Can a civilian ever understand the experience of a soldier? Artist Peter Voss-Knude talks to war psychologist Anne Lillelund about the challenges facing soldiers returning from war, the effects of trauma and the importance of the body, whilst reflecting on his own music and practice.
The premises of contemporary, armed conflicts are changing and so should the critical approaches to them. Peter & the Danish Defence is the first music record to have been written in an official collaboration with an army.
The Danish Armed Forces accepted this unconventional musical collaboration in spring 2014, granting me permission to discuss subjects freely with soldiers at the barracks and even assigning me a studio in the military facilities. Intimate testimonies from soldiers post deployment are the principal sources of information that frame the writing of my songs. The release of the record was marked with a concert and performance in the Royal Arsenal Museum in Copenhagen this summer.
On a night in 2007 I was at the two centuries old Naval accommodation in central Copenhagen. It was there that I heard a sentence that would set the tone for my work for a decade. It came from my childhood friend, with whom I used to paint small aluminium figures in the so called Warhammer universe with fantasy warriors. We were brought up together under the aesthetics of discipline of a professional boys choir. His words at a party before his deployment to Afghanistan - ‘You will never understand why I am going to Afghanistan' - were the ignition of my interest in the psychology of men who decide to go to war and the question of whether it is ever possible for a civilian to understand the experiences of a soldier.
Military psychologist Anne Lillelund was given an award in 2014 for her work pursuing a heightened acceptance and usage of psychological interaction amongst Danish soldiers. She has challenged the stereotypical perception of a silent soldier by insisting on the importance of establishing more formalised verbal environments to process the incidents experienced by soldiers. But what happens when the weight of an experience has set such marks on a body that no words seem to sufficiently describe them?
She was sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit the Danish representation in Palestine, where we met by chance on an airplane. I was on my way to do an interview with an NGO formed by former soldiers who publish anonymised veteran testimonies to expose their private stories of everyday oppression enforced by the IDF in Gaza. I share with her a strong interest in the psychological mechanisms that are the consequences of war participation. On a recent walk around Copenhagen, I asked her how the idea of silence influences her work as a therapist, whose clients face the extremities of an emotional spectrum.
‘I never take notes during a session’. Her remark was said with such insistence that I almost felt embarrassed for even asking. The desire of trying to document, to hold accountable, or even just to register a relational encounter through note-taking, somehow became unethical. ‘Being present is essential, so writing down my thoughts while talking to a soldier would remove me from the situation, it would work against the trust that I am building each time I see a client. I concentrate on note-taking after they have left’. Her awareness of the room, the geometrical relation of the chairs opposing each other, the inclination of the body and, obviously, eye contact, is paramount to her in the therapy. It is a delicate scenario to balance, especially as the client commonly doesn’t know what to say for a while. Communicating that the silence might be uncomfortable, but not dangerous, is shown by the therapist to the patient in silence. But precautions with silence are still being taken. If the incident to be analysed happened very recently, and the client is still in shock, then the silences shouldn't last long. But in more settled cases, the silence can be much longer and even used intentionally. Classical psychoanalytical models describe that silence is integral to psychological processing because it is believed that the therapists needs to stress the client slightly, to frustrate him or her through the silence. 'It is not even considered a silence, but as a pause and it is said that the vital material comes after this pause and, in my experience, it is often very productive to wait for the expressions that come after the silence' Lillelund says.
One day at the barracks doing research for the music record, I was strolling around not really knowing what to look for and with no familiar faces around. I always felt very alien walking around amidst tanks, boot camps and healthy young men that seemed to be living a life in the starkest contrast to mine possible. In the office of a unit I was standing for ages, pretending to study their notice board and a strangely painted clay trophy in a glass cabinet that seemed to be a 1st prize in a championship for soldiers in Lithuania. Despite the puzzling story that must have been connected to that object, I was standing there hoping to start something much more interesting: a conversation. The third and last part of my miniature, non-empirical study-group, Tobias, had noticed my strange presence in the facility and asked me ‘Are you looking for something?’. The following conversation between us would be impossible for me to explain. Trying to trace all the lines of flight that were at stake in this socio-artiscic experiment between two curious minds, one in and one out of uniform, seems unreasonable. Seeking to manifest that encounter in a note, a text, in a recording or a picture simply would not even come close to satisfy my need to express, to narrate with it. Like Lillegård, I have not been interested in documenting my militant encounters in other ways than music. The entity of thoughts is so complex to me, that I don’t intend to keep track of them. Rather, I have tried to slow them down, hoping that they then could settle into my own body: When I was overwhelmed by a story, I didn’t cramp it into a report, but animated it into a song.
