PTSD in War Poetry

I cannot watch war movies. In my mind’s eye, I interpose my father trudging through rice paddies in Vietnam, trudging through tall grass so thick, it slices the skin. I see his small frame – just a boy – whose uniform in later years fit his 13-year-old grandson. I see my grandfather in the South Pacific. There were no tours of duty in World War II. They went home when it was all over. I guess one might say I “feel” the visual.

Oddly enough, what I can do is read about the experiences of soldiers during war. (Though, admittedly, even then I am careful about what I do read.) I think I’ve written this before but one thing I asked for after my father passed away was his journal. They are published here on our site. He never spoke much about his experiences. Here and there, maybe. But I am so grateful for his writings. They reveal his experiences, to be sure, but they also indicate how therapeutic it was for him to put it on paper.

Poetry says so much about an experience. The space to write is confined in lines, verses, and forms. They are rhyming or free verse, loud or subtle. So much is said in that small space. Soldiers write poetry about experiences, places, or people. These poems also seem to reveal post traumatic stress. We recently celebrated Veterans Day. The following essay is one I wrote several years ago. I would like to share it with our readers. But there is a **TRIGGER WARNING** This essay’s subject matter contains features of war: violence, death, trauma, and PTSD.

During the American Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.”  The average “civilian” reader might better understand this statement through the avenue of war poetry. After World War I, war poetry was more noticed and read. These poems peeled back the layers of glory and exposed a soldier’s day to day community of horrors, encompassing, among other things, death, disease, terror, disfigurement, anxiety, and loss. It is no surprise, then, that war poetry has a theme of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  In order to better grasp this theme, one must be familiar with PTSD – its definition, stress reactions, and symptoms.

According to the National Center for PTSD from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when an individual personally encounters a traumatic event. Common stress reactions found are fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, guilt, shame, anger, irritability, and behavior changes. An ever-present feeling of caution and suspicion causes tension and jumpiness. An overwhelming sense of loss contributes to either uncontrollable emotions or numbness. Guilt crushes the psyche. People affected by PTSD are on a roller-coaster filled with ups and downs. Sufferers relive events and avoid situations that might trigger memories. They may feel callous or disconnected, and may be jittery due to hyper-arousal. PTSD can certainly occur in others, like rape or natural disaster survivors. My concentration in this article is in combat exposure. War poems such as Yusef Komunyakka’s “Facing It,” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” reveal a theme of PTSD in reliving the event, numbness, or hyper-arousal.

War poetry’s theme of PTSD is found through reliving an event or events. Remembering such happenings occur consciously through intentional effort, or unconsciously through dreams and flashbacks. The Vietnam War took a devastating toll on soldiers and country alike. Soldiers served their country with little support from top echelons; and came home with little welcome from their countrymen. Over twenty years after the war began, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was erected.

In Yusef Komunyakka’s poem, “Facing It,” the speaker conveys his experience at that memorial. The poem is filled with the unconscious reliving of past events. In one instance, he says,

I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash. (17-18)

In this facet of PTSD, names are a trigger. A bird’s wings also “flash” (22). The word “flash” coincides with the word flashback, another word that describes a symptom of PTSD.

Similarly, Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” reveals an unconscious indicator of PTSD. Trench warfare and horrific, innovative weaponry caused soldiers during World War I to face unimaginable trauma across No Man’s Land. “Dulce et Decorum Est” relives an event during this war. Like “Facing It,” happenings are a past recollection. Where Komunyakka’s poem shows the flashback as a symptom of PTSD, Owen’s poem shows that memories also spill into dreams. The speaker says,

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me . . .

He conveys the incident as so haunting it encompasses even his un-waking moments. Later in the poem, the speaker mentions, “some smothering dreams.” This further increases the desperate feeling of his terrible experience. He cannot escape awake and he cannot escape asleep.

War poetry’s theme of PTSD is found through a soldier’s numbness or lack of feeling. In “Facing it,” the speaker suppresses his emotions at the memorial saying,

I said I wouldn’t dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me . . . (3-6).

