Healing the Wounds of War
Posted on November 21st, 2017

Ed Tick, Ph.D

In contrast to our modern situation, traditional and indigenous peoples had extensive spiritually and communally based warrior medicine, practices and lineages. They lived immersed in and part of nature and its processes, conceived of themselves not as independent agents but as members of interdependent communities, and stood in wonder before a living cosmos. They considered soul and spirit to be life forces that were essential to preserve and protect those most endangered by warfare and violence. Their guidance of warriors through the life cycle, interpretations and treatments of trauma, and orchestration of the return journey were spiritual, communal, nature-based and practical. And their guidance was extensive, specific and designed to bring spirit back into their warriors’ souls.

Let us explore some traditional interpretations of combat trauma that illustrate soul wounding and give direction for restoration. The Hopi people call trauma tsawana, meaning a state of mind that is in terror.” The Hopi name the condition directly; the mind and heart are frozen in the terror of traumatic experience as if it were happening in an eternal present.

Since the traumatic wound is this terror, healing our war wounds is Qa tutsawanavu, living in a way not intimidated by terror. The warrior learns once again to live as King David when he rediscovered faith: I will fear no evil … ” Warriors learn to act with courage, as Hemingway said with grace under pressure,” or Colonel Henderson, with … the willingness to act in the face of fear.” The warriors’ spirits grow larger than their fears, confident they can master the ordeal and not be crippled by terror.

A Hopi woman soldier, Lori Piestewa (White Bear girl) was the first Native American to die in recent wars and believed to be the first Native American servicewoman killed in foreign wars. The daughter of a Vietnam veteran and granddaughter of a World War I vet, she was following both her people’s and the American warrior lineage. There is a long tradition of Hopi women taking part in raids and defending villages.” Caught in the same attack during which Jessica Lynch was captured, Lori drove her truck trying to get her battle buddies out of danger. She died without firing her weapon. Her friends and family increasingly opposed the war and were pleased that Lori did not harm anyone, ‘the Hopi way,’” her father proudly said.

The Lakota called trauma nagi napayape, meaning, the spirits leave him.” Trauma was that condition in which the spirits left the person so that the body feels like an empty shell. The worst cases of shock come not only from physical processes but also from seeing such horrors that the soul flees the body. Many warriors report such experiences. Art, a machine gunner at the siege of Khe Sanh, reported his soul’s flight  during a firefight in vivid detail.

When the source of disorder is spirit loss, then healing can occur through restoration of spirit aided by community. Many cultures, Lakota and Vietnamese among them, practice community rituals for calling the souls and spirits back. In the Vietnamese countryside, a traditional belief holds that illness comes from one or more of the seven souls leaving the body.

Healing can occur when the village people gather to call the lost soul back or a shaman journeys to seek it. Reverend Jackson, who had served as a chaplain in Viet Nam, returned with us thirty-seven years later. He asked our group to surround him on his old battlefield where my heart went dead.” Together Americans and Vietnamese called for his soul to return. It was a clear, quiet and sun-drenched day. As we cried out together, lightning suddenly flashed and exploded on the mountaintop opposite.

Sri Lanka is an island nation south of India brutalized by a civil war from 1983 to 2009. Sri Lanka reports extensive traumatic suffering among its military and civilian populations. According to Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunge, Sri Lanka has had much historical trauma from both natural and human disasters and cultural and religious traditions that provide protection against and tools to deal with it. Sri Lankan written history dates back more than 2,500 years. As written in the Mahavamsa, the history of Sri Lanka and one of the world’s oldest chronologies, the Battle of Vijithapura fought in 161 or 162 B.C. was massively destructive and deadly. The triumphant King Dutthagamani became severely depressed  soon after the battle.

The Portuguese first invaded Sri Lanka in 1505. For the next 300 years the native population fought against the Portuguese, Dutch and British. King Seethawaka Rajasinghe entered the wars in 1560 at age sixteen. A courageous and effective warrior, he fought many battles and witnessed much suffering. He finally defeated the better-equipped and trained invaders, saving his country from becoming a colony. But after years of combat the king was exhausted and unquestionably suffered from battle fatigue. In later years he displayed outbursts of anger, irritability, deep mistrust, alienation, emotional numbing and various other PTSD-related symptoms …[The] King … is believed to have suffered from combat-related trauma.”

Dr. Jayatunge concludes that combat trauma has been known and manifested through several thousand years of Sri Lankan cultural history, was recorded in their literature as long ago as Homer and the Bible, demonstrably occurred in ancient as well as modern times, and though tragic also helped their people develop endurance and resilience through cultural and religious practices.

The Xhosa people of South Africa believe that a warrior leaves part of his soul on the battlefield with the souls of the fallen. The warrior cannot reclaim his own soul without making peace with the dead of both sides.To the Xhosa, Professor Brooke explains, Kanene (k-u-n-e-nn-y”) is the warrior’s insight into the depth and burden he carries, following him like a shadow reminding him of what he has done.” Healing occurs through direct community-based response to this burden. It entails being forgiven by both the living and the dead, including the enemy dead.

