Survival and Recovery

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Survival and Recovery


In the last fifty years, many authors have emphasized that war's psychological wounds can last longer than its physical challenges. As Ryszard Kapuscinski writes in "When There is Talk of 1945," quoting the Polish philosopher Boleslaw Micinski, "War … deforms not only the soul of the invader, but also poisons with hatred, and hence deforms, the souls of those who try to oppose the invader."

When armed struggle ends, other struggles take precedence. How people contend with economic havoc, displacement, cultural shifts, challenges to traditional morals and ethics; how they struggle to reintegrate into a world changed forever; and how they deal with traumatic memories and loss of loved ones is part of the saga of the human race. So, too, are the examples of how survivors move past mere survival to recover and truly live once more.

Survival During War

Robert Graves's autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1929), is a firsthand account of World War I trench warfare. Graves enlisted at age nineteen, soon after war against Germany had been declared. The British expected the war to be over before Christmas, but it lasted four years. The advanced military technology used in World War I, including new types of mortars, tanks, and poison gas, caused unprecedented devastation and chaos. Enemies fired upon each other from flooded, filthy trenches crawling with rats and vermin. Terrified soldiers broke down mentally, were rehabilitated, and then rushed back to the front.

Beyond depicting the horrors of trying to survive trench warfare, this book also depicts the way in which British citizens viewed soldiers. Lone survivors of particularly bad battles attained a special status, earning "great reputations," as though their survival were due to skill and prowess alone, and not luck. With so many soldiers being killed, those who were still alive were noteworthy: "See that fellow…. Out from the start and hasn't got it yet."

Graves almost "got it" several times, and was once declared dead—his family even published his obituary before he was found. Although he returned to the front, he also defended those who objected to fighting. The experience of having to survive in the trenches was so shocking that Graves wrote about it in order to forget war forever and to say farewell to "all that."

While Graves preferred to shut war out of his memory as a means of survival both during and after the fighting, Mo Yan, in his novel Red Sorghum (1987), opted instead to find the means to survive in accepting the inevitability of war and armed struggle. This novel of rural guerrilla resistance begins during the Japanese invasion of China in 1939. Three generations of male and female warriors are murdered by their enemies during cyclical massacres. Their best weapons are wit and courage. Mo Yan's eloquent mingling of praise for land, family, and community, with exuberant details of bloody slaughter, echoes one of Red Sorghum's central themes: atrocities and love must both be accepted as part of life's great adventure. Enemies and lovers meet due to destiny: enemies decapitate and disembowel each other, while lovers brave "that demon of an emotion," love. The villagers, fellow-warriors, family, and of course the land of red sorghum inspire the toughness it takes to survive. Commander Yu, at his lowest after a battle full of losses, is encouraged by an ancient neighbor: "What are you crying for? This was a great victory!" Though most of the rebels were killed, "China may have nothing else, but it's got plenty of people." In this way Mo Yan, indicates that life does indeed go on and that survival, like war, is perhaps also inevitable.

Just as China struggled under a Japanese invasion during World War II, the struggle between colonial powers and the people they have displaced has existed since the first conquest of one nation by another. Spotted Soldiers (1978), by C. E. Dibb, is the story of a white woman struggling to run a coffee plantation in the final years before colonial Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe. Armed bands of freedom fighters attacked and took over hundred of white settlers' farms, and the white settlers fought back, sometimes even turning on each other. Both sides saw the rebellion in terms of survival: the Zimbabweans were taking back their land in order to make a living, and the white settlers were fighting for their lives and livelihoods. The book's title comes from Shakespeare's assertion that even a war based on the most spotless motives will be fought sometimes by "spotted" soldiers, reminding readers that survival is a necessity fought for on both sides of the colonial divide.

Some territorial conflicts are not as clear-cut as the situation in Zimbabwe. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been ongoing since the 1960s. Amy Wilent's Martyr's Crossing (2000) deals with the effort to survive where threat is constant and both sides feel themselves under siege. Israelis and Palestinians see the other as foe in the seemingly endless struggle between a Jewish state and a Palestinian homeland. Marina, mother of a sick child and wife of a jailed Hamas fighter, notes that "Israeli soldiers … [look] at you as if you weren't the same species." Her child dies, held up at the border because of a bombing and protests. Slowly, after his death, she and Doron, an Israeli border-crossing officer, begin to see each other as human beings. This is dangerous, given the social constraints of each community, but there is a sense that their survival—and the survival of all Israelis and Palestinians—is dependent on their ability to see each other as humans.

