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.

This sweepstakes has ended. Thanks for entering!

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.


  1. Deb Philippon

    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.

  2. Teddy P

    ^ 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.

  4. Vanessa Galore

    This PTSD epidemic and the universal callousness of our society to returned soldiers’ suffering is a great shame to America.

  5. Meredith Peters

    Sounds like an important book.

  6. reavab Bennett

    Would love to win this book so that I can learn more about this topic.

  7. Alison Layland

    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!

  9. Denise Sachs

    This sounds great!

  10. tiac35

    Seems like a good read.

  11. Sandy Klocinski

    Ms. Salvalaggio is a superb and instinctive storyteller. Great writer!

  12. Barbara Lima

    I remember how Patton misunderstood and pooh poohed this subject.

  13. Ed Jones

    Say a prayer for peace. I hope our Gov finally gives our returning young men and women, the help the so rightfully deserve.


    Subject matter is so important!!

  15. Shannon Baas

    I would like this.

  16. Belinda Shaw

    subject is necessary to read.

  17. Louise Setzer

    I don’t know a lot about PTSD – would be interested in learning more.

  18. JULES M.

    sounds great 🙂

  19. Anastasia

    Sounds like my kind of read 🙂

  20. Sharon Kaminski

    I would love to readd this book!

  21. Patricia Hilke

    would like to win


    Important read for all.

  23. Janice

    Very interesting subject. I would love to learn more about it. It is a continuing and sad subject.

  24. Linda Knowles

    Very interestimg!

  25. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  26. Carol Rae

    I can’t begin to imagine. God bless you all. “YOU MATTER”

  27. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Pray the mind can cope! Yes!

  28. lynette thompson

    Perfect book for a good summer read

  29. keith james

    Thanks again.

  30. Daniel Morrell

    sounds like a good one

  31. Mike Rogers

    Looks great!

  32. Susan Pertierra

    Karin Salvalaggio’s book sounds like a good one.

  33. Jackie Wisherd

    This is the type of story I enjoy reading. A very important one.

  34. ellie lewis

    Thanks. Great book.


    Always looking for a new recommended author to follow.

  36. pearl berger

    Very important. Thanks.

  37. tlwhitby

    A problem that is timeless , that many have never been able to overcome .

  38. Nora

    PTSD is such an important topic, for military veterans and many others who have had traumatic experiences no where near a war zone.

  39. justin m murphy

    A topic no ones understandes , except those you have went through it .

  40. twhitby

    The brave fight horrors during , and after there conflicts .

  41. pat murphy

    We all need support , hopefully all those who need help receive it .

  42. Lynn Jarrett

    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!!

  43. susan beamon

    I would like to read this book.

  44. Susan Robinette

    This sounds like a book worth reading

  45. Karl Stenger

    I would love to read this book.

  46. Michael Carter

    Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  47. Andra Dalton

    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!!!:)

  48. Janice Milliken

    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.

  49. Cindy Hipolito

    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!

  50. Jeffrey Tretin

    I have so much to learn about PTSD.

  51. patricia gibby

    PTSD is a bitch for those of us who suffer from it. This topic needs to be published until it is an everyday word.

  52. Diane Pollock

    Interesting topic, and very important

  53. Leslie Bitner

    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.

  54. Linda Peters

    intersting topic, love to read this

  55. Sally

    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.

  56. Aaron Shapiro

    Thanks for this chance!

  57. Jim Belcher

    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.

  58. Susan Gainen

    Post-war trauma has often been fertile ground for writers: Charles Todd does it very well.

  59. Darlene Slocum

    Interesting subject that we should all know more about.

  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.

  61. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  62. Ed Nemmers

    I would like to read the work of Karin Salvalaggio.

  63. Barbara Miller

    I would like to read this book.

  64. Lisa Pecora

    I’d love to read this!

  65. Brenda Elsner

    I would love to read this!!! Thanks for the giveaway!!!

  66. L L

    this sounds interesting

  67. Shakeia Rieux

    I would love to read this book and learn all i can about ptsd

  68. Buddy Garrett

    It sounds like a great read. Thanks for the giveaway.

  69. rosie

    Sounds like a amazing story. My broher was in Afganistan and suffers from PTSD.

  70. Kat Emerick

    Sounds awesome!

  71. Lily

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  72. Tim Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  73. Daniel Vice

    I would like this

  74. vicki wurgler

    thanks this sounds like a great read

  75. Kim Keithline

    sounds awesome

  76. Rena

    Interesting book. Would love to win it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *