’s harrowing account of the day-to-day struggle of illegal aliens that have recently crossed over the border from Mexico in The Tortilla Curtain may not change your mind on immigration, but it will break your heart; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini alternates between being a Afghani history lesson and a study in human depravity while bringing us face-to-face with people who have endured decades of conflict; and Pat Barker’s brilliant and incredibly well-researched novel Regeneration introduces us to the horrors of trench warfare and the long term psychological damage endured by British soldiers following WWI.
Using first person sources from the time, Barker’s novel is a fictionalized account of poet Siegfried Sassoon’s hospitalization and treatment for ‘shellshock’ after he published an impassioned declaration against the war in The Times. The psychologist W.H.R. Rivers, who pioneered research into post-traumatic stress disorder before and after WWI, is assigned as Sassoon’s doctor. Patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital suffer from a variety of conditions. An army surgeon cannot stand the sight of blood. Another patient experiences revulsions to food after being thrown through the air in an explosion and landing head first in the stomach of a rotting corpse. Billy Prior, one of the few entirely fictional characters, suffers from ‘mutism’ and can initially only write his responses to Rivers’ questions. Meanwhile, Rivers faces a moral dilemma. In healing his patients, he prepares them for their return to the horrors of the trenches where the life expectancy of a soldier is less than six weeks. Fast forward one hundred years, and soldiers around the world continue to suffer from PTSD.
The Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper recently broke box office records in the United States. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film stars Bradley Cooper as Kyle, a United States sniper credited with at least 160 confirmed kills. He was so revered that he was nicknamed the ‘legend.’ We will never know how many American soldiers he saved during his five tours, but having him on the rooftops overseeing troops as they did house-to-house searches in hostile neighborhoods gave them the confidence to do their jobs. NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed Bradley Cooper for Fresh Air. As one of the film’s producers, he was instrumental in bringing Chris Kyle’s story to our screens. In a cruel twist of fate, a fellow war veteran who was suffering from PTSD murdered Kyle before the film was made. Bradley Cooper admits that like most of the population, he was initially naïve about the ‘schizophrenic nature of going from war to home’ and the toll it takes on military families. In making the film, he wanted to “shine a light” on the “lack of care and attention that goes towards vets” who are suffering from PTSD. He fears that some of that light has been lost now that the film has become a “lightening rod” for controversy, separating opinion on the left and right of the political aisle, with many on the left believing that the film should have been more apologetic for our involvement in the Iraq war.
Even though PTSD has become synonymous with conditions that had been seen in soldiers historically such as shellshock, soldier’s heart, and battle fatigue, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the condition made it into Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), thereby opening the door for historical claims by Vietnam Veterans who were in dire need of treatment. It is estimated that as many of 830,000 Vietnam Veterans and 20% Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PSTD and/or depression. The backlog of benefits claims to the VA peaked at 600,000 in 2013. Hospital waiting lists are approximately three months long, and given there are so many variables, it’s a very difficult condition to treat once the patient has a place in a program. On average, suicides amongst war veterans total 22 each day. That’s one suicide every 65 minutes.
These are all startling statistics, and yet it is surprisingly easy to become immune to their impact. We don’t see the individuals and families who have had their lives torn apart. All we see are numbers. This is where writers like Pat Barker and filmmakers such as Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood make such a difference. They shine a light on issues without hitting us over the head with statistics. Returning war veterans come to life. We follow their stories and invest in their futures. We may walk away such experiences with heavy hearts, but that’s a small price to pay for empathy. In a world dominated by sound bites, spin and winner-take-all, it’s that vital human connection that sets us apart as a civilized society.
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Comment below for a chance to win hardcover copy of Karin Salvalaggio's Burnt River, where a soldier who's recently returned home is the victim of a terrible crime. To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below. TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In! Burnt River Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2015/05/empathy-through-art-understanding-war-and-ptsd-burnt-river-karin-salvalaggio beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 14, 2015. Sweepstakes ends 11:59 a.m. ET May 21, 2015. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
Karin Salvalaggio received an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck at the University of London. Born in West Virginia and raised in an Air Force family, she grew up on a number of military bases around the United States. She now lives in London with her two children. Burnt River is her second novel.