Beyond the Brain: The Hidden Causes of War Trauma

Nowadays, much hope is put into neuroscientific efforts to penetrate the brain in order to understand and cure trauma, but almost nothing is heard about the political and social root causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The U.S. government’s latest plan to increase military spending made me think about this dangerous shortcoming.

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War is profitable and corporate business is going to benefit tremendously from the Trump administration’s proposed $56 billion upsurge in military spending. ‘At what cost?’ I asked myself and came to the conclusion that increases in military spending are likely to have a negative impact on mental health. I followed a simple line of thought: Further inflation of the U.S. military industrial complex serves profiteers that make money with wars through which people are killed and traumatized. In other words, trauma caused through war is linked to big business.

This is a good time to remember that a root cause of war-related PTSD and TBI is state-sponsored violence. Focused on the latest neuro-babble mental health professionals are commonly reluctant to speak out about the social and political nervous system of war trauma. I was one of them, until I realized the need to have a broader discussion about ethics that reaches far beyond the closed doors of a ‘psychotherapy’ practice. When I heard about the planned increase in military spending I thought of a wreath-laying ceremony that I attended a couple of years ago at San Diego State University. Back then nobody addressed the economic and political forces that drove the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and caused the death of the honored servicemen, let alone the mental health issues of veterans who survived them.

A root cause of mental health problems among veterans lies in the military industrial complex. Corporate profiteers care little about the suffering their business causes for veterans or civilians. During the wreath-laying ceremony, I noticed that the chairs in front of the memorial were covered with flyers promoting a panel of San Diego’s military industry that was organized by the SDSU alumni association. The flyer said that the city ought to remain “competitive” in the global market of military technology. Evidently, there were no critical voices at the ceremony. Emotions remained invisible behind the stern faces of the servicemen and women. To work through existential insecurity caused by war trauma would be synonymous with breaking the norms of militarized masculinity as well as the economic forces that drive it.

While veterans and their families suffer, corporate business continues to benefit from war and military spending. Almost a decade ago, anthropologists Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz in their book Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak out Against the War pointed out that an estimated three trillion dollars had entered the coffers of corporate war profiteers. The militarization of U.S. American society can be observed when looking at an ever-higher resource allocation for military purposes, but also the overall normalization of war in society that comes with it. Military spending goes hand in hand with talk that legitimates military actions on TV and has an impact on popular culture in which violent movies and video games have become the new norm. Confronted with the cultural and economic war machinery, people seem to be made believe that life is a state of permanent warfare. From this dangerous and distressful point of view, society must be subordinated to the military rather than the military to the needs of a democratic social order.

The recently proposed increase in military spending should be concerning to health and human services professionals as well as their clients. In 2010, the U.S. Federal government was already spending as much on the Defense Department as for Medicare and Medicaid together. Federal funds to promote psycho-social development and wellbeing that prevent physical and mental trauma are likely to be further cut in the wake of increased military spending. This is going to be the case despite the fact that the United States accounts for the by far largest share of the worlds total military spending (40,1%), distantly followed by China (8,2%) which occupies the second rank. Unfortunately, the huge military budget did not bring peace and democracy to the world. In the contrary, it fostered the emergence of more terror and mental disorder.

There is a growing number of veterans who are speaking out about the post-traumatic stress experienced as a result of U.S. sponsored war, including torture and the massacre of civilians. Unfortunately, the majority remains silent. Militarized masculinity with its hallmark of stoic endurance may have something to do with it. The outcomes are devastating. By the end of the Iraq War, the number of suicides had dramatically eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle and accounted for nearly one death per day. Many of those who risked their lives for dubious reasons have become marginalized and mentally ill after deployment.

At the wrath-laying ceremony I learned that veterans are in need of acknowledgement and recognition for the sacrifices they made. I’m still moved by their commitment to serve a broader common ‘good’ and their honorable intentions, perhaps a commitment to create a better world. But in order to serve wounded warriors dramatic increases in budgets for health and social services are needed rather than steroids for the military industrial complex. I believe that for mental health professionals who treat PTSD and TBI it is an ethical responsibility to give a voice to veterans who are silenced in wrath-laying ceremonies and recent policy-making initiatives. It is part of our work to provide spaces in which they can enrich stories of trauma and go beyond cookie-cutter narratives that locate the cause of traumatic stress in the brain.

