by Mark D. Van Ells
Combatstirs up a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. Feelings of exhilaration, love, hatred, guilt, rage, helplessness, disgust, and fear race through the minds of soldiers in battle. How the human mind responds to these emotions has long perplexed military officials, medical professionals, and especially veterans and their families. Sixteen million Americans served in World War II. Of those, perhaps one million were exposed to extended periods of combat. These men often suffered deep emotional pain as a result of their battle experiences, and the effects lasted for years. Some carried the pain for the rest of their lives.
To be effective in combat, soldiers must learn to suppress the feelings it generates, a process psychiatrists refer to as "emotional numbing." For some, the numbing begins in basic training. In the civilian world, killing is a most grievous crime, but in war, it is a necessity. According to James Jones, noted novelist and combat veteran, "To teach a young American male to love war and enjoy killing his fellow man–even a Jap or a Nazi–was about comparable to teaching his fresh, dewy-eyed, virginal sister to love the physical aspects of simple [sex]."
The anticipation of combat was an emotionally taxing experience in its own right. Raymond Gantter of the 1st Infantry Division simply denied the prospect of death. "I willfully repudiate the possibility of death, " he wrote his wife. "My reason, insisting on cold logic, tells me ‘maybe, ’ but emotionally I reject it entirely." According to Jones, the soldier must think of himself as "essentially a dead man" so he can "function as he ought to function under fire."
Fear is the most common emotion associated with combat. "We are all afraid, " wrote B-17 pilot John Bennett, "and only liars and fools fail to admit it." The aspects of combat that soldiers feared most varied from individual to individual. Gantter found patrolling behind German lines the most unbearable. He wrote in his wartime diary:
I think I have never been so cold, so wretched, so frightened. It is the slow piling up of fear that is so intolerable. Fear moves swiftly in battle, strikes hard with each shell, each new danger, and as long as there’s action, you don’t have time to be frightened. But this is a slow fear, heavy and stomach filling. Slow, slow…all your movements are careful and slow, and pain is slow and fear is slow and the beat of your heart is the only rapid rhythm of the night…a muttering drum easily punctured and stilled.
What marine E.B. Sledge feared most was shell fire. "During prolonged shelling, " he wrote, "I often had to restrain myself and fight back a wild, inexorable urge to scream, to sob, and to cry." For airman Bennett it was the feeling of helplessness. "The bomber pilot can’t fight back, but must sit there and take it, " he wrote. Jones reflected, "Learning to live with [fear], and to go ahead in spite of it took practice and a certain overlay of bitter panache it took time to acquire. There were damned few fearless men."