War Wounds

The Winding and Uncertain Path of Healing

Guest Contributor / 9.10.21

This article is written by Nathan White and Katherine Voyles. White serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Faith and Resilience, which seeks to connect theology and social scientific scholarship with communities of faith. Voyles holds a Ph.D. in English and writes on issues of national security in culture and the cultures of national security.

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 this week is a time for serious reflection; this is especially true in light of the events around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ostensible closing of the Global War on Terror born from the events of that day. Reflection of necessity demands a broad context. What follows here considers the meaning and impact of 9/11 both personally and societally. We examine the power of writing to speak to issues central to violence and war, and to healing and resilience. Fiction, in particular, chronicles the moment-by-moment actions of characters, but does not merely present activity; it makes sense of the events and actions it depicts through its lengthy time span and by showing the relationships between characters. For these reasons, fiction is especially well suited to reflection on the relationships between woundedness and the possibility of healing. Fiction is, of course, only one way to tell stories of war and its impacts; this piece also draws on the events and realities in one of our own experiences of war to limn the contours of recovery in their wake.

Pat Barker’s Regeneration, published in 1991, remains fresh and relevant today even thirty years after its release. The novel takes place in 1917 at a military hospital, Craiglockhart in Scotland, and centers on the relationships between Dr. William Rivers, a psychiatrist, and his patients; the poet and protestor against the war, Siegfried Sassoon, and Billy Prior, a young officer who comes from the working class, are two central characters in Dr. Rivers’s care. In today’s age of Moral Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of Forever War, and a growing civil-military divide, questions of who to care for, how to care, and the very nature of care itself are vital. Barker’s story set in the middle of the War to End All Wars speaks to these concerns even though the war about which she writes in her fiction and the conflicts in the background of her writing were different than today’s. Nevertheless, the experience of war and the aftermath of this trauma is remarkably similar. Today’s veterans are neither given the same neurosis labels as Siegfried Sassoon or Billy Prior nor are their treatments for these neuroses the same; yet the deepest hopes of both today’s veterans and Barker’s characters may be the same—not to be fundamentally undone by trauma; in a word, to journey towards resilience.

To understand how Regeneration presents resilience it is important to place its publication and reception in broad contexts of conflict and war. The novel was written in the dying days of the Cold War and the advent of what would be called the First Gulf War, and is now read during the Global War on Terror and in its aftermath. War itself is different in these circumstances; so too are the specific impacts on those affected by war: soldiers, veterans, partners, families, friends, and society itself. This piece considers what it means to write about and read about the experiences of war when the war described in a book is not the same one as the war experienced by those reading the book. How the novel represents war is central to this consideration.

Regeneration is a book about war that rarely visits the battlefield; even so, the places it visits are full of war. The hospital dominates. Craiglockhart is where soldiers receive treatment for the condition that in the period was called shellshock. At one point Dr. Rivers thinks, “‘Like a trench without the sky’ had been one patient’s description [of the hospital], and he was afraid it was only too accurate” (17). The place built for healing looks like the place that caused the injury that prompted the need for recovery in the first place. The novel also visits homes, pubs, and clubs. Places that would seem most untouched by war, places not of battle nor of the need to heal from battle, are sites of division, rancor, and tension because of war.

Characters in the novel give form and substance to the experiences of war. Soldiers in the novel have vastly different experiences of war. How characters interact with the doctor, Rivers, and how they respond to Dr. Rivers’s treatment of them is essential to the novel. Billy Prior, the young working-class officer, is initially antagonistic to Dr. Rivers. The doctor, on Prior’s view, wants him to remember things that the young officer cannot and resents that Dr. Rivers will not send him back to France. In the end, it is Lt. Prior himself, not Dr. Rivers through his report, who has the strongest hand in ensuring he remains in England. Siegfried Sassoon, the poet-protestor and officer, by contrast, is courteous to the doctor even though his indifference to the sessions with Dr. Rivers is laced with anger. Despite his protest of the war, Lt. Sassoon is clear with his doctor that he as an officer wants to return to France. Sassoon works to that end:

‘Oh, yes. I’m going back.’
A long indrawn breath. ‘Have you told anybody else yet?’
‘No, I wanted you to be the first.’
‘Your pacifist friends won’t be pleased.’
‘No, I know. I’m not looking forward to that.’ He was looking at Rivers with an extraordinary mixture of love and hostility. ‘You are, though, aren’t you? You’re pleased’
‘Oh, yes. I’m pleased.’ (189-190)

Dr. Rivers is so pleased, in fact, that the novel ends with him prescribing for Lt. Sassoon to be “Discharged to duty” (250). The nature and meaning of these different portraits of war in 1917 come into view through the discussion that follows of the complicated interplay between war trauma, healing, resilience, and writing.

