Emotional Detachment in Combat and Coming Home

WW2 Marine After Eniwetok Assault. February 1944. Unnamed Military Photographer

Call it survival, or becoming jaded or cynical. Many combat veterans experienced a point in their service when things that “should” bother them don’t. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, of course. In “normal” life, we don’t go up against situations that are horrific, horrible, or traumatic. Because they are so rare in our wider society, they are significant events when it does happen. In the military, emotional detachment is the name of the game, and it happens more than people might think.

It starts from the moment we enter the military. It’s not about what we like and what we don’t like…opinions don’t matter much. It’s about doing what you’re told and not doing what you’re not told. There are some benefits to this; for sure. It’s often only when we’re tested that we become aware of the capacity that we have to endure stress and hardship. It continues when a service member gets to their first duty station and faces their peers and leaders. Certain military training…water training, Airborne school, obstacles courses…is designed to induce fear while increasing skill. This happens so that the service member can get the mission done while ignoring or decreasing the emotional response to these stressors.

And then there’s combat.

When someone first enters a combat zone, they’re not used to being in danger. Sure, they kind of know what to expect, but they don’t really know until it happens. The sounds of combat may be disconcerting at first…but many combat service members get used to it. This emotional detachment…the apparent lack of fear, grief, or even sense of self-preservation…happens quickly. This type of detachment is seen in movies like Full Metal Jacket, as when Animal Mother says, “You’d better flush out your head, new guy. This isn’t about freedom; this is a slaughter”  or Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now:

“Smell that? You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like… Victory.”

It Was Useful in Combat

Here’s a truth for many who haven’t served: this type of emotional detachment was necessary. This topic came up for me after listening to a recent episode of a podcast series about the WWII miniseries Band of Brothers, hosted by my buddy and fellow podcast host, Jeff Adamec. In the third episode of the series, one of the unit’s officers says this to a soldier who is having a difficult time adjusting to combat:

The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.

While this may sound cold, and morbid, and depressing, that’s true; it’s all of those things. And then the morbidity and coldness of that statement cease to matter. It’s almost as if the statement could have been boiled down to two rules of combat: 1. Accept the fact that you’re already dead. 2. When in doubt, refer to rule #1.  It is when a combat veteran reaches a level of emotional detachment that they are able to accomplish the mission, whatever that is to them…covering their buddy’s back, watching out for their own, all of it. Battlefield losses happen; someone is injured, someone is killed, and, of course, the war goes on, and life goes on. In many ways, it’s as much a survival mechanism as anything else.

Although Useful, It Might Not Have Been Beneficial

Another painful reality of emotional detachment in combat: greater degrees of emotional detachment in combat might have an impact on the development of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. In an analysis conducted in 2003, before the repeated exposure to combat that Post 9/11 veterans experienced, psychologists Matthew Tull and Lizabeth Roemer identified several studies that show that emotional numbing was the strongest predictor of PTSD five months after the traumatic incident. There is evidence that a service member that felt significant emotional detachment in combat would experience challenges regarding traumatic stress reaction upon returning from the combat environment.

Sometimes, It Doesn’t Stay In Combat

The feeling of detachment often persists when the veteran returns home. I have found that this is especially true with veterans who were required to engage in multiple deployments. The emotional detachment of the battlefield is brought to the homefront, and when there is a likelihood that the return to the battlefield is less than a year away, the detachment is easier to maintain. When a service member is exposed to combat on their first deployment, it may take some time to get into “combat mode,” weeks or even months. On the second deployment, it may take only a couple of weeks; in subsequent deployments, combat mode kicks in within days, or often even before the wheels of the plane hit the ground.

It Is Not Useful in Post-Military Life

Like the Violence of Action Paradox, what was beneficial to service members while they were deployed was less beneficial when the get home. The need to believe that you’re already dead: while helpful in combat, not helpful at all when we return home to pick up our lives. When we need to reengage with others, establish or re-establish relationships, and start to care about things again, the habit of emotional detachment gets in the way.

So what to do about it? As with everything else, awareness and acknowledgement are the first steps towards making a change. We can’t change something if we don’t recognize it within us. After awareness, talking to someone to get understanding around it is extremely beneficial. Working with a mental health professional can be helpful, and it doesn’t mean you’re crazy; it means that you are using skills that kept you alive once, but are no longer necessary to accomplish the mission.

Just because you felt dead once, doesn’t mean that you need to continue to feel that way. And coming back from that can make you appreciate life a whole heck of a lot more.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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