The Death of Self

People in wartime often experience a death of self or an internal change of some kind in response to traumatic events.  From the Holocaust’s death camps to soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rarely does war leave anyone who participates unaffected.

In Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, the main character, Vladek, begins in prewar Poland as a very normal man.  However, when the war begins, he is sent to the front and captured by German forces.  From then on, he went into survivalist mode.  Throughout the book, it seems that he has never shed his survivalist instinct perhaps attributing to his poor relationship with his son.

Since Vladek’s release from the camps he has continued to save everything and spend very little.  He sees something and thinks of how it could come in handy in a given situation.  In the book Art often asks himself the question “what made him this way?”  He noticed that none of the other Auschwitz survivors were as he was.  I think the reason he is like this and others are not is because he took a proactive position on his survival.  While many others survived due to luck alone, Vladek relied on his ability to learn skills quickly, scavenge, save and barter.  Had he simply went with the flow; chances are, he too would be among the Holocaust dead.

Even today, soldiers come back from war changed.  The memories of battle weigh heavily on them and can affect every aspect of their private, social and professional life.  In Jeremiah Workman’s article The War at Home, he tells of his sufferings with PTSD.  Both Workman’s marriage and professional life suffered at the hands of PTSD.  He rightfully states, “war doesn’t stop when our boots touch home soil again, it just changes form.”  These soldiers must be helped to absolve their inner turmoil to not only protect themselves, but also others.

There have been many instances of undiagnosed PTSD sufferers committing suicide or violent crimes after their return from duty.  Had these men gotten the help they needed, perhaps these tragedies could have been avoided.  Both Vladek and Jeremiah Workman will never fully cope with what they have been subject to, but with the right help perhaps they can suppress them to a state that minimally affects the way they live their lives.

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~ by eldribri on October 20, 2009.

3 Responses to “The Death of Self”

  1. I have never personally known anyone who came back from fighting on the front in either Iraq or Afghanistan; in fact I do not have any connections to any veterans returning from any armed conflicts in general. I can only imagine what it would be like, though, to go through such a traumatic experience that you become a completely different person, whether it be mentally and/or physically. It is definitely not inconceivable to be completely different though. They left everything that provided normalcy and were thrown into a new country, under incredible amounts of stress, not knowing if they would live to see the end of the week, or even the end of the day. It is unimaginable to me. Of course I have been through experiences in my life that were not ideal or enjoyable, but they never on the level of changing me to where I was unrecognizable and unable to function under normal circumstances. Also, Vladek’s survival through the Holocaust left effects that seem entirely justified, even if we cannot understand them. And like you wrote in your post, his motivation to purely survive, his entire will to live make it through, enabled him to exit the concentration camp/Holocaust. And having become so used to scraping by, honing skills, and fighting to survive it became a piece of him – a piece that was no disposable – clearly living on years after the Holocaust.

  2. I like how you explained the similarities between the emotions of Vladek as a Holocaust survivor and of a returning soldier suffering from PTSD after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Art’s comment about what made his father this way, strikes me as very interesting because I see traits of Vladek’s behavior in saving everything in my own Grandfather. He, like Vladek was a pack-rat and saved everything, yet my grandfathers experiences come from living through the Great Depression Era. This mentality that everything is useful, nothing should be wasted is a trait I fell a lot of people have forgotten and take for granted. They should be thankful they do not have to live under such conditions. The experiences that shape a person’s life and add to their personality are true in the sense that no matter what you witness, or what your actions may require, or your in-actions for that matter, you hold on to a little bit of every experience. I think that is why a lot of returning Vets struggle with PTSD because even the smallest thing stays with them for life. Just has Vladek’s actions stayed with him, a veterans experiences in war will always be their.

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