With this statement, he indicates his difficulty showing or experiencing emotion, showing a clear indicator of PTSD. He then corrects and contradicts himself saying, “I’m flesh,” after which he says, “My clouded reflection eyes me . . .” and seems to place himself within the stone wall. This further emphasizes a severed connection prevalent throughout the poem. He moves in and out of reflection, literally and figuratively. The poem’s tone seems foggy and emotionless.

In contrast, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” overflows with action and passion.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. (1-5)

The speaker mentions, “we cursed,” “men marched,” the aforementioned, “he plunges,” etc. The reader comprehends a more frantic, fast-paced tone. Emotions are outward and feelings are evident. Another poem that stresses a lack of feeling is Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed.”  The poem also has the narrative of a World War I occurrence. He reveals the unfortunate decision a soldier faced – either kill or be killed.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown. (18-20)

The poem’s speaker callously informs the reader that, under different circumstances, he and “the man he killed” might have sat down at a bar where the speaker might “treat” or they both could “help to half-a-crown.” A case could be made that the soldier within the poem is numb to the incident. The poem’s understatement achieves this PTSD symptom.

War poetry’s theme of PTSD is found through the condition of hyper-arousal. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, some PTSD symptoms of hyper-arousal are sleep difficulties (in falling asleep and in staying asleep), concentration problems, hyper-vigilance, and amplified startle reactions. A person who exhibits hyper-arousal is always on edge. The person is easily frightened by loud noises and is sensitive to surroundings. The speaker in “Dulce et Decorum Est,” shows signs of this PTSD symptom. When the speaker says, “In all my dreams,” it is one possible indicator of sleep difficulty. At one point in the poem, the speaker talks about gas:

1917 American troops in France wearing gas masks – Wikimedia

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. (9-16)


Witnessing his comrade’s gaseous death invades the speaker’s dreams, so one could assume he has trouble sleeping. Another telling sign in the poem are the images – especially through action verbs. Throughout the poem, words such as, “plunges,” “guttering,” “writhing,” “jolt,” and “gargling” give the reader a sense of the speaker’s hyper-arousal.

A clearer picture of this PTSD symptom is in “Facing It.” The speaker is aware of the environment through hyper-vigilance.

I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats . . .  (14-25)

He sees “the 58,022 names” that “shimmer on a woman’s blouse.”  He is conscious of the red bird, the plane, and “a white vet’s image.” Ever-watchful of his surroundings, he sees distortions in the memorial’s reflections which become memory triggers; and it is as if he has to do a double take to reach what is truly happening. This indicator could also explain trouble with concentration. For example, the speaker says,

In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

His first thought reveals a distorted, confused observation. His initial observation could signify the desire to wipe out the memory of it all. His realization of the woman’s true action shows the distinct difference between what is real and what is not. The poem ends with a subtle but startling effect once the speaker realizes what is real: the mirror, the names, and the boy. These words pretty much define the Vietnam War. The mirror seems to hold up the reflection of that war so the country can take a long hard look at the senselessness of it all, and how soldiers and Vietnam Vets were treated. The names are the stone-cold loss and grief. They cannot be erased. And those who were drafted were just boys. The ending leaves the reader unsettled.

Everyday, war happens somewhere in the world. One country hates another country. One religion hates another religion. One race hates another race, and on and on. War poetry shares a very stark picture with the world, a window of horror and consequence. In this modern United States, war poetry from Iraq War Veterans has increasingly given intimate glimpses of the effects of events on the battleground. Brian Turner is one of many such poets. His poems, “Eulogy,” and “Here, Bullet,” certainly leave an impression.

. . . here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time. (“Here, Bullet,” 11-16)

Many themes exist within war poetry. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of them. At one time, PTSD was considered weakness. I believe war poetry helped bring it to a better understanding.

Image: Mike Tolliver, Unsplash

Thank you to all our soldiers
– past, present, and future.
You are all heroes.

