Monday, May 31, 2021

Pondering the advances we have made in warfare on Memorial Day

"2013_11_290002 - drone warfare" by Gwydion M. Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Over Memorial Day weekend, I grieved for my fellow brothers and sisters killed in Vietnam and cried over the pain surviving vets still endure – something I observed firsthand working for nine years at Vet Centers, a part of the Veterans Administration.

As a therapist working with veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD), who had fought in wars from WWII up to the present, one reoccurring theme was guilt – and one significant source of that guilt came from killing another human being. Maybe not so much when they first got home but over time, accumulating like dry leaves from a shedding tree.

There is good evidence that there is a universal aversion to taking the life of another of our own kind. According to a study done by Colonel S.L.A. Marshall during WWII, “only about fifteen percent of American rifleman in combat  had fired at the enemy.” His conclusion, “Fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual,”⁠1

I wrote about this phenomenon in the Concord Monitor back in 2004, connecting this study to my own experience as a therapist. I had one patient, a heavy machine gunner in WWII, who fought all across Europe into Germany, ending up being one of the few survivors from his original unit:  Remarkably, he was able to live with all that. What  he couldn’t  handle were the many German soldiers he had killed. Any connection to death, even driving by a cemetery, would trigger memories of killing, causing him to break down in racking sobs.

Because it is not in our nature to kill another human being, the military, from time immemorial, has worked to dehumanize “the enemy” – to make them appear less than human. Now, based on Marshall’s study, the military went a step further and started training recruits to visualize “massing fire” on inanimate objects because  “The average firer will have less resistance to firing on a house or tree than upon a human being.”⁠2 

As Dan Baum writes in the New Yorker, “Once the Army put his notions into practice, they bore spectacular results. By the time of the Vietnam War, according to internal Army estimates, as many as ninety per cent of soldiers were shooting back. And some were paying a price.⁠3

By turning  flesh-and-blood human beings into inanimate objects, the military increased the enemy kill rate. But, in doing so, it increased the likelihood of PTSD in the shooter. In a round-about way, I have arrived at the real subject of this essay: how modern warfare has reframed the enemy from a living person into an object – and now is working to further sanitize killing by turning the enemy soldier into a flickering video image on a computer screen.

As David Ignatius announced in a recent Washington Post column, “Welcome to the rapidly advancing world of autonomous weapons – the cheap, highly effective systems that are revolutionizing militaries around the world. He predicts “wars of the future may look like video games, as soldiers at computers control faraway swarms” of drones and robots.⁠4  

While it feels like playing a video game, the death and the destruction on the ground will be devastatingly real. Regrettably, these advances will make future wars more likely because they promise to increase enemy casualties while reducing those on the home team.

The notion that future combat will resemble a game tripped a circuit in my brain, still grieving in the aftermath of Memorial Day. If wars in the future will look like video games, then, damnit, why not make them video games! It makes perfect sense: Antagonist countries could compete in a World Series of War played on gaming platforms.

We have a precedent for this with the Olympic games, which originated in ancient Greece. According to Wikipedia: “During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was enacted so that athletes could travel from their cities to the games in safety. The prizes for the victors were olive leaf wreaths or crowns. The games became a political tool used by city-states to assert dominance over their rivals.⁠5

Let's go back to the future by granting all combatants safe passage by initiating a new, worldwide Olympics based on killing pixels, not people. With the threat of nuclear war looming, it's time to start thinking outside the box to avoid being prematurely buried in one.




2 ibid




Friday, May 21, 2021

Dreaming about Retirement

Coco by Jenness Pond

I recently had a vivid dream about getting a call from my professional licensing board telling me they were revoking my license because  I was abusing pain medication. I tried to tell them I took no such drugs, that they were prescribed for Coco, my 15-1/2-year-old dog, who is in-at home hospice care. But they hung up on me, throwing me into a tizzy. While I intend to retire the end of next  month, I wasn’t ready yet.

I ponder what my dream is trying to tell me. Certainly, I will miss seeing my patients, but my practice takes more out of me each year. At the age of 75, I admit I’ve lost a step. I no longer seem to have time for the other things I love: friends and family, photography, and playing around at writing.

Then again, some folks don’t realize what a job means to them until they no longer have it. And, I can’t deny that it makes my heart feel good when I can help a patient improve the quality of their life. Or is that just my ego talking, taking pleasure in my professional status.

Speaking of retirement and status, I gave a terrible title to my last column in this space: “Youth drives change, not us grizzled elders.⁠1  It ruffled the feathers of several older readers who emailed me to object. I never meant to imply that old people couldn’t make a difference; such people are all around us: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Granny D. What I ham-handedly was attempting to convey is a sociological fact: major social change doesn’t happen within a generation but between generations.

One reader, having recently retired – and perhaps having dreams like mine – wrote poignantly:  "Are we really too old to make a difference, to participate, to be part of the change that needs to happen? Do we have nothing to offer? 

I think the missing ingredient that prompted her rhetorical question is something I, too, will have to contend within the coming months: Will I still feel like a valued member of my community? Will I still be seen, or will I feel invisible?  Being seen and appreciated is what sociologists call status and having it is essential to a person’s well being.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, status is not determined by how caring and giving you are or how essential you are to your family or community. Sadly, instead, our worth as a human being is largely determined by what we do for work and how good we are at it. That’s what we put on  our resumes and brag about at cocktail parties. It’s no wonder that more and more of us feel left out, particularly after retirement.

