How do soldiers survive war? Not how do they stay alive. Rather, how do they do what they must to stay alive, then psychologically adapt when they return home. Sanctioned killing and the constant threats posed by a shadowy enemy change you.
Many former servicemen and women are eventually able to put their experiences in mental boxes, wrap them tightly in reason and shove them into the deep recesses of their minds as far away from emotion as they can go. Others can’t tamp down that emotion, withdrawing into themselves, turning to drugs or resorting to violence. In World War II, it was called shell shock. Today, it’s called post traumatic stress disorder. It’s not uncommon.
I don’t know how I’d deal with combat and the constant state of alert – or how well I’d transition back to civilian life. Quite honestly, I don’t ever want to find out. I don’t think any of us knows how combat and re-assimilation would affect us unless we’re faced with it. Would we handle it like our fathers or grandfathers and focus on the lighter moments, romanticizing the harrowing ones? Or would we respond like Timothy McVeigh, becoming paranoid and so angry that we’d lash out, becoming an American terrorist.
The psychologically damaged are the uncounted casualties of war.