WIUM Tristates Public Radio

War and Reverse Culture Shock

Jan 29, 2015

A couple of weekends ago, my husband Michael and I did something we haven’t done in years.

We went to a movie.  In the morning.  Without our children. 

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper"
Credit Warner Bros.

We thought that we would be the only ones in the theatre given that it was 10:30am on a Sunday.  When we pulled into the parking lot, a line was snaking out the entrance doors.  We looked at each other in astonishment and proceeded to queue up behind one of our friends who was there to see the same movie.  Rizwan was by himself, and as the three of us settled into our seats and talked about what brought us to the theatre that morning. 

Michael and I both grew up in rural southern Ohio.  Rizwan grew up in a world away in urban Pakistan.  Yet many of the same questions brought us to see “American Sniper”.  Who was this man with such a talent for sharp shooting that he became the most highly decorated sniper in American history? 

As an anthropologist I am interested in what makes people tick, and this movie allowed me, at least through the eyes of a film maker, to see a bit of what they might have experienced. 

Despite a few poorly executed scenes (really Mr. Eastwood, a plastic baby instead of a real infant?) the movie was riveting.  There was none of the normal quiet chatter or crinkling of plastic and the entire audience stayed in their seats until the screen went black. 

Choking back tears I left the theatre with the silent crowd of moviegoers.  When I was finally able to speak without crying, I asked Michael how anyone could emerge from war and still be human.  He answered, “Not everyone is able to really come home.” 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
Credit Rich Egger

Of the many students I have taught, three veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly stand out in my mind.  All of them have left Western, although I am not sure that they all graduated.  Two of them I consider to be friends and one I have lost touch with completely. 

For me, these three young men represent different phases of “coming home”.  All three were quiet, wickedly intelligent, and thoughtful in the classroom.  They were hesitant to talk about their military experiences with me, but their eyes gave them away.  Their eyes also showed me where they were on the journey to becoming human again.  Brilliant blue and focused – he’s made it back, although it’s not been easy.  Dark and filled with pain and anger – he’s stuck and can’t seem to get the find his way home.  And brown, deep, sad and disengaged – he is lost. 

For all the moral complexity of war, I imagine that coming home is often more distressing and disorienting.  Anthropologists call this “reverse culture shock”.  The transition between what is normal and acceptable behavior in a battle zone differs from what is normal and acceptable behavior in a Walmart parking lot.  These stark differences can unsettle even the most well-adjusted veteran. 

Those who enter the military spent a significant amount of time learning the new rules of the culture they live in.  Yet, when our veterans leave the military it seems that they are given little more than a pat on the back, a thank you, and “poof” they are supposed to successfully reenter civilian life as functioning human beings.

Yet we know that this isn't always the case. In a 2008 study, the RAND Corporation estimated that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affected 14% of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Symptoms of the disorder range from minor insomnia to debilitating flashbacks. And studies of veterans suggest that the likelihood of developing PTSD increases with each combat deployment.

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be over, the suffering of those who witnessed it may still be going on. Tremendous casualties have been suffered on all sides.  The infrastructure, economies, and cultures of Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed.   Hundreds of thousands have died, and the relative stability now present doesn’t look much better than what they have been living under for the last decade. 

Our own young men and women who spent time in the battle zone may not bare any of the physical wounds or war, but many of them are carrying around invisible scars that can be just as debilitating. 

One of the things that makes us human is our ability to see what is going on around us and to act accordingly.  War causes wounds that are both visible and invisible.  Be mindful of those around you, look into their eyes and be kind.  As the poet Shaz Cheesman writes “Eyes speak honestly, They reflect what one feels…The eyes are the key, Now how do you see?” 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university of Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.