The Xhosa healing ceremony called Ukubula (Oo-koo-boo-la”) is a confessional telling of what you have done before the community. The community’s role is to tolerate the pain of listening, no matter how difficult. The community carries the burden and pain of what happened and the warrior is forgiven and healed from private suffering.” Professor Brooke points out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa that helped the country heal from apartheid were national practices of ukubula. Ukubula highlights the critical role the community plays in listening and witnessing horrors without judgment and welcoming the trauma survivor back into community after confessional cleansing.

Also in southern Africa are the Shangaan, a Nguni people who are tribal cousins of the Xhosa and Zulu. They populate the areas in what are now Mozambique and the eastern border of South Africa. The Shangaan maintain extensive rituals for post-war trauma that affirms the intimate relationship between the slain, the slayer and surviving family members, all of whom become involved in community restoration.

Among the Shangaan,A man who kills another, even in war, must build a hut with the name of the dead. He must keep it maintained for the dead’s spirit. His own daughter is then married” to the deceased man. She must look after the hut as she matures. If she falls in love or wants to marry, then she and her father must ask permission from the dead enemy for her to be allowed to marry.

Shangaan practices demonstrate the lifelong intimacy that occurs as a result of taking a life, an intimacy many contemporary veterans feel but are at a loss to complete. Their practices also express, Brooke observes, a truth we see in our families every day. Daughters are imprisoned by their father’s wounds, unable to live their own lives until their fathers have been released by the spirits of the dead.” We heard this same lesson from Greece in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter in exchange for winds to sail his fleet to Troy.

In another corner of the planet are the Maori, who settled New Zealand about 800 years ago and are one of the oldest, fiercest, most successful warrior traditions. Maori spirituality and lives are shaped around their relationship with the Divine, the Creation, their tribes—iwis—and each other. Increasing mana or spiritual power, protecting tapu or sacred being, and service and devotion to the community are at the core of Maori culture.

For the Maori, primary to any healing is the healing of relationship based on a sense of sacred being, tapu. When there is violence, a wound or a crime, tapu becomes negative and must be set aright. Maori restoration rituals focus on healing relationships that have been harmed in order to cleanse and restore tapu.

Warfare was a way of life for the Maori. They believed that mana, spiritual power, prestige or influence, was given by the ancestors or attained through combat and that combat was sacred to the ancestors. They fought for mana, expressing a widespread ancient belief that the powers of a slain warrior could enter the victor.

The United Kingdom invaded New Zealand in 1845 and fought the Maori until 1872. Though the British have significantly influenced their culture and there is internal violence due to their troubled social status and warrior traditions, the Maori retain much pride, honor and influence because they were never defeated.

One aspect of Maori culture that has gained worldwide attention is the haka, their traditional war dance. Haka is a group dance with intense foot stomping and body movements accompanied by rhythmic shouting. Haka can be performed by women and children as well and can be used for many purposes—entertainment, to welcome dignitaries, before sporting events, to honor important events or achievements, and for funerals. War haka were specifically meant to intimidate enemies by showing warriors’ prowess and fierceness. Made famous by the New Zealand rugby league, haka are used for many purposes today. Each branch of the military service and every army unit has its own haka, performed by all members of the units no matter their ethnic backgrounds. Haka have thus been integrated from the Maori into mainstream and military New Zealand cultures and are used at military funerals as unit rituals for bidding farewell to fallen comrades.

Korea holds an ancient belief also applied with special attention in the military. It has similarities to tapu as a core spiritual property and individual and collective karma following us through life, shaping our fates.

In Korea, the word han, from the ancient Chinese, means the injustice that must be set right in the world. Those emotions arising from life’s injustices—resentment, sorrow, regret—originate from disturbed han. Most Korean people, especially the elderly, have long believed that retaining han will cause various traumatic wounds and disorders.

Jae-sung Chung was a first lieutenant in the Republic of Korea Army. He served as liaison officer attached to U.S. Army headquarters in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. Jae explains, To maintain sound health, individuals must be free from such han as worry, anger, resentment, sorrow or regret. This applies to everyone, including the men and women in uniform.” Although people face different challenges, Koreans recognize that each person must be able to get rid of accumulated han. In the Korean military, soldiers are periodically educated about han by commanding officers and chaplains. On weekends ROK soldiers in military camps commonly attend church or temple to receive character guidance education by chaplains or Buddhist monks along with the respective religious service. In addition, soldiers are taught about han by their commanding officers through Troop Information and Education (TI&E).

Belief in and care of han is common in the South Korean military. Jae believes that the majority of soldiers will resolutely manage their spiritual attitude of han.” The military itself tries to set han right. Within the military Christian chaplains and Buddhist monks do their best to heal han.