As a civilian talking to people with militant backgrounds, certain themes reoccur to me. The premise for our dialogues is that it is impossible to share an experience with someone who was not there or who has not gone through a similar scenario. The magnitude of these events are commonly considered to be verbally unsharable, exhausting the possibilities of language itself. Whether this premise is accepted as default or not, it is given that a body that is exposed to such levels of stress will experience an alternate version of reality. Perceptions of time can alter strongly, pupils dilated by adrenalin and cortisol make for sharper and longer vision. Sounds can selectively become more major or minor and feeling neither hunger nor fatigue are amongst the symptoms of a body in war. Along with these sensorial distortions naturally comes a different take on reality, an alternate version of what happened. Thinking back to these events in therapeutic sessions can therefore be difficult because the perceptive mode when the event took place and when the event is revisited in therapy have changed. How do you process something if it is forgotten?
Another obstacle is a less chemical and more cultural aspect that has to do with stereotypical portrayals of masculinity and strength. Naturally, this segment of people whose training is focused on survival can have a very hard time asking for help. In a very private moment, a soldier once showed me a mental health questionnaire sent by the centre for veterans and how he scored badly by ticking the different boxes of anxiety, alcohol and drug consumption. The phrasing of the enquiry annoyed him, somehow the semiotics of the pamphlet felt like an assault to him. After going through the points, I asked if he thought that the frustration he experienced came from the questionnaire or from fitting into it. Danish soldiers know that it is okay to ask for help and they would never judge any one from receiving it. However, the notion of a damaged soldier is a narrative they are so tired of hearing that it prevents them from ticking the boxes which would make them one.
‘Defusing before night falls is central in order to process a violent experience’, Lillelund remarked. After an incident has happened, everyone involved is gathered to describe what they experienced: where the threats came from, where everybody was positioned and how they moved. Their bodies will have been under severe stress and everyone will have their own idea of what took place. Everyone is given the chance to give their account and afterwards the puzzle is put together to form an image in unison. 'We never encourage soldiers to agree on what happened, but encourage them to present their subjective take on what happened in the operation'. It is common that soldiers focus very heavily on specific elements and act on them intuitively, according to their training. The purpose of defusing is to give the individual a chance to communally give a short account of what happened, to mirror each others experiences and to prepare them through psycho-educative measures of what reactions they might experience. Up to 48 hours after an incident, emotional mechanisms are still to fragile to properly engage with therapeutically. This is the reason why sharing ones experience in a defusing comes prior to the better known psychological debriefing, that engages more heavily with emotional processing. 'It is our experience that this re-telling, as a communal effort, is crucial to the processing of an event. This is why we insist on this narrative task, although the soldiers often are exhausted after, because if we let them sleep before the puzzle is put together, there is a risk that a fragmented and disfigured version of reality will enter their subconscious. This is harmful to the processing of it, so we insist on defusing before night falls'.
In her current employment as a crisis therapist, Lillelund argues that however important the effort of verbalising is, the relationship between being articulate is not necessarily proportionate to healing. ‘A lot of academic clients I have had do really well in verbalising their situation. But somehow it is not enough to intellectually understand and analyse a situation. A certain awareness of exactly where the trauma stems from is needed and this is a recognition which might be difficult to achieve without taking the body into account. Often, I am astounded how well clients have created their own lexicon of where an emotion resides in the body. One feeling could be connected to the face, anxiety might be connected to difficulties with breathing, the chest and one might be in the lower back' Lillelund describes. Similarly, the song Double Chest explores the phenomena of placing a feeling onto a specific body part.
A soldier sharing his personal history - whether it will have the recipient of a therapist, a political NgO, or a public audience through the press or the arts - can have an healing effect on the individual by giving validation to a personal narrative. 'Being in a hyper aroused condition of restlessness, of alarm, are clear signs that the body is in a state of expression'. Lillelund continues ‘I would say that the body will speak whether we understand it or not. You can go a long way with verbal therapy, but a body will still remember the trauma. I don’t think healing is sufficiently done with words only.'
Peter Voss-Knude is a multidisciplinary artist working across music, political activism and art. He holds a degree in Fine Art from Goldsmiths University London.
Anne Lillelund is a crisis psychologist and was employed by the Danish Defence, where she worked for 6 years with soldiers prior, during and after deployment on international missions. She is also the chairwoman of the organisation The Soldiers House.