I (Nathan), have experiences in my own life that mirror those of the characters in Regeneration. Officer Siegfried Sassoon and the healer Dr. Rivers, in particular, reflect diverse aspects of my life. I was living in Durham, UK when I first heard of Regeneration. The author, Barker — also a Durham resident, was giving a lecture at the University and a friend recommended the book. Perhaps fortuitously I was (as the British say) convalescing from physical and, to an even greater extent, psychological, and spiritual war wounds. My injuries were received in the 2010s not in the 1910s, but I have come to think of myself as a foil to Lt. Sassoon.

I was discharged from duty as a full-time soldier — as Sassoon was during his time at Craiglockhart — but I did not return to duty as Sassoon does. Sassoon has experiences in the trenches of WWI that make him unfit for duty in the eyes of the military. I was wounded in combat by an enemy rocket while deployed to Afghanistan with U.S. forces during the War on Terror. I was a chaplain, called upon to bind the spiritual wounds of those I served, but instead was harmed physically. Sassoon was a line officer whose concern for his soldiers so troubled him that he angered the British government through his protests. This government decided he was unable to serve for a time. Unlike Sassoon, I left full-time service of my own accord. The characters’ journeys toward healing resonate with my own, certainly as one harmed, but also as one who aids others in healing. My own journey in the wake of injury involved seeking meaning and restoration through sustained engagement with philosophy and theology in hallowed halls that for centuries nurtured the reflection of monks and academics.

Dr. Rivers uses his journey as a caregiver to the war-wounded in the halls of Craiglockhart to contemplate the meaning and methods of healing. Lt. Sassoon through the course of the novel remains uninterested in addressing deeper aspects of his own individual woundedness. My self-conception was torn between the two men and what they represent. I felt the need for spiritual and emotional healing from my war wounds. The halls of academia became my crucible of existential processing rather than Regeneration’s passages of a mental institution. The wounding I received while acting as a healer held within it the tension between the roles represented by these two characters. Yet a common thread ties us together. In both my own experiences and in Barker’s novel, writing and reading are central to the experiences of war as well as to the nature and process of recovery from those experiences. “Regeneration,” in Barker’s view, accounts for the depth of this kind of trauma and what recovery from it can look like.

At heart, Regeneration is about whether and how healing is possible after trauma. As a doctor and caregiver, Rivers wrestles with this issue even as he finds paths to healing for those under his psychiatric care: “The typical patient, arriving at Craiglockhart, had usually been devoting considerable energy to the task of forgetting whatever traumatic events had precipitated his neurosis […] Rivers’s treatment sometimes consisted simply of encouraging the patient to abandon his hopeless attempt to forget” (25). The tension between remembering and forgetting is central to the aftermath of trauma that Siegfried Sassoon and many like him experience. What to do with trauma? Neither forgetting nor remembering does away with the very fact of the trauma itself. In its wake what remains is the possibility of healing, or the reality of remaining wounded. Dr. Rivers walks with his patients through their process of recovery.

An alternative model of healing is present in a very different kind of medical figure: Dr. Yealland, a colleague of Dr. Rivers, uses electroshock therapy to bring his version of healing patients. Dr. Yealland locks a mute patient in a room, declaring “You must talk before you leave me” (229). Dr. Yealland’s model uses brute force to break the bonds of woundedness, and ultimately also to break the will of the one wounded; Dr. Rivers and Dr. Yealland do not dispense care in the same ways. Dr. Rivers knows his patients in a way that Dr. Yealland never does. Dr. Rivers speaks to and with them to learn whether they should be discharged to duty; part of this work involves learning of their histories before the war and experiences of the war. Dr. Yealland essentially speaks at them, a dynamic crystallized in his exhortation, “You must talk.” Nevertheless, by the end of the novel Dr. Rivers wonders whether he is like Dr. Yealland, whether both doctors are guilty of “silencing” their patients’ pain (238). Dr. Rivers worries that both men see healing in terms of conformity to external norms rather than internal resolution of woundedness. Through Dr. Rivers’s own self-reflection, Barker’s novel suggests that neither the imposition of external norms nor well-intentioned care is sufficient. Healing requires something radical — only regeneration will do. Regeneration is not a set end state for the healing process; it is neither merely about restoration nor return to a previous idealized condition so it may take even surprising forms; it incorporates trauma itself into genuinely new growth.

