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Val123's avatar

How would you describe this?

Asked by Val123 (12593 points ) November 29th, 2009

Watching a documentary on WWII, Normandy Beach. They’re interviewing now-80 and 90 year old men who served as soldiers and medics there….the impact of what they’re saying, by the way they’re telling it….it’s hard to reach thorough to imagine the horror of what they must have felt when it actually happened to them when they were only 19, 20 years old.

For example, “The beaches were smeared with blood, as though someone had taken a giant paint brush to them. There were bodies stacked up like cord-wood.”

And, “The hardest part is when you’re working on a guy, and they ask if they’re going to make it and you say, ‘Oh, sure’ and then they pass as you’re working on them.”

They seem almost….blase, almost with no emotion, but I know that they aren’t. It must have been heart rendering. They were just kids….but they’re 90 now. What would the word be to describe that….distance? What is that…..?

I’m blathering. I’m not sure how to phrase my thoughts….

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30 Answers

rangerr's avatar

Numb to emotion about it.

jamielynn2328's avatar

It sounds like traumatic dissociation to me. It’s like a mechanism used to deal with trauma. I also think that these people have probably told their stories for 60–70 years. Although it is still trauma, they have lived with it inside of their minds for sooo long.

Val123's avatar

@jamielynn2328 @rangerr good answers…. I…think that at a certain age they just can’t express their emotions like they used to or…they’re just wrung out. One guy was saying that he came back to the beach in 1988 and had to drink a whole bottle of wine before he could step on to the beach….but he still started crying when he did. He said he could still see where each of the bodies were laying, and he knew them by name. Kids that…..would never see 20, much less 80 or 90. Heart wrenching, but told almost dispassionately…

JLeslie's avatar

I guess they are emotionally detached to survive, meaning survive mentally. There have been conflicting studies from what I understand about whether repressing emotions about an event is actually a good thing to be able to move forward in ones life.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

“Stoic” comes to mind as a descriptor.

Val123's avatar

I think that generation just….did what they had to do, and didn’t spend time…getting counseling and things. It was just what it was, and you get over it the best you can. But, on the other hand, how many times do we actually see intense emotion from really, very old people?

JLeslie's avatar

I Disagree that it is because they are old. My father-in-law who is 69 tears up every time he sees his son (we only see him 2 or 3 times a year), or talks about his father, he is very outwardly emotional.

Val123's avatar

But 69 isn’t that old….I’m thinking 80, 90. I don’t know. I don’t know…..my Father In Law is 86. He lost his wife of 65 years just 7 years ago and I know he misses her but….the expression of the emotion isn’t there. I don’t know if it’s just too hard physically to expend the energy or…it’s like the emotion is there, but it isn’t being expressed the way we’re used to….(I’ve been thinking about “getting old” a lot lately!)

JLeslie's avatar

@Val123 Hmmm? Maybe it is that generation and how they were raised? That they were not supposed to display emotion.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

The horrific nature of WWII astounds me. At the Battle of the Bulge, you were as likely to be killed by flying body parts of your comrades as you were by shrapnel or bullets.

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

Feeling like you could have done something to save those who died.

Emotional detachment for survival and the inability to feel when it’s all said and done.. numbness.

A little smile at the memory of that funny thing your buddy did before he was killed.

Feeling lucky to be alive.

Feeling guilty to be alive.

Proud to have served with the bravest and most selfless people in your country.

Nostalgia. Wishing you could live those glory days again.. that time you got drunk and did something stupid.. or that time you prevented a buddy from doing so.. All the jokes and the hazing.. the support when someone lost a family member or their wife left them..

The camaraderie. The esprit de corp.
The brotherhood. The man next to you.

Really, it’s indescribable. I can’t imagine what they went through.. or how they’ve coped over the years.

Val123's avatar

@NaturalMineralWater…..But they….aren’t exhibiting the emotion you would.. expect. And I wonder if that’s what age does to you…..

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

@Val123 Time has the uncanny ability to numb almost anything. I guarantee though that they still have tough days… you just don’t see it on tv or the newspaper… I’m sure they still hurt like hell when they visit a friends grave or something sparks an old memory..

Val123's avatar

I so appreciate you guys helping me figure out what I’m…trying to figure out. I guess, the question is, are they really “numb” or…does extreme age make it difficult to express the emotion that they’re really feeling? Maybe we can’t read the subtle facial expressions any more? Their voices don’t have the range?...?

