The Romantic and the Realist
By Kelly Anspaugh
August 21 2008
Recently, while discussing the state of the war in Afghanistan with military personnel, President Bush remarked, "I must say, I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger . . . I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. . . . It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks."
The president’s use of the term “romantic” is very suggestive. There are essentially two ways of looking at combat: the Romantic and the Realist. The Romantic view represents combat as an opportunity for the soldier to prove and improve his character. Combat, if it does not kill the combatant, will only make him strongerwill lift up and transfigure him. The experience of combat will transform a boy into a man, a man into a Superman.
This Romantic view is given classical expression in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, in the famous speech the king gives to his troops before the battle of Agincourt. Henry tells his men that they should not be downcast because they are outnumbered by the French, as the glory of victory will be all the greater for this: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother. . . . And gentlemen in England now abed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought on Saint Crispin’s day.”
That the Romantic myth of combat is still compelling today, four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote those lines, is evident from how military recruiting ads attempt to borrow the Bard’s rhetorical fire: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” echoes distinctly in “The Few, the Proud, the Marines.” Recruits are encouraged to think that with proper training they can become “an Army of One.” Young men (and now women) are still lured into military service by the promise that combat is a “trial by fire” that will raise them up, transfigure them, turn them into Heroes.
Such is the Romantic viewpoint. There is, however, another view: the Realist. From this perspective combat is seen not as an opportunity but as a disaster. Rather than improving one’s character, the experience of combat is likely to injure it, in many cases ruin it. Exposure to combat is like exposure to a toxin: it does not transfigure so much as disfigure. What does not kill us may leave us wounded, maimed, or wishing we were dead.
It is the Realist view that comes to the fore in discussions of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This malady has been illuminated by Dr. Jonathan Shay in his groundbreaking Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. In Shay’s view, the veteran with PTSD is unable to “turn off” the survival skills he or she learned in combat, which skills are inappropriate in a civilized context. This contradiction exacerbates a host of problems associated with the original trauma: intrusive thoughts (“flashbacks”), social anxiety, insomnia, depression, violent rages, and substance abuse.
A particularly tragic case of PTSD has been in the news lately: that of former Army medic Joseph Dwyer. Dwyer became famous during the first week of the war when a photo of his rescuing a wounded Iraqi child was published on the cover of USA Today. He was an instant hero. When he returned home, however, he brought the war with him – suffered from paranoid delusions that the enemy was all around him, turned to huffing solvents to find relief from his demons. He died from substance abuse at the age of thirty-one. He left behind a wife and daughter.
A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that approximately one in five of those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan – that’s 300,000 souls -- are suffering from PTSD. Unfortunately, many of these soldiers are doomed to lead lives of quiet desperation, as their Romantic conception of what a warrior should be – that is, tough and uncomplaining--prevents them from seeking psychological treatment.
Given that 1,000 veterans receiving care at the VA try to kill themselves every month, we can begin to see the heavy cost of indulging in Romantic conceptions of warfare (such as that held by our present Commander in Chief). War is not glorious. On the contrary, as General Sherman realistically remarked, “War is all hell,” and for too many of our combat vets, hell is where they’ll live for the rest of their lives. Perhaps we should take this into account when we decide to send idealistic young men and women off to do battle.
Dr. Kelly Anspaugh teaches a course on the representation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in literature and film.