Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Protecting Our Soldiers - from PTSD and suicide - Francis Christian’s Essays

 The Geneva Convention stipulates what have been called, “the rules of war.” Several articles of the Geneva Convention describe the protection of civilians (i.e. children, women and non-combatant men, including medical personnel).

The protection of civilians from injury and death does not have exceptions in the Geneva convention. Civilian human beings cannot be referred to as “collateral damage” or some similar, dehumanizing term.

And it is common humanity and common sense that even if a military target is surrounded by children and women, you don’t kill the women and children. This applies to all sides in a conflict and does not call for a preliminary judgement of who is right and who is wrong.

The wounded of war are to be treated equally by all parties to the conflict and ambulances cannot be attacked.

The deliberate use of “human shields” by a warring party is prohibited and is considered a war crime in the Geneva convention - but the existence of a human shield does not give any side the right to kill civilians in the shield. The protection of women, children and civilians in war is thus an absolute moral imperative.

These rules of war are manifestly meant for the protection of the weak, the vulnerable and the defenceless. But they are equally meant for the protection of the soldier.

The vast majority of soldiers who serve do not wish to kill women and children. In spite of massive propaganda to make us believe otherwise, this applies equally to most sides in a conflict - Allied and German (in both the World Wars), Russian and Ukrainian, Indian and Pakistani, American and Japanese etc.

If the soldier (or pilot or naval seaman)  is placed in circumstances where he knows that he has been responsible for the death, maiming, burning or orphaning of women and children, it is highly possible that he will develop the terrible illness previously known as “shell shock,” but now universally called “post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

43% of American soldiers returning from the Gulf wars for example, were found to be suffering from a mental health problem. And 23% were screened to be suffering from PTSD.

Before going into the thick of battle, the soldier is trained to kill “the enemy.” But the enemy is largely a work of fiction at this stage. The usual soldier has never yet seen the enemy and only imagines him from a composite picture of his training, war hysteria whipped up by the propaganda media and false and demagogic calls to “patriotism” by “leaders” and “think tanks” (who will never themselves go to battle or send their children to battle).

Once this soldier has reached the frontlines and in war after war, the actual experience of battle is vastly different from what he was told/taught in training school. And for this soldier, killing another soldier and seeing the “enemy” dead or maimed from wounds he has inflicted on someone who might have been his brother, his father or his son, can be almost as traumatic as killing a woman or a child. Tragically, the realization that he is killing another human being, just like himself or someone he loves, usually comes only after the act itself is committed. And again, the risk of PTSD for this soldier, is significant.

The experience of his military comrades and friends dying and lying injured around him is also another common cause of PTSD.

I wrote a poem about the returned veteran and his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It appears in my book of poems, published in 2021:

From To A Nurse Friend Weeping - Poems by Francis Christian page 25:


The “enemy” blundered into his bullets

looked but once into his eyes, once only

he saw his little brother’s eyes -

soft eyes, moist, misting over, cheeks

ruddy beneath those eyes he knew,

now unblinking open wide on the cold grass.

And so the sobbing soldier summons sleep,

speaks softly to it, calls it sweet names …

thinks his feet is off the grieving grass at last;

wills the canopy of shade cover his soul -

then wakes and shouts and weeps aloud,

and screams and swears and cowers.

As a surgeon, I have seen many veterans who suffer from PTSD and who have been under psychiatric care for years . It is a cruel, terrifying illness - and is often suffered in silence for many years, before the veteran seeks help.  I have seen grown men with PTSD weep and shake and cry out loud in terror. Many of them are driven to suicide.

In the USA alone 17 veterans commit suicide every day - this adds up to more than 6,000 suicides by veterans every year. The toll on human lives is staggering.

The English poet Wilfred Owen was consumed, as most soldiers are at the beginning of a war, by a sense of patriotism and purpose.  This dissipated quickly when as a serving soldier, he reached the killing fields of France and witnessed for the first time, first-hand, the horrors of the trenches of the first world war and the futility of the conflict that was to claim millions of young lives. He also saw many fellow soldiers suffering from PTSD and describes them thus:

These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.

Memory fingers in their hair of murders,

Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.

Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,

Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.

Always they must see these things and hear them,

Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,

Carnage incomparable, and human squander

Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented

Back into their brains, because on their sense

Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;

Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.

The Geneva Convention codifies the rules of war and the protection of civilians. It does not speak of PTSD and soldier suicides.

And yet speak of it we must - and call attention to the fact that in a war nobody really wins; everybody loses - the only question is the extent of the losses.

In my essay, “Why Peace (and not war?)” I pointed out that most wars are the product of greed, hubris and evil intentions. Old men send young men to die in our wars. For these old men (and younger men who work for the old men!), never ending war is an end in itself.

PTSD is one of the inevitable consequences of war. It takes a terrifying toll on our veterans. It is not inevitable.

The better way is the way of peace.

“Blessed are the peacemakers - for they shall be called the children of God.”