Regeneration trails off; it does not chart a clear path to healing even as individual characters leave the hospital. It insists, however, on the centrality of writing to the experience of healing from trauma in the wake of war. Barker’s own writing is full of characters who write, scenes of writing, and examples of writing. Writing signals health, indexes trauma, and has material effects in the world because it has the power to send men back to duty or to their homes. The act of writing in the novel is intimately tied to how characters remember, forget, and experience trauma—in this way, writing is integral to regeneration. The first thing that the young Lt. Billy Prior says in the novel is not communicated through his vocal chords, but from the paper and pencil he uses. “I DON’T REMEMBER” he practically shouts.

In this way writing, memory, and war trauma are bound together as patient and doctor confront one another. This set of concerns is reconfigured throughout the novel. Writing is not inevitably and always a means of forgetting or a refusal to remember. Siegfried Sassoon, the poet-protestor and officer, seems driven to write and to keep writing. “A Soldier’s Declaration”—Sassoon’s public protest of the war—occupies a complicated place in Regeneration in part because it is a piece of writing that propels the piece of writing in which it appears. A soldier writing in his own voice about the war in which he fights is an unimaginably powerful testimony to Lt. Sassoon’s commitment to remembering and facing his own experiences of war. Billy Prior is sent home even though he desperately wants to return to the front, but the novel ends on Siegfried Sassoon’s fate, a fate that is sealed through an act of writing, “Discharged to duty” (250).

Dr. Rivers, Lt. Sassoon, and Lt. Prior are all caught up in their collective, and also supremely individual, dilemmas. The narrative timing of the novel does not bind the reader, however. Regeneration wraps up its tale; Billy Prior is home and Siegfried Sassoon will return to war. But the fact that this single volume is rounded off and completed sits alongside the reality that Barker continues the story of the War to End All Wars. The finale of one volume opens into the future. 1917 gives way to her focus on 1918 in the second volume of her trilogy and even 1918 slips into the past because the final volume of the three centers on the final year of the war. This dynamic matters; the interplay between rounding off a story and a new beginning that may well have its roots in the completed story is important. The possibility of hope extends beyond Regeneration; the narrative continues in the additional books of the trilogy, but also because the story of the reader, outside of the novel, continues as well: “healing does go on, even if not in the expected direction” (242).

Returning to an autobiographical note, I (Nathan) resonate with the insights of both the officer who returns to war and the character who cares others within the context of war into healing, even as I identify with their distinct roles as wounded and healer. Neither the novel, its characters, nor my own journey fit into neat categories or trite narratives regarding healing. Forgetting and remembering can be both healing and traumatizing — sometimes at the same time. This inherent limitation must give way to a greater hope tied to the continuation of my own narrative, to any particular narrative and to narratives more broadly. I have not fully “arrived” at healing; neither, presumably, did Sassoon or other traumatized individuals. We are alike in that we await the completion of our own stories, of stories that impact our stories, and the relationships between the two. As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches issues of war, memory, trauma, and resilience are crucial.

Twenty years on from that Tuesday morning, 9/11 occupies an odd space: it is too recent to be history for those of us who lived through it, and it is far enough in the past that even the youngest Americans who can now serve in the military and vote do not have their own memories of the day. The meanings of the day, the meanings of what came after will inevitably shift around as the day continues to slide out of memory and into history. These meanings continue to morph even as the implications of 9/11 and its aftermath continue to have wide-ranging and far-reaching implications. Americans today who have never lived when their country was not at war do not even have their own memories of the day that put us all on this path. This broad generational divide exists alongside uncertainties around the events of 9/11, its aftermath and all the entail that are more intimate and are not determined by age alone. The day is still too vivid for some Americans to move into a space of reflection, resilience, and regeneration. For others, though, the time between the event and today has indeed provided space for those activities and realities. Regeneration shows the winding, rough, and uncertain paths to healing for people living in a time of war. My hope, our hope — an object ultimately outside of our control — is distilled by Barker. Regeneration.


WWI image via Sanna Dullaway