Unlike Martyr's Crossing's effort to present both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Sahar Khalifeh's Wild Thorns (1976) focuses on Palestinian perspectives about the ongoing conflict. The tale opens when Usama returns from working in the oil fields. Unbeknownst to his friends and relations, he has come as a martyr, bent on murderous resistance to Israeli dominance. Khalifeh writes of the exemplary self-governance of Muslim political prisoners and the inflammatory behavior of Israeli soldiers as they search old ladies' flats. The reader hears the leader of Usama's faction preaching: "Don't talk of 'humanity,' of 'love.' Love's dead, friends…. [A]rm yourself with wolf's fangs." Yet after Usama murders an Israeli officer, a Palestinian witness weeps with compassion for the victim's wife and daughter: "[S]omething was shaking the locked doors of Um Sabir's heart. She softened and responded[,]… 'God have mercy on you!'" Like Martyr's Crossing, Wild Thorns illustrates the struggle for daily survival in a war-torn country. It is survival in the most primal sense, to stay alive, to live to see another day, to not die in the street. But it is also about the survival of compassion, and of the sparks of humanity that may someday inspire peace.

That basic element of survival, the bare struggle to stay alive, is at the heart of Louise Murphy's The True Story of Hansel and Gretel (2003). It is a retelling of the childhood fable "Hansel and Gretel," in which children cast into the forest must survive on their own. Murphy's story places the Jewish children in a Polish forest during World War II without their parents, who left them in the forest to protect them from being caught by Nazis. The children must fight to survive the elements as well as avoid being caught by German troops.

As the Polish villagers struggle to survive the ravages of war that have led to food shortages and anxiety over the advancing German army, many are suspicious of Hansel and Gretel, who threaten their very survival. If the Nazis were to discover the village harboring Jewish children, it would suffer grave consequences. Yet even in the face of such mortal danger, several of the villagers extend kindness to the children, who are themselves only trying to survive. The conflict between protecting oneself and protecting another human reverberates throughout The True Story of Hansel and Gretel.

Stories such as Goodbye to All That, Red Sorghum, Spotted Soldiers, Martyr's Crossing, Wild Thorns, and The True Story of Hansel and Gretel illustrate the basic human desire to live, especially during times of conflict. Regardless of the situation, no matter how dire or hopeless, human beings have a fundamental instinct to want to survive, and these stories remind readers how resilient the human spirit can be in the extraordinarily harsh circumstances of war.

Postwar Survival

Once fighting has ended, those still alive to witness the end of a war are free to return to their normal lives. It is seldom as simple as it seems, as survivors often carry the burden of the things they have witnessed and of being alive when so many others are not.

Slavery in the United States was a full-fledged force of industry that was not abolished until after the Civil War. Survival for ex-slaves came not only after the end of the Civil War, but after generations of struggle and crisis that slaves had to undergo. Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel Beloved (1987) focuses on Sethe, who is living a nightmare of guilt. Eighteen years before, when she was a runaway slave with four small children, a slave-catcher came to reclaim them. Rather than see her children not just worked, killed, or maimed, but dirtied "so bad you couldn't like yourself anymore," she decided to kill them in order to spare them a life of slavery. Before she was stopped, she managed to kill only her toddler daughter.

The murdered baby haunts the family's house and incarnates as a young woman named Beloved. Sethe retreats from the world, trying to make amends to the dead for her guilt, which torments her every waking moment. "Loaded with the past, and hungry for more, [her mind] left her with no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day." Sethe is faced with a choice: she must banish her ghosts to survive, or die.

In William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice (1979), Sophie has a secret from World War II. On the train platform at the concentration camp Auschwitz, a Nazi officer offers Sophie a terrible choice: she can save either her son or her daughter from the crematorium. She cannot choose both. If she refuses to choose at all, both will die. Like Sethe, she is faced with a decision that will determine the survival of her children, and both women find themselves with choices that do not allow for the possibility of life. In a panic, Sophie chooses her son.

After the war, Sophie moves to New York and hides her traumatic experience and underlying depression under a cheerful mask. She weaves a complex web of lies in order to survive the mental anguish of her wartime decision. Though Sophie has survived the concentration camps and the war, she cannot survive the guilt of having to choose between her children. Through Sophie, Styron brings readers in touch with the double-bind of survivors for whom, in many ways, the war never really ends.

Ernest Hemingway's short story "Big Two-Hearted River" (1925) is another tale that looks at the complex issues surrounding postwar survival once armed conflict has come to an end. In this short story, Nick Adams, an ex-soldier back from World War I, wounded and traumatized, takes a fishing trip to Seney, Michigan. He used to fish there before war, when life was still peaceful and nature still nurtured, and is hoping to reclaim some of that familiar peace through the ritual of fishing.

Nick, like Hemingway, was stationed in Italy during World War I and was badly wounded. On this fishing trip, when he should be relaxing, he cannot sleep, and he panics at the thought of wading too deeply into the water to catch a fish. In the essay "Nick at Night: Nocturnal Metafictions in Three Hemingway Short Stories," Margot Sempreora writes, this is a "ritualistic fishing trip, through whose … performance he seeks to reconstruct a 'safe' home" in a violent world. But that world seems to have permanently changed, even in Michigan, and Nick finds that complete safety no longer exists, in war or out of it. He realizes that in order to survive, he must adapt to an entirely new concept of "normal" life.

In Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony (1977), the main character Tayo, a Native American, is an ex-soldier retuned home like Nick. Tayo has just returned from World War II, where he was a POW of the Japanese. He is sick in a way the white doctors cannot cure, so Tayo returns to Laguna pueblo. He does not see much reason to go on living after all that he has witnessed. A medicine man sends Tayo to complete a ceremony—one begun long ago—in order to heal his soul sickness. Tayo follows a puzzle of signs, learning that a spell of witchcraft has been cast on the world. One of the ways Tayo can fight the evil loose in the world is by storytelling, an antidote to forgetting and losing one's way. To survive, he must avoid hating those who hurt him. He must not take the path of vengeance but choose a path of respect for all life.

As illustrated in Beloved, Sophie's Choice, "Big Two-Hearted River," and Ceremony, postwar survival is a conscious decision. Once the fundamental and primal need to physically survive through a conflict has been achieved, the choice to survive mentally and spiritually must be made as well.

From Survival to Recovery

Once a survivor makes the decision to truly survive, in body, mind, and spirit, he or she can move into recovery. The life of a survivor is linked to the war or conflict that gave him or her that label. A life in recovery is no longer identified in terms of war, but instead, in terms of the choices one has made to make a full life after the war.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) is the memoir of Sojourner Truth, a former slave, as dictated to Olive Gilbert. The Narrative recounts the abuses Truth endured during her lifetime as slave: she was auctioned away from her parents, she was whipped severely, her baby was sold away, and her friends and family died from neglect and abuse. Yet during her life, she used these experiences for the good, helping others survive and recover from the oppression of slavery. She was freed in 1828, and in 1843 had a religious experience in which she was given a mission: to help escaped slaves. She gave up the name she was christened with—Isabelle—to take on the name which described her life's purpose. Until her death in 1883, Truth worked to welcome ex-slaves to the often-difficult transition to freedom. Her involvement in positive action allowed her to put aside bitterness: on her deathbed Sojourner announced, "I'm not gonna die. I'm going home like a shooting star."

Narratives of survival and recovery are applicable not only to historical armed conflict but also to more contemporary military events. Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner (2003) looks at long-term tribal and religious warfare in Afghanistan. Amir, a wealthy Pashtun boy, and Hassan, his servant's son from the Hazara tribe, are best friends from infancy. Though they are of different ethnicities, it does not affect their relationship. Their lives change, however, with a government revolution and an act of violence that tears the friends apart. Witness to Hassan being attacked in an alley, Amir does nothing to save him, thinking of his own survival. In the fall-out from Amir's guilt, Hassan and his father leave Kabul and return to their tribal homeland.

Shortly thereafter the Afghani monarchy tumbles, and Amir and his father escape to California. Though on the surface Amir is flourishing in his new life, his guilt about betraying Hassan has never diminished. He wonders if his betrayal—and Hassan and his father's subsequent move from Kabul—has left Hassan in war-torn Afghanistan while he is free in America. When he learns that Hassan is dead—shot for living in Amir's old house in Kabul—and his son, Sohrab, has disappeared, he knows the only way he can assuage his survivor's guilt is to find Hassan's son.

Once Amir finds Sohrab, he realizes that Sohrab's very survival is in his hands. He can do for Hassan's son what he did not do for Hassan: save him. In doing so, both Amir and Sohrab can move into recovery in relation to their war experiences and begin to live fuller lives than Amir had dreamed possible.


Stories of survival and recovery are among the most important tales of war literature, as they remind readers of the human ability not only to survive, but to live and flourish again, after the devastating experiences of war. The stories of frontline and postwar survivors can strip away myths about war, and foster empathy and compassion in those who themselves have not experienced battle. Stories of survival require bravery in the telling, for it often means exposing horrific and traumatizing events. Each narrative speaks for millions who cannot or will not share their story.


Chennells, Anthony, "C. E. Dibb's Spotted Soldiers," National University of Singapore, (August 12, 2005).

Delk, Yvonne V., "A Soul on Fire," in Sojourners, September 2001, Vol. 30, No. 5, p. 42.

Graves, Robert, Goodbye to All That, excerpted by Oxford University's Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature, (August 12, 2005), originally published by Penguin, 1960 (1929).

Hosseini, Khalid, The Kite Runner, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Kapuscinski, Ryszard, "When There is Talk of 1945," in Granta, Vol. 88, Winter 2004, pp. 253, 254.

Khalifeh, Sahar, Wild Thorns, Interlink Books, 2003, pp. 159, 280.

Morrison, Toni, Beloved, Plume Books, 1987, pp. 70, 251.

Sempreora, Margot, "Nick of the Night: Nocturnal Metafiction in Three Hemingway Short Stories," in the Hemingway Review, Vol. 22, No. 7, pp. 19-33.

Truth, Sojourner, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, The University of Pennsylvania Digital Library, (June 17, 2005).

Wilentz, Amy, Martyr's Crossing, excerpted by The Book Reporter, (August 12, 2005), originally published by Ballatine Books, 2000.

Yan, Mo, Red Sorghum, Minerva Books, 1994, pp. 140, 286.