During the Vietnam War, as a nearby Asian nation Korea felt a genuine and immediate threat. Thus Korean veterans felt more appreciated, justified in service and welcomed home than did American veterans. On the other hand, war inevitably disturbs han. In order to cleanse his han after service, Jae has used self-reflection, meditation and contemplation.

The spiritual principle declares that what was made wrong must be put right. Traditional cultures considered not just individuals but the cosmic order out of balance until the souls of the living and dead were reconciled and wounded psycho-spiritual and cultural patterns and relationships reconciled and restored.

These ancient beliefs have been carried into modern conflicts and used for resolving them after bloodshed, as in South Africa after apartheid. Soldier’s Heart co-director Kate Dahlstedt presented another example:

In Papua New Guinea a brutal civil war occurred from 1975?1998. It was set off by destructive environmental practices during 1960s Australian copper mining. It was then enflamed when local people rose up and the government manipulated the native population to resist the uprising. As a result, families, friends and clans were set against each other and 15,000?20,000 people died.

A cease-fire was declared in 1998. There was so much grief, loss, remorse from the extreme violence and bloodshed among traditional families and friends that the only way to rebuild and establish unity was through a reconciliation ceremony.” The local people spent three years discussing the crisis” and how to reconcile. They finally came together on the island’s northwest coast for a ceremony that included preparing special foods, wearing sacred garb, sharing losses and decorating the community with flowers to chase away negativity and attract sweetness.

The ritual consisted of dancing with arrows to symbolize the old conflict, then passing betel nuts as a gesture of peace. The people then passed a pig for roasting between former foes, joined hands and together touched a peace stone. They then lowered it into the ground, throwing their broken weapons over it. To these people, this ritual was irrevocable.

Individuals who had killed returned the reclaimed and purified bones of the slain to their families in carefully constructed coffins. Slayers publically apologized to families who had lost members, offered compensatory gifts, exchanged betel nuts again, and together buried the coffin in its final grave. The ritual thus is a rite of passage for both individuals and community, giving meaning to the harm caused, lifting heartache, providing restitution, creating new personal and collective identities and rebalancing the universal scales.”

From North America Nupkus Roger Shourds gives us a portrait of the warrior tradition as practiced by his Pend D’Oreille people:

When warriors went out the first time they sang Canvas Dance songs the night they were leaving and then all the warriors would leave during the night. They prayed and painted before going to protect themselves and their horses. New apprentice warriors were given tasks by the leader, such as going for water for the proven warriors. The leader noted if they performed their tasks with honor. If the novices performed well the leader would tell about them when the warriors returned, sang the Victory Song and reentered camp where the entire population gathered to hear the stories. 

The leaders would tell how each warrior performed in battle, how many marks could be put on their coup sticks and how many eagle feathers they earned. Each warrior would plant his ceremonial stick or spear in the ground as his hand grasped the upright spear. Then he recounted the details of each deed, stating whom he had killed, wounded or counted coup on. He spoke slowly and plainly, wore only moccasins, breechcloth, necklace, armlets and headband. His body was painted yellow except the right leg below the calf, which was painted red, because of what he had done during the battle.

As each warrior recounted his deeds, sounds from the drum and cries from the crowd followed. The drum beat one, two, three or four times, depending on the importance of each warlike deed. If the action was great the drum beat four times. If small then the drum would be hit only once. At each pause, drumbeats and war cries were given as emphasis or applause. In the center of the arena was a pole in the ground with pegs sticking out like nails. While a warrior told of his deeds, members of his family hung blankets, shawls, necklaces, moccasins or beaded bags on the center pole. Money was gathered, tied in a scarf and hung on the pole. The gifts were distributed to the poor after he completed his story. The entire tribe sat and listened to all the stories until they were finished. Then the returned warriors would start special war dances until they could dance no more.

Our culture honored our warriors right after they returned and listened to each and every warrior tell their war stories. This fact along with the survival reasons we fought and killed assisted in eliminating any PTSD.

Ed Tick, Ph.D., is,  a psychotherapist, poet and writer, educator, and overseas journey guide. He holds an M.A. in psychology from Goddard College and a Ph.D. in Communication from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Tick is a clinical member and has held various officer positions with the American Academy of Psychotherapists and the American Holistic Medical Association, as well as many other professional organizations. 

A practicing psychotherapist for more than 30 years, Tick specializes in extensive and innovative work with survivors of severe trauma and violence — particularly combat war veterans — sexual and Substance Abuse   victims, those with severe mental and emotional disorders, men’s issues and deeply rooted psycho-spiritual healing. In all of his work, Tick applies his own innovative model of PTSD treatment based on worldwide research of spirituality, mythology and war/the warrior archetype, in order to develop a new, broadened and strengthened psycho-spiritual identity

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