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

@Val123 You could be right on all counts. Perhaps the facial expressions aren’t so noticeable. Perhaps it is the toughness that comes with time and hardship. Maybe it’s the hard shell of a person who has been crushed one too many times.. But if you sat down and talked to one of them.. I’m sure you would see it in their eyes.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

Coping mechanisms had to develop immediately. Here was one to deal with your situtation. You can imagine how coping like that might impact life upon returning from the war.

Darwin's avatar

By the time you are 80 or 90 you are looking death in the eye every day. It isn’t that older folks don’t care. It is just that when you dance with death daily it isn’t such a stranger. You become more used to it, even if it was death from long ago, and so you don’t get as histrionic over it.

Val123's avatar

I think….I can take every great answer, which they all are, to answer my own question…. as @NaturalMineralWater said, if I was right there, I could see it in their eyes. Not the same as seeing it on TV…..

@Darwin at 80 or 90, yes, I’ll be looking at death everyday, but I guess my thoughts would be turning to my 18, 19 year old friends who died that day, who never lived to have a family, never got to live to experience what I eventually did. I just don’t know….why isn’t the emotion as apparent? It has to be worse, as time goes on…..but it…isn’t, apparently, expressed.

I wish to thank the Mods for not cold clocking this question because it really was half baked when I posted it! Maybe that’s something else that Fluther is for….to help one clarify what they’re feeling and thinking…

PandoraBoxx's avatar

With anything horrific, repetition makes it become normal. I read an article once about children and scary films. Parents would say that their small children “liked” scary movies, and would watch them over and over again “because they liked them.” What research found was that children watch scary things over and over again to numb themselves to the violence, and make it seem normal.

This would seem to be true for war as well. The first few times you see someone blown apart, it’s horrific. Once you get past the first few times, you know what’s coming and what it is, and you just try not to think about it. A certain amount of depersonalization happens as a coping mechanism. You just can’t dwell upon it.

I read a very moving account last year of a young man who was stationed in the KOP in Afghanistan. He got emergency leave for a week because his mother had cancer, and was dying. He was an only child, with no other family in the picture. When he came home, rather than sleep in his bed, he slept in the garage, on the floor, to make dealing with his mother’s death, and having to go back to Afghanistan bearable. Keeping the emotional harshness constant made the desolation manageable.

Darwin's avatar

@Val123 – From what I can see of my parents (84 and 85), if they allowed the emotion to get worse or stronger over time, they wouldn’t have been able to survive to the age they are.

Death, while still sad, becomes more familiar the more you see of it. When you are young, and the first person that you know has died, you have nothing to compare it to and you almost want to die yourself. But by the time you are 80 you get to the point of being used to death and more accepting of death, so the emotion generated is not so great.

No one gets a happy ending in this life. We all die, and many of us see loved ones die before us. You can let it break you or you can figure out how to stand tall and carry on. By the time you have lived most of a century, you generally have the standing tall and carrying on bits down pat.

mattbrowne's avatar

Well, it might also be the opposite of trauma. Like placing those memories into a secure box inside the brain to protect the other boxes which contain memories of your loved ones, relatives and so forth. The other day I watched a documentary about a coroner in Berlin, a father of two young kids. He described that sometimes his job would involve working with dead kids ending up on his examination table. Same age as his own kids. The reporter was interested in how he was managing all this. The coroner used the box metaphor, but also admitted that he occasionally he’s failing. For example when being with his own kids in a dangerous situation, e.g. crossing a busy street.

JLeslie's avatar

I think that over time you are able to tell a story about a painful time with less raw emotion attached to it, you don’t have to be old, just years away from the actual event. I know 40 year old women who cried everyday during their divorces and then 10 years later can talk about it very matter of fact. I am not comparing a divorce to a massacre, but the point is we are able to separate the emotion, especially if we have moved on.

