Can the Trauma of War Lead to Growth, Despite the Scars?

This article is part of a series on resilience in troubled times — what we can learn about it from history and personal experiences.

The French weapon deployed against Spanish troops in 1521 was, contemporaries said, “more diabolical than human.” The rapid-firing light bronze cannon shot iron balls that crushed battlements, careened wildly and sprayed shards of stone in all directions. At the Battle of Pamplona, one cannonball twice injured the leader of a small Spanish garrison defying calls for surrender, nearly killing him, first by striking one leg with stone shrapnel, then in the other leg by the cannonball itself. His name was Íñigo López de Loyola. The effect on Loyola was not only physical, but also spiritual: Today, he is better known as St. Ignatius.

Back then, he was no saint. One biography describes him as “a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes committed with his priest brother at carnival time.” But this near-fatal injury changed him, along with a few religious books he read during his exceptionally painful convalescence, in which his bones had to be broken again and reset, and where he came so close to death he was given last rites. He went on to found the Jesuits and send disciples all over the globe, in what the British historian Dom David Knowles suggested was Christianity’s “greatest single religious impulse since the preaching of the apostles.”

When we speak of trauma, it is usually as something to be avoided at all costs. “Interest in avoiding pain,” wrote the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, is among “the most important human interests.” And yet soldiers like St. Ignatius, who found in their suffering a strange and terrible blessing, are not rare. Senator John McCain, brutally tortured at the Hanoi Hilton, famously declared himself “grateful to Vietnam” for giving him “a seriousness of purpose that observers of my early life had found difficult to detect.”

His might be an extreme case, but the expectation of exposure to some trauma has long been part of the draw of war. “The law is this: no wisdom without pain,” wrote the ancient Greek playwright and military veteran Aeschylus. “Wanted or not by us, such wisdom’s gained; its score, its etch, its scar in us goes deep.” Perhaps that’s true, but it leaves us with an ugly and, to some, offensive question: Can suffering be a gift?

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Credit…Associated Press

In the early 20th century, the German writer Ernst Jünger, who had proudly served four years in brutal front-line fighting in World War I, declared the answer was a resounding yes. “Tell me your relation to pain,” he claimed, “and I will tell you who you are!” Civilization before the war had slid into bourgeoise decadence, he thought, fleeing from self-sacrifice and prioritizing safety. But the war heralded a new sort of man.

“Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame,” he wrote of himself and his fellow soldiers, “we could go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, into all that destiny had in store. It is not every generation that is so favored.” Postwar Germany convinced him that the industrialized world these men returned to, which happily destroyed workers’ bodies for the construction of railways or mines, was ruled by the same cruel logic as the trenches. Men would have to rise to the challenge by accepting pain, and accepting the cruelty of the age. This is toughness and callousness elevated to a first principle. Unsurprisingly, many of Jünger’s admirers became Nazis.

One of their victims was an Austrian of Jewish descent named Jean Améry, who after the war forcefully rejected, in the starkest terms, any notions of suffering as a gift. Likewise, notions of stoic detachment born of the trenches were absurd to a man who had been tortured by the Gestapo before being sent to Auschwitz. Améry experienced pain beyond description; he was hung by his arms until they ripped from their sockets, and then horsewhipped. For the tortured man, he wrote, “his flesh becomes total reality.”

More lasting than the pain, though, the experience destroyed his ability to ever feel at home in the world, which requires faith in fellow men. Humans are a social animal, our inner self in constant outward search for communion. Torture inverts that expansive, capacious self into a collapsing star. Whatever you thought you were — a mind, a consciousness, a soul — torture reveals how simply, and casually, that can be destroyed. “A slight pressure by the tool-wielding hand is enough,” Améry wrote, to turn a cultured man into “a shrilly squealing piglet at slaughter.” There is wisdom here, though of a dark sort. “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured.” Améry committed suicide in 1978.

Where does that leave those who suffer? For the medical community, the safest option is addressing symptoms, not metaphysics. The writer and former Marine infantry officer David J. Morris has described his own therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq, during which he was urged to retell the stories of his trauma, practice breathing exercises, and reframe his cognitive responses to his environment and his traumatic memories.

But he was not encouraged to grow in response to what he had gone through; when he would try to speculate on how his experience might be converted to wisdom, psychologists would admonish him, he reported, “for straying from the strictures of the therapeutic regime.” One senior psychologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs told him that notions of post-traumatic growth were an insult to those who have suffered. For a medical community grounded in science rather than spirituality, and rightfully leery of telling the Amérys of the world to look on the bright side, suffering is no gift.

Credit…Horst Faas/Associated Press

But another current can be found in theories developed during the Vietnam War. The study of psychological trauma suffers from what the psychiatrist Judith Herman has called “episodic amnesia,” in which periods of active interest, frequently following wars, are followed by “periods of oblivion.” But the generation of soldiers disaffected from war during Vietnam organized and demanded the first systematic, large-scale investigations of war trauma’s long-term effects. In addition to a medical diagnosis — PTSD was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual in 1980 — many of these same veterans and their allies argued for the spiritual and moral significance of their condition.

Psychiatrists like Robert Jay Lifton and writers like Peter Marin argued that the suffering of Vietnam veterans was not simply neurosis, but appropriate moral response to horror. “All men, like all nations, are tested twice in the moral realm,” Mr. Marin wrote. “First by what they do, then by what they make of what they do.” Rather than numbing themselves to pain, they needed to sensitize themselves, to become alive to the “animating” guilt they supposedly lived with. Guilt forces the suffering consciousness outside of itself, the theory goes, sparking empathy and a drive to make reparation.

Whether guilt results in healing, though, is debatable. Some of the most fascinating research on growth after war trauma emerges out of a four decade-long study initiated by Zahava Solomon, which followed the PTSD trajectories of veterans of the 1982 war in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War. A 2016 analysis of Israeli P.O.W.s from the 1973 war, who faced systematic torture, deprivation and social stigma, did find that those who reported the most guilt about their experience also reported the most growth. However, those veterans also had greater reports of PTSD symptoms as well. As Aeschylus warned, the wisdom they felt they had gained came with deep scars.

None of this would likely have surprised Ignatius of Loyola. In his tradition, suffering was at best a mystery: God never really answers Job, and Christ’s prayer to “let this cup pass me by” goes ungranted. As a Jesuit friend recently told me, suffering is never a gift, never truly willed by God; suffering is real, and awful, and not to be forgotten. “Consider how the Divinity hides Itself,” Ignatius’ followers have been directed to ask for hundreds of years, “how It could destroy Its enemies and does not do it, and how It leaves the most sacred Humanity to suffer so very cruelly.” But of course, that doesn’t mean that we cannot respond to such suffering with grace.

Phil Klay is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, a visiting professor at Fairfield University and the author of “Redeployment,” winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, and the forthcoming novel “Missionaries.”

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