It is easier to create perfect fictions of heroes than acknowledge their failings, vulnerability and the suffering they caused. But maybe if we stop just seeing the dark stuff as personal, we can really start to deal with it, writes Isa Ritchie.
On the April 25 every year, Australians and New Zealanders gather to remember those lost in the world wars. It is a solemn commemoration. Red poppies adorn lapels, heads are bowed, wreaths are ceremonially placed, horns sound and shots are fired. Tribute is paid to those who died and those who survived. Civilian casualties, and service women’s roles are not a strong focus. Realities are always more complicated.
Some criticise the glorification of war and the narrative of historic bravery, courage and justice, but what we don’t tend to talk about is that our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers (as well as the women who are hardly ever mentioned) often returned from war as different people from those who left – or how this continues to affect us today. There has been growing recognition that many of these veterans remain traumatised. People might use the term PTSD (post-trauma stress disorder), although that term is much more common in the US where the issue of veterans struggling to function in society remains a contemporary one.
In recent years, trauma has been an increasing area of research focus. Projects like the ongoing study into Adverse Childhood Experiences demonstrate the strong epidemiological health effects of trauma, alongside the wider social issues it compounds.
Bonnie Scarth is a Fulbright Scholar and trauma researcher undertaking her PhD at the University of Otago. In her work with Dr Sue Bagshaw, she’s made connections between the rising rates of Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis in this generation and old war traumas in the generations above. “With parents/grandparents getting back from the war with PTSD and struggling to parent in a patient emotionally empathic way, those kids grow up without the emotional empathy and validation they need, which is a common factor in kids with a history of Borderline Personality Disorder.”
Scarth points out that even trauma diagnosis can be tricky: “There’s heroic trauma and not-so heroic trauma.” Men are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD, while women are often diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder because, as Scarth says with an ironic sigh, “it must be their personality that is disordered.” She explains that the word “trauma” can also be problematic. “The term is passive and centres the trauma in the person, rather than pointedly stating that others inflicted the trauma.”
In New Zealand many of our grandparents didn’t talk about challenging emotional things. That’s especially true of those with a Pākehā world-view, without the tools or tikanga to acknowledge trauma. We don’t talk about how many of those from previous generations were unable to function emotionally, or became violent alcoholics, or raised boys (and girls) to tough it out rather than to feel. Of course, war may not be the only factor, but it is a hard one to dismiss when it has affected so many of us down the generations.
I’m curious about why we don’t often talk about this in the context of ANZAC Day. Perhaps it’s simply an unconscious oversight, or seen as just too hard. Or maybe it feels disrespectful to shift the focus from the bravery and sacrifice of those who went to war and onto the ongoing damage that was perpetuated when they came home.
For Māori, inter-generational war trauma has been compounded by the trauma of colonisation. The world wars accelerated the pace of industrialisation and the rural to urban migration, exacerbating the disconnection with whenua, whānau, reo and tikanga. Māori academics such as Associate Professor Leonie Pihama have written about historical trauma theory and its relevance for Māori people.
Pihama and her colleagues make connections between broader trauma theory and the layers of political and traumatic impact across generations of Māori in particular. They note that although tikanga and cultural wisdom have been disconnected through colonisation, these indigenous understandings are important in processing and healing inter-generational trauma.
War is so prolific throughout history that this kind of ongoing trauma is likely to remain endemic to humanity, although many cultures have developed tools and practices that can help to restore emotional and social wellbeing.
As a recovering sociologist and as a Pākehā person who was raised in a kaupapa Māori context, I have noticed that mainstream Pākehā culture often avoids talking about the ramifications of trauma, and even seems to lack useful tools and language that could help to remedy it. There are likely things we can learn from indigenous cultures that have developed the emotional tools to navigate and resolve trauma.
With few tools for processing difficult emotions and healing from trauma, what else can we expect but a society where violence is normalised? We sweep our vulnerability and emotional scars under the rug; our shared cultural legacy lurks in the dark, painfully silent. We loved these people who hurt us – they didn’t know any different, any other way. We internalise their trauma and relate to our own children with that same painful tension. The trauma is obvious, despite the silence.
These personal wounds are political. Violence is not a private matter, it is a deeply social concern. It is hard to talk about sensitive things. It is easier to create perfect fictions of heroes than empathically acknowledge their failings, weakness, vulnerability and the suffering they caused. But maybe if we stop just seeing the dark stuff as personal, we can really start to deal with it – and begin to heal this inter-generational trauma.
We are living in a society where everyone has felt the after-shocks of this trauma, and what we do know about violence is that it tends to create vicious cycles – unless we can break out of them. Awareness is the first step. Talking about it is the second.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.