Trauma in Ukraine
By Ford Rowan | March 31, 2022
Below is a transcript of Ford Rowan’s presentation of at a conference sponsored by the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and the Potomac Institute on March 31, 2022.
I welcome the opportunity to talk about genocide and mass dislocation.
I appreciate the work of the Potomac Institute, its Center for Health Policy and Preparedness, and the Center’s leader, Dr. Donald Donahue, in seeking global solutions to the problems plaguing our health, including our mental health, and promoting “interdisciplinary training in health preparedness and resiliency.”
Resiliency is the antidote to a major challenge: the transgenerational transmission of trauma and genocide.
I look at this through several different lenses. First, when I was a news reporter and Pentagon Correspondent for NBC NEWS. I covered combat in the Middle East as well as the Watergate trials, the end of the Vietnam war, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
Years later, when I practiced law, I consulted on the problems at the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington State, as well as advising airline executives during the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York and the Pentagon. My doctoral dissertation was on the anthrax attacks and how to respond to bioterrorism, chemical warfare, and nuclear war.
I helped establish a think tank at the National Defense University, the National Center for Critical Incident Analysis which later became an independent entity. One of our projects was to train state and local public health officials on risk communication in the H1N1 pandemic. I wish we could have trained federal public health officials during COVID.
Today, I’m a fellow at the International Dialogue Initiative, a think tank that seeks to understand and cope with the psychological barriers to peace.
In grad school at Johns Hopkins I studied applied behavioral science — organizational psychology, the behavior of large groups, the identity issues underlying violence.
I recite all this to give you a three-fold idea of where I’m coming from: 1) observer, 2) responder, 3) healer. Full disclosure: I have not been very successful in the last two.
Right now, I’m helping my church find housing and jobs for Afghan refugees. Soon we will work with refugees from Ukraine.
The genocide in Ukraine presents new opportunities to understand this humanitarian crisis. Even though my track record is not very good on prevention, here’s some comments on the challenge that Yonah Alexander posed for us to deal with – quote – “potential ethnic, racial, religious or national genocide.”
The religious aspect is fascinating. Putin invokes religion often and claims that the Orthodox Church supports his violence in Ukraine. I’m not an expert on Orthodox theology so I will withhold judgment. I do know about genocide, however.
I learned about genocide when I was as a young boy 70 years ago. My grandmother – who was born on the Choctaw reservation – told me horror stories about the Trail of Tears, about the illness and deaths after our people were forced from our ancestral home in Mississippi to a reservation in Oklahoma in the 1830s. Our numbers had already been greatly reduced by the diseases the Europeans brought from across the ocean.
The horror stories about the Trail of Tears were so vivid, I assumed my grandmother was an eyewitness on the Trail of Tears. No, she was born 50 years after the Trail of Tears. The trauma had been inherited, transmitted across generations.
The transgenerational transmission of trauma can trigger all sorts of violence. The First Crusades are remembered in some Middle East nations NOT just as events a thousand years ago, but as the fuel for the fires of continuing atrocities. Not history, but current events.
How will the people of Ukraine – in future generations – feel about the trauma that’s happening right now? And how will the people of Russia feel?
One of the most interesting books I’ve read is Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress by Rachel MacNair.[i] Not only does violence beget violence, but warfare can cause trauma for the warrior who perpetrates violence.
I’ve talked with US Servicemen who served in Vietnam and still have nightmares about their battles. One man who was a decorated hero, was a sniper. He told me his terrifying dreams of seeing the face of someone he shot in the crosshairs, squeezing the trigger, as he woke up from his nightmare.
I can attest that many of the inmates I’ve met in my volunteer work over 20 years in 10 prisons here in the United States were victims before they became victimizers and were traumatized by perpetrating assaults on others.
This turned out to be relevant to the issues in the Ukraine. Is there any hope of interrupting the transgenerational transmission of trauma?
Having admitted shortcomings in my efforts to be a responder and a healer, let me focus briefly on my first career, as an observer, as a news reporter. I still believe that the truth can set us free.
Ukrainians carry the significant burden of sequential trauma: devastation by the Wehrmacht in the Second World War, the forced starvation of the Holodomor, and Soviet suppression. The resilience and defiance they have demonstrated over these past five weeks is nothing short of remarkable. Yet to be determined is how they fare following this latest trauma.
A sad aspect of the Ukraine combat is the Russian clampdown on the free press in Russia. The people of Russia are having to use social media to find out how badly the battle has been for their troops, how horrible the impact on citizens, how dreadful for innocent children, women, and non-combatants. Even this may have a small silver lining, though, as individual Russians are seeking information from Radio Free Europe, mirror web sites, and ZVPNs that let them access sites that have been blocked by the Russian government.
Hearing a truthful explanation and listening to the truth, can help build resilience of those who are listening with an open mind.
Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists are working at the frontier of ways to enhance brain health. The best book I can recommend on dealing with trauma is Cynda Rushton’s Moral Resilience. She examines ways to build resilience, including ways that “spiritual, religious, and humanistic traditions [make] growth possible even after traumatic events.”[ii] She’s a faculty member at Hopkins and on the Berman Institute of Bioethics.
There is work to be done to build moral resilience and cope with trauma.
The Potomac Institute is a leader in the effort to train for health preparedness and resiliency. I hope it will contribute for a peaceful future.
[i] Rachel M. MacNair. (2002) Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. Preager, Westport, CT.
[ii] Cynda Hylton Rushton (ed.) (2018) Moral Resilience: Transforming Moral Suffering in Healhcare. Oxford University Press, p. 105.