Michael Sandel calls this the tyranny of merit in his new book by that same name.⁠2 He says our emphasis on meritocracy is creating ever-widening inequality in our country, fueling the surging polarization that threatens to tear our country apart. On top of that, it has created a toxic economy of esteem.

As Elizabeth Anderson has written in a recent Nation article: “The winners in meritocratic competition feel entitled to take all they can, while the losers feel humiliated, continually told they deserve the fate to which elites consign them. However socially necessary their jobs may be, their contributions to the common good are disparaged by elites as uncredentialed and “low skill.”⁠3

I appear destined, without either credentials or a job, to be assigned a seat in that same overloaded, low status boat. Yet, despite my musings, I am confident I can retain my self-esteem. When  I was younger, I never had the time to smell the roses because I was overwhelmed with too much stuff I thought I needed to do. Finally, now is  my opportunity  open myself fully to the present moment which, according to many wise people, is the road to enlightenment.

It is also a reminder that I will soon have to change my Concord Monitor byline⁠4  to reflect these changes in my life: I will no longer be a psychotherapist, and Coco, most likely. will have departed to chase rabbits in doggie heaven. Yet I am not deterred: understanding that all life is change, I am looking forward to embracing  a new, simplified byline: Just another old  person from Northwood.



1 Concord Monitor. 5/9/21

2 The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?


4 My current byline reads as follows:

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. His blog can be found online at

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Buddha celebrating Spring in my waterfall
CC Jean Stimmell

In our fraught times of Cancel Culture, Elizabeth Dias presents a better metaphor to live by in this excerpt from her article, "Repairing Generations of Trauma, One Lotus Flower at a Time:" 
"It is one of the oldest religious symbols: the lotus flower, blooming out of muddy waters.
The mud represents our suffering, pain and delusions, said Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest, retelling the ancient lesson. And the purpose of Buddhism is to rise above.
But there’s an even deeper metaphor: In pure water, a lotus flower will not grow.
It is in the mud that the nutrients are found. 
“And so our liberation is actually not about transcending or distancing ourselves from trauma or pain and suffering, but it is to acknowledge how we can transform ourselves, our communities, our nation, our world, from all that pain,” he said.
True repair goes beyond legislation, Dr. Williams explained. Trauma is in all of us, in our psyches and our bones, he said, some of it inherited and some of it our own.
“It is less about atoning for sin, and more about trying to take some responsibility based on awakening to the fact that we are multiple, we are interconnected, we are interlinked, and our destinies are very much intertwined, because that is how karma works,” he said.®i_id=30753738&segment_id=57352&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Change is driven by the young, not us grizzled elders

Protester at the Vietnam Memorial during
Women's March: Washington D.C.–3/9/86

CC Jean Stimmell

Recently I wrote in this space about how humans are born into this world unfinished, requiring a long childhood to learn the norms and practices of their particular community. For the community to thrive, what we pass on to our children must change in step with societal changes.

This unparalleled ability to change, as psychologist Alison Gopnik tells us, “is the most distinctive and unchanging thing about us.⁠1, allowing us to thrive no matter what challenging circumstances we had to face over our long evolutionary history.

But societal change isn’t driven by our grizzled elders but by our children. As sociologists like Tressie Cottom tell us: “Almost all real change that happens is when a new generation comes along.⁠2” They are the ones able to think outside the box of what is.

We see that happening today with young people who are celebrating diversity by embracing previously marginalized folks and expressing their openness to discussing unsavory aspects of our national past in order to find a better way forward.

On the other hand, Republicans in our legislature are,  on average, old in body and spirit, clinging to the past and resisting change. They remind me of Archie Bunker, the star of that seminal TV sitcom All In The Family, which ran in the 1970s. Archie attempts to indoctrinate his family into his old-school, patriarchal worldview, but his daughter and her boyfriend are having no part of it. Neither are the young today.

This brings me to House Bill 544 which would prohibit educators from teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools. It seeks to limit public schools from discussing topics related to racism and sexism; in particular,  it would ban teaching whether we are racist or sexist, either as a state or a country.  As the sponsor, Rep. Keith Ammon, who introduced the bill, explained, “If that’s the assumption we are going to make as a society, then we are never going to get to unity.”⁠3

That sounds to me like something Archie Bunker would say to his family: If you would just shut up and do things my way, we would have unity. Luckily, his children tuned him out and opted instead for diversity: standing up for feminism, civil rights, and against an unjust war in Vietnam. Needless to say, they prevailed. That’s a good illustration of how change was brought about by the young during those turbulent times.

In fact, as Michelle Goldbert writes in the NYT, “Many of the intellectual currents that would become critical race theory emerged in the 1970s out of disappointment with the incomplete work of the civil rights movement.” Understanding that racism is structural rather than just a matter of personal bigotry was ahead of its time back then but is now conventional wisdom, except for flame-throwers on the right.⁠4

Our children are our designated drivers of change, especially crucial resources today as we face unprecedented upheavals in society, technology, and the environment. For the next generation to safely steer us toward a livable and just future, they must be well versed in critical thinking and relational skills, not indoctrinated into the dysfunctional gruel  of the present. The stakes are high if we want to escape the fate of the dodo bird.



1 The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik. Farrar, Straus & Giroux: New York: 2009, Page 7