Book Review–The Alchemy of Combat: Transforming Trauma in Combat Veterans

The Alchemy of Combat: Transforming Trauma in Combat Veterans
Suluk Press: Omega Publications, Inc. (2014)

The external reader from my PhD committee recommended that I read this book, albeit after my manuscript was accepted. In some ways, he did me a favor–I might have gone down a rabbit hole that ultimately might not have been reflected in my work. However, it is an important book for those who treat veterans, particularly combat veterans.

I’ll start with the sentence on the front of the book: “A guide for therapists, as well as family, friends, loved ones, colleagues, and others who care.” This statement, is for me, the single largest defect as it is decidedly for therapists and only slightly oriented towards veterans. It may be perceived as a small quibble, but I think it’s important point to bring up–there are very few books oriented towards combat veterans and their loved ones to understand the significant psycho-spiritual transformations that occur from being in war: what is generally known as the sequela of war. To have a book that purports this orientation gave me hope, but the contents do not live up to that billing.

Turning towards the meat of the content, it truly is an important work, for Dr. Decker rightly points out that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a symptom of an underlying change in the psyche–what he calls “post-tramautic growth.” This is a significant mind shift from PTSD. In today’s treatment modalities, PTSD is seen not as a symptom, but rather the “real problem” that is treated by trying to readjust the veteran to civilian life. As Decker points out–that is destined to failure as it does not take into account the way the veteran has been psychically transformed:

Ed’s previous therapists had wanted him to adjust to civilian life. That was like asking him to change his citizenship to that of a foreign country. He knew things they didn’t, but they believed they knew better. Ed didn’t know how to tell them that they were full of shit, except to use those words. The other therapists of course interpreted Ed’s responses as ‘resistance,’” (p. 29)

Hence, Decker’s emphasis on post-traumatic growth: the veteran has experiences that the vast majority of therapists will never have. This lack of military experience on the part of therapists, particularly women therapists, is perhaps one of the greatest inhibitors for veterans to seek therapy and he reinforces this throughout the book–that therapists have as much to learn from their veteran patients as the patients have to learn from their therapist. But what is this post-traumatic growth that keeps getting referred to and moreover, what does that have to do with alchemy?

If combat is a crucible, then the alchemy of combat is an irreversible change in the veteran psyche–

“I’m saying that when your child goes off to war, you will never get him back. Not as he was, not the same boy. Changed, if he comes back at all” (Card, 2008, p. 3).

Card, O. S. (2008). Ender in exile. New York, NY: Doherty.

Thus, Decker points out:

combat has the power to transform and elevate the individual [emphasis in original]…the archetypes of the warrior/priest, the peaceful warrior, and the evolution of the soldier into the statesmen are all examples of the transforming nature of trauma,” (p. 34).

Tying this together with post-traumatic growth he exposits:

“growth involves internal changes–transformations within the person–rather than external changes in circumstances,” (p. 47).

Thus this book turns to alchemy, making combat trauma into psycho-spiritual gold.

I will not cover the middle and end pieces of this book as they are oriented towards the therapist: Decker covers avoiding therapist burnout, preparing for therapy with veterans and finally treatment approaches. They are important, but as I pointed out in the opening, not germane to the veteran, their family and friends.

Some minor hair splitting: Decker does a superlative job of bringing the psycho-spiritual to bear upon the issues facing veterans. In particular, he brings Sufism into his practice and this book. I am sympathetic to Sufism and particularly its poetics. However, I fear that my fellow combat veterans of our 20th and 21st century wars in the Middle East (Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.), might not be so sympathetic to its overt invocation in this text (considering its intertwining with Islam). I have one other minor quibble with the book: the generalized “soldier.” Perhaps it’s Dr. Decker’s client base, but the experiences of Marines, Navy, Air Force and Army can be markedly different and trying to genericise their unique military cultures and experiences strikes a discordant note. Full disclosure here, I was a Marine first and a sailor second. I can assure you the two cultures could not be further from each other even though both are part of the Department of the Navy.

In summation there are important ideas that make this book work with reading–it’s a welcome relief from most of the PTSD literature.