**Featured image: 1914-1918 Soldiers watching a soldier write – Wikimedia


  1. I don’t know you but I knew your farther and grandparents and you tell the story so well I go back at least once a week and read your fathers journeys you see he and I were in fort sill okla together and we seen first hand the destruction that those bombs caused and we didn’t care to fight but we didn’t want to harm civilians but we decided to what we could for our country we loved it so much and as we talked we were both willing to die if necessary I migh not should say this but it’s true but when we got to Vietnam we got separated I went into reconnaissance or LARP and I have so many nightmares it isn’t funny I’ve been laughed at for jumping and hitting the ground but as one veteran thank you for your writings those journals take me back closer to your dad thanks

    1. Author

      Hello SM

      I’m glad you and my dad were together in Oklahoma. I’m sure it was a comfort for you both to see a friendly face. Was that for basic training? He talked to our family about being willing to die for his country. He also spoke very highly about soldiers who were in LARP. He said they had one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. He also said they were the army version of Navy SEALS and you don’t mess with LARP soldiers. You went through so much there. When he got older, my dad said Vietnam never goes away, but you take things one day at a time and somehow learn to cope. It took a few decades, but he seemed to cope through “tinkering” with old cars and woodworking and restoring old furniture. Thank you, SM, for serving. Thank you for surviving. Thank you for being there for my dad. You are a hero.

  2. We took basic in Fort Campbell ky and then to Fort Sill but got separated when we got to Vietnam he stayed Artillery and I was going to a line company of A co to replace a lot of men that had been killed so they ask for volunteers to be trained with special forces and me and 3 other’s volunteered little did I know I was lied to big time I wasn’t front line I was in front of the front line but by the grace of God I made it back got a lot of problems but I think God every day for all his blessings and getting to know your dad was one of them. I remember laughing at your dad as some of the jokes he would pull he use to take lighter fluid put it in his mouth somehow blow it out in front of a lighter and flames would fly he was the best I miss him and have a lot of regrets that we didn’t stay in touch after but when you drive a truck coast to coast it’s hard and gone from home 2 months at a time cause I didn’t want to be around anyone I just couldn’t I was alone a lot as I was in Vietnam we had 4 man teams and went everywhere my commanding officer was Carl Stiner and Tom Stiner flew me out when I got wounded it’s a small world and thank you so much for the journals

  3. Hi Ms Anderson,

    Thank you for this article. I grew up reading and writing poetry and was also the child and grandchild of a career army officer. So both poetry and war have been with me from the beginning. Your article really resonates.
    I wrote and published a book of war poems based on my own war experiences as both the son of a soldier and a soldier myself in the Global War on Terror. The feedback I’ve received is much more positive and thoughtful than I expected it would be. My book is called “No Poetry Like War,” and part of the reason I wrote it is because I lost two friends and teammates while the sun was rising on the morning of September 1st in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Like you said, “They cannot be erased.”

    You need not look beneath the arabesque and infrared
    To see his handsome face, his bullet-shattered teeth

    Just lay me down, and tell me when it’s over
    Wrap me up, and fly me home through Dover

    1. Author

      Hello Mr. Martin.

      Thank you first for your service, second for your family’s service, and third for your kind words about my article. I’m so pleased you found the article and that it resonated with you. My father was a Vietnam War veteran who had lifelong issues with PTSD, though he didn’t accept that fact until later in his life. He wrote a memoir/journal about his time there and how it affected him afterward. I have published them on our site, starting here, if you’d like to read them. Though I’ve never served, I have deep and abiding respect for veterans and active military. Through my father’s eyes, and my grandfather’s eyes (World War 2), I have visualized just snippets of the haunting and lingering experiences of war. The few tales I heard will never leave me. I have learned that a soldier’s PTSD, if left untreated, can become a generational family issue. I believe war poetry is a concentrated and powerful way to tell a story and begin to heal. It also, as you so eloquently shared, allows a fallen soldier to be forever etched in a tribute.

      The reason I chose to write “PTSD in War Poetry” is because I saw the many facets inside each poet’s writing. Each poem informs, warns, lashes out, and/or heals. Each poem is packed with word intelligence and complexity. They show the horrors. They show the joys. And we should all pay attention. Your own excerpt is poignant and so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your work. If you’d like, we can communicate via email to discuss your book as well. It would be an honor.

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