Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Past Is Never Dead: On intergenerational trauma

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, January 13, 2020 by Erik Bruun

1. The Damnedest Thing I Ever Saw

Seventy years ago my grandfather, Henry Ashton Crosby, was sitting in a New York City subway. He had recently returned to the United States after serving as a front-line officer during World War II. He was a gracious and polite man, so when an elderly woman got into the crowded subway car, he stood up to offer his seat. Just then another man scooted behind him to take the seat. My grandfather snapped.

He swung around, picked the man up and threw him through the subway window, smashing glass everywhere. The police arrived. After learning that he was a combat veteran, they let him go.

“That sort of thing used to happen all the time after the war,” my stepfather Player Crosby explained to me when I was a boy, delighted to have such chivalry in my family. I mean, what a grandfather!

Two overriding memories come to mind when I recall him.

One was his sparkling eyes. They absolutely lit up when he saw me after an extended absence as he shook my hand firmly and vigorously. He looked at me as if I was the most exciting person he could imagine seeing at that moment. It left such an impression that I try to mimic his enthusiasm when I see young people who I have not seen for a while.

This was a fantastic trait that all six of his children inherited. When you were in his presence you felt as if you were not just seen, but a source of complete delight. Your life felt special. He loved people and people loved him, as the hundreds who attended his standing-room-only funeral when he died at the age of 87 would attest.

The second memory was as a 10-year-old visiting him on summer vacation in Franconia, New Hampshire. I cannot remember what prompted it, but we were on the porch and he started talking about a patrol he led on the Western Front during World War II.

"We were walking through the forest and the Germans fired an .88-artillery shell," he said as if he was recalling a good tennis shot. "It took the head clean off of some poor bastard. He kept walking for another 20 or 30 steps before he fell over. The damnedest thing I ever saw."

2. Old Blood and Guts

General George S. Patton's Third Army landed in France in July 1944, several weeks after the D-Day invasion on June 6. The German Army had pinned Allied Forces on to the Normandy Peninsula for nearly two months in what was known as the Battle of the Hedgerows.

During World War I, Patton was a tank officer, known for his courage, flair and flamboyance. Between the wars he stayed in the Army and for a time was the national polo champion. When the Second World War started, Patton led successful campaigns in Northern Africa and Sicily, but US high command was cautious about giving Patton too much responsibility. Known as "Old Blood and Guts", Patton famously slapped and sent back into combat two American soldiers in Sicily who suffered from battle fatigue. He called them cowards.

But Patton’s Third Army lead the breakout from Normandy. Patton was not just aggressive. He was smart. His staff headquarters had the highest proportion of intelligence officers in Europe, most were focused on coordinating air force support for attacking tanks. The combination of armored columns, close air cover, and radio communication was extremely effective.

On August 1, Patton's army launched its attack, bursting through German lines and advancing every day until his tanks literally ran out of gas 30 days and 400 miles later near the French town of Metz, about 20 miles from the German frontier. A few weeks later, the Third Army's Fourth Armored Division repulsed the largest German tank attack on the Western Front at the Battle of Arracourt and in December, Patton's 4th Armored Division again played a crucial role, this time in the Battle of the Bulge.

The Third Army went on the offensive in February deep into Germany.  Progress was so fast that orders from Central Command to capture towns, cities and bridges often came after Patton's men had already seized them. "Do you want me to give it back," Patton responded after he was ordered to bypass a well-fortified town that he captured the day before. All told, the Third Army engaged in continuous combat for 281 days, crossed 24 major rivers and captured 12,000 towns and cities. The 3rd Army killed 50,000 men, wounded three times that number, and accepted the surrender of nearly 1.5 million soldiers.

3. Wartime Memoirs

Forty years later, my grandfather wrote a 170-page unpublished memoir of his experience of those campaigns. As executive officer of the 53rd Armored Infantry Battalion of the 4th Armored Division, he had command control in one of three attack battalions in the most aggressive allied force of World War II. The battalion's casualty rate, including replacements, was 400 percent. Of the 1,000 soldiers in the battalion who landed in France in July, only 30 of whom were still fighting when the Germans surrendered with one officer still amongst them — Major Crosby, awarded three Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in combat, as well as four Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars for valor under fire.