Plus, it has been shown through PET scans of the brain that men attach emotion less often to memories than women. The theory is that this explains why women will bring up everthing someone/a husband has done wrong to them for the last ten years (this is somewhat unrelated to the topic) if they do something similar. I am not explainin this well…meaning that if a husband lets say does something that triggers the same negative feelings a woman felt years ago when he was cheating lets say, that feeling brings up the entire memory box in the woman’s mind of ALL the things he has done in the past that have ever triggered that same emotion. So following this line of thought, maybe the men never attached what they witnessed to strong emotions or associated it with how it would be if it were a family member etc. I think this also explains why a man can watch violence or rape on a movie and be fine with it, and women can barely watch, they picture themselves in the scene.

Adagio's avatar

@Val123 …..But they….aren’t exhibiting the emotion you would.. expect. And I wonder if that’s what age does to you…..

Everyone deals with trauma and/or grief in their own way, there is no right way to do it, no right way to express it, I think its worth bearing that in mind especially when tempted to attribute lack of feeling to an apparent lack of emotion.

Val123's avatar

@Adagio I understand….but you just rarely see people of very advanced age, like in their 90’s, displaying extreme emotion….maybe that’s why they made it to their 90’s. Or…maybe, as I said, it’s not a lack of feeling, but more that they aren’t able to create the very subtle facial expressions anymore that allow us to subconsciously read the emotion they’re feeling.

The question was “Why don’t the seem to display emotion…” when you _know the emotion is there….

Darwin's avatar

@Val123 – My parents live in a “senior living facility” so I see a lot of folks in their 80’s and 90’s. Trust me, some of them express a lot of emotion. One example would be the time two elderly ladies both wished to sit in the same chair. Actual fisticuffs ensued.

I also see a lot of folks laughing and smiling during shows and events at the center, and I have seen folks cry at the loss of a friend. OTOH, I have also seen jealousy, a not infrequent emotion when there are four or five widows for every eligible male, and anger over a variety of topics.

Maybe a lot of that emotion about things that happened decades ago has been displaced with emotions connected to more recent events. Possibly these people you are speaking of don’t display the emotion you expect them to because they don’t know you. Or perhaps the many years have allowed them to accept what happened and they have now moved on. Or the same years have allowed them to learn how to control emotion that won’t help a situation that is long past.

Unless, of course, you are talking about folks who are dealing with senility as my mother is. Then they often don’t even remember their room number or whether or not they ate lunch.

Val123's avatar

Thanks @Darwin! You always add a dimension. (But, I was watching a documentary on TV, not talking to people I know personally…) And, as to your last statement “Unless, of course, you are talking about folks who are dealing with senility as my mother is. Then they often don’t even remember their room number or whether or not they ate lunch.” Been there, went through that. Mom died in 2007, at 72.

What does OTOH mean? Uh…On The Other Hand..? Me thinks yes…

asmonet's avatar

My grandfather wouldn’t really speak about his time in WWII. He was a marine, fought in a bunch of different places – mostly in Asia. He didn’t speak about it, except to refer to all Asians as ‘them Japs’. When asked directly about it his answer was always to yell, “It was sixty years ago! Why do you want to talk about it? It’s over! Why don’t you want to know about happy things, damn it!”

Mentioning it was cause for anger, and an eventual silence. I’m sure he was proud, but I also know it did a number on him from the stories my mom tells me of her childhood. The bomb drills at 3AM on a school night in the 50s he put her through, the marching, the other crazy crap he did because of what I can only assume was PTSD.

The only good story I ever heard about was about my grandpa making my mom a necklace made of shells he found on a beach while deployed – for his ‘future daughter’, to pass the time and think of something happy.

Some people are still bitter, angry, and devastated by it. As with any trauma, some people can shut down and just say the words. Some people feel them. I wouldn’t put someone on camera crying uncontrollably and being completely unintelligible. As a documentary film maker, I would think I would give the interviews that were clear, concise and accurate more screen time.

Darwin's avatar

The other thing to consider is that most people aren’t used to speaking on camera. One result is a complete lack of emotion, or at least greatly reduced reactions. Besides, as @asmonet said, the film maker undoubtedly chose those accounts that were the most coherent and understandable, which would leave folks like her grandfather out.

My father has never spoken much about his time in the Pacific Theater during WWII, other than a couple of funny stories, and my husband does not talk about his time in SE Asia at all. Thus, either of them would be poor subjects for a documentary.

Val123's avatar

Makes me want to cry…

TexasDude's avatar

I’d call it a coping mechanism. The human brain is quite adept and filtering out things that may not be conducive to sane living.

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