Effects of Combat"
Arousal and Fear
soldier in combat endures many indignities. Among these
can be endless months and years of exposure to desert heat,
sweltering jungle, torrential rains, or frozen mountains
and tundra. Usually the soldier lives amidst swarming vermin.
Very often there is lack of food, lack of sleep, and the
constant uncertainty that eats away at the combatants' sense
of control over their lives and their environment. But,
bad as they are, all of these stressors can be found in
many cultural, geographic, or social circumstances, and
when the ingredient of war is removed individuals exposed
to these circumstances do not suffer mass psychiatric casualties.
To fully comprehend the intensity of the stress of combat,
we must keep these other stressors in mind while understanding
the body's physiological response to combat, as manifested
in the sympathetic nervous system's mobilization of resources.
And then we must understand the impact of the parasympathetic
nervous system "backlash" that occurs as a result of the
demands placed upon it. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
mobilizes and directs the body's energy resources for action.
It is the physiological equivalent of the body's front-line
soldiers who actually do the fighting in a military unit.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the
body's digestive and recuperative processes. It is the physiological
equivalent of the body's cooks, mechanics, and clerks who
sustain a military unit over an extended period of time.
Usually the body maintains itself in a state of homeostasis,
which ensures that these two nervous systems maintain a
balance between their demands upon the body's resources.
But during extremely stressful circumstances the "fight-or-flight"
response kicks in and the SNS mobilizes all available energy
for survival. This is the physiological equivalent of throwing
the cooks, mechanics, and clerks into the battle. This process
is so intense that soldiers very often suffer stress diarrhea
due to redirecting of energies from nonessential parasympathetic
processes, and it is not at all uncommon to lose control
of urination and defecation as the body literally 'blows
its ballast" and redirects all available energy in an attempt
to provide the resources required to ensure survival. This
is reflected in World War II surveys in which a quarter
of combat veterans admitted that they urinated in their
pants in combat, and a quarter admitted that they defecated
in their pants in combat.
A combatant must pay a physiological price for an enervating
process so intense. The "price" that the body pays is an
equally powerful "backlash" when the neglected demands of
the parasympathetic nervous system become ascendant. This
parasympathetic backlash occurs as soon as the danger and
the excitement is over, and it takes the form of an incredibly
powerful weariness and sleepiness on the part of the soldier.
Napoleon stated that the moment of greatest danger was the
instant immediately after victory, and in saying so he demonstrated
a powerful understanding of the way in which soldiers become
physiologically and psychologically incapacitated by the
parasympathetic backlash that occurs as soon as the momentum
of the attack has halted and the soldier briefly believes
himself to be safe. During this period of vulnerability
a counterattack by fresh troops can have an effect completely
out of proportion to the number of troops attacking.
It is basically for this reason that the maintenance of
an "unblown" reserve has historically been essential in
combat, with battles often revolving around which side can
hold out and deploy their reserves last. Clausewitz understood
the danger of reserve forces becoming prematurely enervated
and exhausted (and he provides insight into the root cause
of the enervation) when he cautioned that the reserves should
always be maintained out of sight of the battle.
In continuous combat the soldier roller-coasters through
a seemingly endless series of these surges of adrenaline
and their subsequent backlashes, and the body's natural,
useful, and appropriate response to danger ultimately becomes
extremely counterproductive. Unable to flee and unable to
overcome the danger through a brief burst of fighting, posturing,
or submission, the bodies of modern soldiers in sustained
combat exhaust their capacity to enervate. They slide into
a state of profound physical and emotional exhaustion of
such a magnitude that it appears to be almost impossible
to communicate it to those who have not experienced it.
Most observers of combat lump the impact of this physiological
arousal process under the general heading of "fear,"
but fear is really a cognitive or emotional label for nonspecific
physiological arousal in response to a threat. The impact
of fear and its attendant physiological arousal is significant,
but it must be understood that fear is just a symptom and
not the disease, it is an effect but not the cause. To truly
understand the psychological effects of combat, we must
understand exactly what it is that causes this intense fear
response in individuals. It has become increasingly clear
that there are two key, core stressors causing the psychological
toll associated with combat. These stressors are: the trauma
associated with being the victim of close-range, interpersonal
aggression and the trauma associated with the responsibility
to kill a fellow human being at close range.
of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, Volume 3, p.159
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