The memoir is a series of stories. Where he was when he learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Weekend visits with his wife. His burning anger at the sadistic commanding officer Colonel Albert Strock who wouldn’t give him leave to see his two sons (Ashton and Player) in the U.S. but later broke down into tears when he came under fire in France. Funny tales abound about food, getting soaking wet, and a chance encounter with an officer who asked him his name so he could recommend him for a medal. "My God," the officer said, "you're my godson."

And then there are stories like this early in his combat experience:

"We continued through the orchard and rounded up six or eight Germans. One, about 6' 4", had a pair of field glasses hanging around his neck. I reached for his field glasses and he pulled back, my gun went off. The round hit him in the stomach. he said in English, "You shouldn't have done that; I've surrendered." He then fell down. I apologized and ran off to find a medic.. When I returned, he was gone. I still have the field glasses — an excellent Wetzlar. I also still have the 45."

Thirty pages are devoted to the assault of a single town called Baerendorf that he cites as an example of a typical day of fighting. He led two columns that suffered an artillery barrage, hand-to-hand combat and a counterattack to capture the town. Forty American soldiers were killed under his command that day, one of several small battles he oversaw as leader of this particular task force. In early November the task force started with 750 men and 17 tanks. A month later there were fewer than 100 men and only two tanks.

He reports about his own men after the fight for Baerendorf ended: "I saw a group of B Company soldiers with their rifles pointed at Major Hughes. I asked what was going on and was told that Major Hughes had pulled a wounded B Company man on top of himself to protect himself from German artillery fire. The men were about to execute him. I should have let them! I took Hughes, put him in my quarter-ton, put my 45 in his ear and told him if he blinked I'd blow his bloody head off." When the major was subsequently told he would face a court martial "Hughes collapsed on the floor and became hysterical, drooling and frothing at the mouth."

4. So Deeply Does Vision Carve on the Mind

Battle fatigue is as old as combat.

"Some people in the past, when seeing fearful sights, have lost their presence of mind at the instant," wrote Georgias of Leontini in the fifth century BC of soldiers in the Peloponnesian War. "Fear extinguishes and casts out the mind. Many have succumbed to groundless distress, great malady, and incurable insanity, so deeply does vision carve on the mind images of action seen."

Just experiencing war’s violence is often shocking enough to induce traumatic injuries with no obvious physical cause. You have not been hit by a sword, bullet or shrapnel, but you are struck blind, get terrible headaches, lose physical control of yourself, suffer cardiac problems, lose your appetite, or become depressed or anxious. The industrialization of war dramatically increased incidents of such transient madness.

In World War I "shell shock" was an epidemic problem in all armies. Some believed it was a physiological reaction to the undetectable impacts of passing artillery shells or the result of some underlying condition that combat--most specifically an artillery barrage--triggered. In France, doctors emphasized electric shock treatment. Germany built villages to send the nervously ill to perform menial work tasks as a form of therapy, along with other bizarre treatments such as barking military orders or blaring the national anthem at sleeping men to try to shock them back to normalcy. England built hospitals back home to treat the unhinged with various psychological and psychoanalytical treatments.

The English neurologist WHR Rivers emphasized the lack of control men felt in battle. He wrote "Combat induced an internal conflict between the emotion of honest fear and their sense of duty as men," adding that "three assumptions about personal invulnerability were shattered: seeing the world as meaningful, as comprehensible, and seeing oneself in a positive light."

Tending to hundreds of thousands of men for shell shock led to a scientific understanding that mental illness could be caused by circumstances and thus the popularization of psychology. But scientific recognition is not the same as military reform. The stigma of becoming unhinged remained a fixed feature of the American military, including my grandfather's memoir. At one point he recounts the fate of his fellow company commanders who landed in France with him. Four out of eight, he wrote, were "relieved for cowardice." The other four were killed. Among the staff officers, he describes Major Hughes as an "abject coward" even though he had fought for three months prior to his breakdown at Baerendorf.

In World War II the term changed from shell shock to battle fatigue, reflecting the military's reluctance to accept that trauma could permanently impact a soldier's psyche, as if a good man will come back to health after a short rest.

