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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Comparisons

 I have always been a student of history. When I was in school, it was my favorite subject. I have felt for many years that history has much to teach us that would apply to our present moment in life and better prepare us for the future. Those who neglect to learn its lessons usually are bound to repeat them…perhaps worse than before. This desire to mine the past has led me on many an interesting search for knowledge and has enabled me to discover individuals and events that have profoundly affected my life. 
 Recently I was watching a series that described the American struggle for independence during the years 1775-1780. As someone who has long been fascinated with military history and events, I began to observe an interesting concept as I continued to watch the series: the rag-tag group of men and young boys that made up the Continental Army had much in common with the military personnel of today, yet there were some striking differences that might give us insight into how to better understand and assist those returning home from combat. There was one big question that drove me to dig deeper into the personal lives and writings of that generation and wonder if they didn't have some profound insights to offer us on the issue of post-traumatic stress. The question was this: what was it that allowed so many to go through extremely harsh weather difficulties, to survive on less-than adequate supplies which resulted in greater casualties and insanitary health conditions, to fight a far superior military force that almost assured them of certain death on the battlefield due to poor training and equipment…why did they endure all this and then go on to live exemplary lives following these harrowing situations? After the war, many became revered public servants, giving back to their communities in self-less ways. A large number of them transitioned quite well into civilian life - something that most the service members of today seem to struggle with. The following observations are my answer to this question and, I hope, it builds on other posts I have written concerning this topic: 
 One of the first differences I noticed between the soldiers of today and their predecessors was the lack of distractions for previous generations of warriors. If you think back to the 1775 era, there were no televisions, no computers, no cell phones or video games, no cars, etc. to enable people to escape the reality of life. Living back then, you had to deal with things as they happened. The young people of today grow up with far more escapism routes than those before them. It's really easy to find ways to remove oneself from the suffering and disappointments life throws at you. And it also becomes easy to want to expect the painless path to success and growth. Take this mentality among our youth and then put them in the military, and it gets harder for them to handle adversity without their distractions (example: being in a combat zone without access to the escapism "toys" they are used to having nearby.) My feeling is that older generations were able to face their situations more objectively because they didn't have as many ways to get around the gravity of life. 
 Closely connected to my first point, I also saw that the individuals of the aforementioned  time period were more adjusted to trials and suffering. The life-span of the average person was far shorter than today, and most people had to get used to tasting adversity: infants died quite frequently, droughts ruined crops (which were a lot of people's livelihood), most didn't make nearly the monetary salary that people today make and quite often had to deal with debt and financial scarcity…especially during the war. There were a lot of factors that the average person had to deal with that just aren't a part of everyday life now…factors that, while harsh realities produced, I believe, better character in the individuals who experienced them. 
 Another interesting difference that I noticed while studying the warriors back then is that they seemed to possess a greater ability to articulate themselves and to express the emotions of their sufferings. Most people back then kept journals and daily wrote down their thoughts. Since there was no such thing as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, email, or text, letters were the primary means of communication between people, and this necessitated individuals taking the time to describe their circumstances on paper. I also believe it was a release for them as they sought to deal with the more painful experiences of life. These days, social media and technology - while helpful to a point - do make it so that individuals can say whatever they want and sometime disguise their struggles. In other times, paper and ink were not necessarily an expendable thing, and you had to choose your thoughts and words clearly and carefully. Recently, I actually heard about a veteran that took this approach  in dealing with his post-combat struggles. Through writing, he was able to find a constructive way to express his emotions and feelings and discovered that it eliminated a lot of his anxiety and stress. Putting pen to paper proved to be very therapeutic for him. Because of this successful approach, he began to encourage other veterans to try it, and it began to be very helpful to them as well. On a personal note, as I writer I have found this to be very helpful to me as well when I have undergone a difficult time in my life. In this day and age, though, most people don't take the time to write anything down anymore because the digital age makes instant communication so much easier. Unfortunately, our thoughts can become more shallow and less impactful as a result of relying on this means too much. 
 Perhaps the greatest difference I discovered is that the society the warriors of 1775 lived in had a much higher estimation and respect of God. The culture as a whole placed God in a far more prominent place than today. Most people then were well-versed in the Bible and thought in far more spiritual terms than the average individual does today. This gave them a foundation for the hardships that they endured and allowed them to have a different perspective on life than we have in our modern-day era. The writings of these brave people are laced with references to God and indicate their firm reliance on His aid and assistance toward them throughout the war. For instance, Josiah Bartlett - himself one of these individuals - stated in a letter in 1776:
           
             "I believe this year will decide the fate of America - which way it will turn
              only God knows. We must look to Him for direction and protection; Job
              said though he slay me yet will I trust in Him."

It was this kind of awareness and trust in God's divine plan that provided the warriors of that time a reason to hope both during and after their combat experience. That God was overseeing their suffering made it, somehow, easier to take. For this generation of warriors, God plays a much lesser role tham before. For many, God doesn't play any role in their day-to-day lives and thus, they have no hope to sustain them when the hard times come. They are guided toward secular approaches for dealing with the haunting memories of war, and offered little spiritual explanation or foundation that would enable them to move forward toward a fuller life.
 These differences are only a part of the reason why warriors of yesterday fared better after their wartime experiences than those today. There is so much more to discover about post combat stress, and we realize that we are only scratching the surface of this important issue. However, I do believe that history is a vital part of helping us to understand how we can more effectively aid those returning home from war and help them to transition home in body, mind, and spirit. Perhaps, in learning the lessons of the past, we can better understand the warriors of the present and prepare for future challenges that they will face.