May 14 2015 11:00am

Empathy Through Art: Understanding War and PTSD

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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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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Deb Philippon
1. DebP
This is a very uncomfortable topic for many people, but one that must be brought out into the open. The concern is modern, but PTSD would be a condition that goes back centuries.
Teddy Pierson
2. TeddyP
^ Totally agree. I always remember the George Carlin bit on this subject. It is a shame we ignore it.
3. maryc
Here's hoping that returning soldiers, veterans and their families get the support they need.
Vanessa Galore
4. vanessagalore
This PTSD epidemic and the universal callousness of our society to returned soldiers' suffering is a great shame to America.
reavab Bennett
6. reavab
Would love to win this book so that I can learn more about this topic.
Alison Layland
7. Alison L
Such an important topic. It's so true that good, well-researched fiction really helps give us insight and empathy into areas with which we're otherwise unfamiliar.
8. Chad Gustafson
Yes please!
Sandy Klocinski
11. SKlocinski
Ms. Salvalaggio is a superb and instinctive storyteller. Great writer!
Barbara Lima
12. barblima
I remember how Patton misunderstood and pooh poohed this subject.
Ed Jones
13. sweeper63
Say a prayer for peace. I hope our Gov finally gives our returning young men and women, the help the so rightfully deserve.
15. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
Louise Setzer
17. txala1
I don't know a lot about PTSD - would be interested in learning more.
Janice Santillo
23. themommazie
Very interesting subject. I would love to learn more about it. It is a continuing and sad subject.
26. Carol Rae
I can't begin to imagine. God bless you all. "YOU MATTER"
Susan Pertierra
32. orchidlady01
Karin Salvalaggio's book sounds like a good one.
Jackie Wisherd
33. JackieW
This is the type of story I enjoy reading. A very important one.
35. pegkeohane
Always looking for a new recommended author to follow.
37. tlwhitby
A problem that is timeless , that many have never been able to overcome .
38. PurpleFigment
PTSD is such an important topic, for military veterans and many others who have had traumatic experiences no where near a war zone.
justin m murphy
39. tmwhitby12
A topic no ones understandes , except those you have went through it .
40. twhitby
The brave fight horrors during , and after there conflicts .
pat murphy
41. pwhitby
We all need support , hopefully all those who need help receive it .
Lynn Jarrett
42. OkieReader
My husband served in the military service for over 2o years. I served in the emergency services for 19 years. I have seen people in both services be hit with problems brought on by things seen and done during their times of service. Unfortunately, those kinds of things stay with you. Fortunately, there is help available and there are those that care!!
Susan Robinette
44. susanrob
This sounds like a book worth reading
Michael Carter
46. rubydog
Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks --
Andra Dalton
47. andra77
Count me in!!! Always on the look out for new to me authors & this fits the bill!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
Janice Milliken
48. msjiva
It would be nice if every returning veteran of war could get the mental and physical medical treatments they need to transition into life after combat. Books and movies that make the public aware of the suffering serve a good purpose.
Cindy Hipolito
49. mysuccess
I am so glad PTSD is being looked at with more depth so that the populace can understand this condition with compassion. Count me in for your giveaway! Thanks a lot!
Jeffrey Tretin
50. jtretin
I have so much to learn about PTSD.
patricia gibby
51. pgibby1
PTSD is a bitch for those of us who suffer from it. This topic needs to be published until it is an everyday word.
Leslie Bitner
53. violet2424
I know recovering addicts whose underlying problem is previously undiagnosed PTSD. They used drugs to cope with their symptoms, developing addictions that wrecked their lives. They are now in treatment, going to meetings and cleaning up the wreckage. My sympathies to sufferers.
Linda Peters
54. linnett
intersting topic, love to read this
Sally Winkleblech
55. sallyw
I think this will be a book that will be difficult to read, but will hopefully bring some much needed discussion to this topic. We need to support our veterans.
Jim Belcher
57. librarypops
We cannot imagine what those with PTSD, TBI, other life altering injuries have gone through, but it is inexcusable to withhold or even delay getting them the treatment they need.
Susan Gainen
58. susangainen
Post-war trauma has often been fertile ground for writers: Charles Todd does it very well.
Darlene Slocum
59. darandsam
Interesting subject that we should all know more about.
catherine devonport
60. catherine devonport
I feel this book will be so hard to read, but would like the chance to try and understand a little what my brother went through.
Ed Nemmers
62. saturdaynightfever
I would like to read the work of Karin Salvalaggio.
Brenda Elsner
65. brat52101
I would love to read this!!! Thanks for the giveaway!!!
Shakeia Rieux
68. bbybrwneyez34
I would love to read this book and learn all i can about ptsd
Buddy Garrett
69. garrettsambo
It sounds like a great read. Thanks for the giveaway.
70. rheath22
Sounds like a amazing story. My broher was in Afganistan and suffers from PTSD.
vicki wurgler
75. bison61
thanks this sounds like a great read
Rena Sollish
77. Rena
Interesting book. Would love to win it.
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