This was not a completely groundless conclusion as relieving men from front line duty sustained their fighting capacity. A person can only tolerate for so long combat's explosive noise, sleep deprivation, the random and violent death and injury of your friends and colleagues, as well as the moral dilemma of killing people. Experience revealed that after 60 days of constant combat, 98 percent of people go mad. With proper rest and relief from battle, you could extend a soldier's capacity to fight to between 80 and 400 days.

5. The Battle of the Bulge

On December 16, 1944, 300,000 German soldiers launched a surprise attack at the Ardennes Forest to try to break through American lines to Antwerp to split allied forces in two, cut off the supply line for the isolated northern troops and induce them to surrender. Hitler took a desperate gamble to break the American-British offensive. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle in U.S history involving more than 500,000 American soldiers, 67,000 of whom were killed, wounded or captured.

Located immediately to the south of the attack, the Third Army suspended its own offensive and swung 90 degrees to the north. The 4th Armored Division was assigned to fight through armored SS divisions to relieve the besieged village of Bastogne, a key crossroad defended by American soldiers. The 53rd Armored Battalion led the way.

My grandfather was recovering in a French farmhouse from illness and exhaustion after his month-long command of the temporary task force described earlier when the Battle of the Bulge started. He and his reconstituted task force were ordered north into Belgium to relieve Bastogne. Famed wartime photographer Robert Capa joined the unit for the six-week battle. I remember my grandfather telling us that Capa "was the craziest person I ever met." Life magazine published a Capa photograph of Major Crosby accepting the surrender of a German artillery observer with his hands in the air, "just to his rear and out of sight is a German major whom I'd just shot in the ass," he recalls in his memoir.

American solders at Bastogne had repulsed wave after wave of brutal armored German assaults. Both sides considered Bastogne as the linchpin of the German drive to Antwerp. By late Christmas night, my grandfather's task force had reached the outskirts of the town. Against his commanding officer's orders, he led a night attack.

"We started off, about 2:15 a.m., down a single two-lane country road leading to Bastogne.… The road ran through a patch of woods and strewn along the road for about 10 yards was a bunch of German mines. As the lead half-track reached the mines, the night erupted in tracer fire as dozens of machine guns and rifles started firing at the column. A private named Hendricks jumped out of the first half-track and started throwing the mines to the left side of the road. The fire was murderous--he cleared away all the mines, was not even scratched, and the column roared through at about 20 mph, firing wildly in all directions. We emerged from the woods, spread out in extended formation and rolled into Bastogne at top speed on 26 December, past groups of startled German artillerymen and infantry wondering what the hell was going on. By morning, the narrow road was secured and we had relieved Bastogne."

6. "Death Had Become Meaningless"

The memoir describes the air raids on Bastogne as his most terrifying experience up to that point, but the entire next five months of combat represent a descent into hell. Atrocities and death abound.

At the Battle of the Bulge, the officer who turned out to be my grandfather's god father was taken prisoner with several colleagues. German SS troops stripped and tied them to beams in a farmhouse then burned it to the ground, incinerating everyone in it. This was done in reprisal for a similar atrocity committed by American soldiers from the same division earlier in the war. He describes a Belgian village scene in which two children are screaming in terror outside their demolished house. Inside there is a Christmas tree with their parents lying dead in front of it.

On February 27, he was with his division command staff in a farmhouse when German artillery struck. An explosion threw him 20 feet from the building. "I staggered into the house and met an appalling sight," he wrote. "Captain Volz, our signals officer, was lying on the hallway floor with both his legs blown off above the knees. Next to him lay Sgt. Curtis, holding the two stumps of his legs. Sgt. Curtis said to me, "Are you all right, sir?" This was almost more than I could take. Curtis hadn't yet realized the extent of his injuries nor yet felt the pain. At the foot of where the stairs had been lay Murdock--scalped. There were three or four dead on the floor and in the adjacent room. Almost everyone left was wounded. I was furious. Our Command Post had been practically wiped out. A host of soldiers and officers who had been with me for four years were dead or badly wounded."

Enraged, he charged into the nearby town to try to find and kill the German who had signaled to artillery to bomb the headquarters. He went into a church where 200 women, children and old men were shrieking from the German bombardment. "I came to my senses and walked out of the church before I started shooting them," he wrote.