New Horizons in Treating Men who Committed DV

In the mental health field Domestic Violence (DV) is often associated with personality disorders and commonly conceived as the problem of individual men. But this approaches falls short of accounting for broader social, cultural, and economic issues that are at the root of the problem.

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While each individual has to be accountable for his own behavior, we need to take up a broader perspective to understand violence against women as well as viable ways to stop it.

All kinds of interpersonal violence have a history. They are broader problems that go far beyond individual offenders or perpetrators of domestic violence. I found that it is important for men who have abused to become mindful of the ways in which they have more or less consciously followed a culture of masculinity that condones or encourages violence to solve conflicts.

For the past ten years, I have been working with men who have abused, first as a researcher and then as a counselor. During this period of time, I have not come across somebody who was violent by nature. The men had often undergone severely traumatic experiences in their childhood or youth. Sometimes they were hardly aware of the fact that the people who had abused them in the past had at some point become their role models. Moreover, they followed a dominant form of masculinity that normalizes aggression and can be readily seen in movies, video games, as well as politics. At the same time they learned very little about how to communicate effectively or express personal feelings and needs. In other words, they were socialized into a gender straightjacket that encourages individuals to control and dominate others in order to become men.

Even gender justice approaches that take into account inequalities of power often fail see the complexity of violence. In the 1990s, Kathleen Ferraro already pointed out that a prior generation of feminists got it wrong. She argued that authoritative talk, writing, and law in regards to “domestic violence” created interventions and ideas that are not necessarily helpful. They construct and perpetuate a unified image of ‘battered woman’ versus ‘male batterer.’ This is problematic because women who have experienced abuse have their own independent will and can make choices; they are much more than victims. At the same time, men who have abused are much more than ‘batterers’ or ‘perpetrators.’ In fact, I believe that this type of labeling may hinder men from changing because it commonly leads to defensiveness.

The victim/perpetrator division also results in the tendency to target individual men for treatment while obscuring broader social problems. I have often heard from men that they found it hard to change because the skills they developed during group therapy were not valued in communities in which the use of intimidation, control, and dominance over others is often considered masculine. This is not just an issue for men. Some of my group participants reported that they were belittled and verbally attacked by female partners when they showed vulnerability and cried. A multifaceted approach to “domestic violence” needs to challenge ideals of masculinity that stop men from showing tender feelings. I found that men are often overwhelmed with the expectation of being the ‘dominant’ gender. Evidently, nobody can be invulnerable and this is even more obvious for people who struggle because of racism and economic inequalities.

The culture of machismo is often seen as the root cause of violence against women. But similar to the psychiatric fallacy the myth of “culture” as being the sole reason for intimate partner violence eclipses other social and economic factors. Research has found that men who are more marginalized than others are more likely to commit domestic violence. This does not mean that affluent men are necessarily more peace loving. We know this is not the case. It merely means that some men who suffer from multiple forms of discrimination based on skin color, lack of formal education, or unemployment are more likely to use brute force to empower themselves. Usually the violence is not directed against the wealthy, mostly white males, who own a disproportionate amount of the word’s resources and control post-colonial societies like the United States. The violence is commonly directed against partners, spouses, and family members.

What does this mean for counseling with men who have committed domestic violence? On the most basic level it means that we have to differentiate between the men themselves and the problem of violence. If you are a man who has verbally or physically been abusive the first step towards healing yourself and your relationship is to draw a line between you as a person and the violence with its multiple causes. This does not mean to let go of responsibility. In the contrary, once you can see the problem as a problem that is not just about you, there is no need to become defensive, get stuck in shame, or to bury your head in the sand. You are much more than a man who has abused. It’s time to disentangle yourself from the social expectations tied to being a tough guy or your endeavors to fit into the box of male gender roles. Have the courage to embrace your own vulnerability to break the cycle of abuse. People who really care about you are going to support you in the process of change. Then think of all the positive and loving actions that you have performed in your life in relation to others. There are ways to empower yourself peacefully in equitable relationships for the sake of both your partner’s and your own health and wellbeing.