The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” and “American Sniper”


Roy Scranton in the LA Review of Books:

EVERY TRUE WAR STORY is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.

After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.

The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.

So goes the myth of the trauma hero.

This myth informs our politics, shapes our news reports, and underwrites our history. It dominates critical and scholarly interpretation of war literature, war movies, and the visual culture of war. It shapes how we understand Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and World War II, and it affects whom we vote for. Like all myths, this story frames and filters our perceptions of reality through a set of recognizable and comforting conventions. It works to convince us that war is a special kind of experience that offers a special kind of truth, a truth that gives those who have been there a special kind of authority.

More here.