In another instance, Americans entered a German town called Koblenz where civilians hid in their cellars. American tank fire hit the town church, which erupted into flames, prompting the civilians to emerge from hiding. "Water bucket gangs of old men, children, and women formed to try to quench the flames, assisted by a hand-pulled and hand-worked pump. Then some sadist called in artillery-time fire. Time fire explodes the projectile about 20 feet above the target and rains down a deadly dispersion of jagged pieces of steel, ripping and shredding everything in its path. The village burned to the ground as we watched, with a good one half of the villagers dead or mutilated--and we cheered."

In another German village he witnessed a friend and fellow officer get killed right in front of him by a sniper. "We'd been in constant combat at this time for nine months and death had become meaningless. [John] Finnegan had been my roommate, a good close friend for four years yet when someone asked me the name of the Captain of A Company who'd been killed earlier in the day, I couldn't remember his name."

7. The past is never dead. It is not even past. 

The International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma has this to say about the legacy of combat trauma.

"Posttrauma symptoms can have a profound effect on the manner in which a trauma survivor relates to others, including, perhaps most significantly, family members. Survivors are markedly changed by their experiences. The psychological impact of trauma is well established in a variety of survivor populations. These posttrauma symptoms include (1) experiencing the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, and persistent thoughts; (2) cognitive and phobic avoidance of trauma-related stimuli; (3) hyperarousal symptoms of irritability, startle response, and sleep disturbance. It is easy to understand how survivors’ numbing of responsiveness, social withdrawal, and irritability, with episodic outbursts of rage, can make it difficult for them to maintain interpersonal relationships. In turn, children of traumatized patients may be affected directly or indirectly by their parents’ posttrauma symptoms."

My grandfather may not have suffered shell shock or battle fatigue, but he suffered post traumatic stress disorder symptoms. I mean, how could he not? When the war ended, he remarried a Red Cross nurse who he had met while fighting in Europe--Letitia Jones ("Aunt Letty" to me). The two of them had four children together.

"People have no idea how much he suffered," she said shortly after he died, talking about his nightmares in which he woke up screaming in a cold sweat.

Letty shared the memoirs with all six of Tersh's children, including Player, who gave me his copy almost immediately upon receiving it twenty years ago. I read it, was deeply impressed and then asked Player if he had read it. I was shocked by his response.

"No. I will never read it!" he said in a fury that I had never seen in him before. It was stunning. "My father failed at everything he did other than that. He was a failure as a man and as a father."

According to researchers of intergenerational trauma, the emotional numbing, detachment and avoidance that many combat veterans experience may directly impact on the veteran’s parenting ability by diminishing the capability to interact with the child and develop a meaningful relationship.

I will quote from a paper by two Israeli psychologists Rachel Deckel and Hadass Goldblatt entitled "Is there Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma? The Case of Combat Veterans' Children."

"The main mechanisms of direct transmission that is described by psychodynamic approaches are projection and identification. Fathers with PTSD have difficulty containing their emotions, and their attempts to mitigate their pain lead to passive use of projection mechanisms, where severe emotions such as persecution, aggression, shame and guilt are split and projected onto their children. As result, the children may identify with the projected parts of their fathers' emotions, and perceive his experiences and feelings as their own. These unconscious processes can make it difficult for the child to form a separate self and may result in the development of symptoms that replicate the disturbances of the father such as social isolation, guilt and detachment."

The authors write about a veteran's function and engagement in the family unit.

"The main symptoms of PTSD reflect difficulties in regulating proximity and distance from the event and therefore may contribute to problems in attachment and intimacy, thus reducing the father's involvement in family activities. Normal development in childhood and adolescence requires regulating distance/closeness from the parents to enable formation of a separate identity. Fathers who have difficulty regulating distance/closeness from their traumatic memories might also find it hard to properly regulate distance/closeness from their children. The father's physical presence and psychological absence or ambiguous loss, as well as the difficulty involved in understanding and explaining his behavior, might cause lack of appreciation and disappointment among the children. In these cases, the father is part of the family but only fulfills partial functions. The persistence of such ambiguity over a prolonged period can lead to emotional distress. Consequently, family members experience a confusion of boundaries, which is manifested by transferring the father's roles to the mother and/or the children."

I believe that this description of intergenerational trauma is true and goes well beyond a single generation. As William Faulkner put it more succinctly "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

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