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SYMPOSIUM

SATURDAY APRIL 22

Rituals of Return
and Healing

Featured Speakers:
Kristin Henderson
William P. Mahedy
James G. Munroe
Philip G. Salois
Jonathan Shay
On Saturday April 22, 2006 the Nostoi Project, “Stories of War and Return,” will close with a one-day workshop focused on “rituals of return and healing.” This workshop will not be a time for long lectures but rather for deep searching and discussion shared by those most closely involved in the return and healing of soldiers from combat-secular care-givers (psychiatrists, therapists, counselors), religious caregivers (military chaplains and local clergy), veterans, and their families. The aim of this day will be to reach towards a fuller, more holistic understanding of the wounds inflicted by war and of the appropriate therapies for their healing.

It is commonly acknowledged that, referring to the support provided to returning veterans, “we got it all wrong after Vietnam”. But what would it mean to “get it right”? Some would suggest parades, national and local, celebrating the end of war and the bravery of those who waged it. Others would look further. The journey out of war’s dark night is longer and more arduous, for any nation and its military, than the parade route down Main Street. No one knows this better than veterans, their families, and those who devote their lives and their energies to guiding them back to wholeness.

The starting-point for this day’s deliberations will be that war inflicts on all those who suffer it, whether as soldiers or civilians, a range of injuries: physical, psychological, and spiritual. Not even all physical injuries are visible. An alarming number of veterans returning from Iraq today suffer from TBI, traumatic brain injury, invisible to the eye and often undetected for months after return; and yet it can be altogether disabling. The same is obviously true of psychological injury, PTSD, often delayed and hidden to the naked eye. Less manifest and far less often acknowledged is the moral or spiritual damage done by war, which Edward Tick calls “soul injury”.

War has been described by William P. Mahedy—veteran, chaplain, therapist—as “a moral sewer… total immersion in evil”. There is no avoiding its pollution, whether one is discharging weapons in combat or merely paying taxes on the homefront. The spilling of blood, the taking of lives, uniformed or not, regardless of the cause or justification, leaves lesions in the human psyche, soul, and society. Purification after battle-shared by those who went to war and those who sent them there-is a universal requirement, overlooked only at a great personal and communal price. “The Vietnam warriors,” writes Mahedy, like their ancient predecessors, were conscious of having performed in war acts unacceptable within their society. Like the fighting men of antiquity, they required a ritual of cleansing that entailed both a welcome home and the acceptance of some responsibility by the people for acts they had committed. But this was not to be, for we Americans view war much differently than did our ancient ancestors. In America, the notion of cleansing has been lost from the rites of reentry, supplanted by the idea that the justice of our national cause renders all acts of war moral.”

Psychiatrist and veterans’ advocate Jonathan Shay concurs with this assessment, pointing out that: “Acts of war generate a profound gulf between the combatant and the community he left behind. The veteran carries the taint of a killer, of blood pollution… that many cultures respond to with purification rituals. Our culture today denies the need for purification and provides none, even though in the past it has done so.… In the medieval Christian church, everyone who shed blood in war had to do penance. If you committed atrocities, you had to do more penance, but even if you wore a white hat and were a perfect model of proper conduct, you had to do penance. Most warrior societies, as well as many not dominated by warfare, have historically had communal rites of purification of the returning fighter after battle…”

In writing about and discussing the need for moral/spiritual purification from war Shay has stressed that this requisite ritual neither implies personal iniquity nor confers legal impunity. Beyond the crime or sin of war itself that is shared by warriors and the society that sent them off to war, there are atrocities which we label war crimes and which, as such, must be defined, prosecuted and punished elsewhere.

In the past, some medical healers have been slow to acknowledge unseen trauma to the psyche and have attended only to torn flesh, broken bones, and eyes no longer affected by light. Similarly, some psychiatrists and counselors have pursued the healing of inner trauma with therapies oblivious of and neutral to moral evil and spiritual darkness. The challenge of our workshop on “rituals of return and healing” will be to recognize the full range of war’s injuries and to try to imagine all the ways we might possess to heal them.

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

Brian Turner, “Sadiq” from Here, Bullet

Healing, then, is also about mending the broken heart.


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