Arrow and philosophy, part 3: homecoming and combat trauma

Arrow teaches us that some scars are more easily healed than others. Sedat Can Uygur/flickr, CC BY-NC


What I’m about to discuss does not apply to all veterans. That’s worth noting up front. There’s a danger in universalising what are specific, varied, and limited experiences. It’s also important to note that even if what I’m discussing does apply to a particular veteran, it’s not permanent or irresolvable. Many postwar experiences are natural, and will resolve in time (partly, if not in full). I discuss these now because civilians can aid that resolution by being able to empathise, understand, and listen.

War trauma as Arrow‘s central theme

My name is Oliver Queen. For five years I was stranded on an island with only one goal - survive. Now I will fulfill my father’s dying wish - to use the list of names he left me and bring down those who are poisoning my city. To do this, I must become someone else. I must become something else.

The opening monologue to Arrow varies season to season depending on the season’s plot. The one above is from the first season. Despite variations, each monologue shares similar elements.

  1. Oliver introduces himself by name;
  2. Oliver acknowledges his traumatic times abroad; and,
  3. Oliver suggests that his vigilante identity is not Oliver, but someone - something - else.
Oliver and Diggle are both veterans struggle to let go of their warrior identities. Sadat Can Uygur/flickr

The tension between Oliver’s commitment to his identity as Oliver Queen and his identity as the Arrow. The story of Arrow is the story of the monologue, writ large. Namely, homecoming: how people returns home from war and comes to grips with how war has changed them. This theme is made obvious through Oliver’s juxtaposition to his brother-in-arms, U.S. Special Operations veteran, John Diggle, who at times acts as Oliver’s mentor and guide through his homecoming.

In this final post in the series of reflections on Arrow and philosophy, I’ll consider what Oliver Queen’s story teaches us about the moral experience of combat veterans.

How war can transform us

In the last post I showed how killing and violence can change a person’s character. Given that going to war usually involves both killing and violence, it is likely to produce similar outcomes.

But it’s not only acts of killing and violence that change character. In the case of many, it is the conditioning that enables acts of violence and killing that is most transformative. As Dave Grossman notes in On Killing, “there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” This resistance is - necessarily in most cases - broken down in military training so that soldiers can do their duty.

Part of the difficulty lies in how training breaks this resistance down. One of the most common ways is a kind of conditioning sometimes called “dehumanisation.”

Dehumanising comes in a variety of forms - some better than others - but each involves changing the way that a person sees other human beings. Some variants include animalistic dehumanisation, which reduces the enemy to less than human status; or mechanistic dehumanisation, where “enemies” give way to “targets”, which can help undermine the resistance to killing.

Conditioning aims to do two things. First, it makes it easier for soldiers to kill their enemies (which, despite what many say, is sometimes both necessary and justifiable). Second, it can protect against some of the negative psychological consequences of killing.

Despite these beneficial outcomes, when a person’s gaze shifts from humanising to dehumanising it can lead to unpleasant consequences, something Oliver Queen reveals to us. As I discussed in the last post, Oliver’s violent behaviour risks his moral identity. He laments that:

To do what I do […] takes conviction. But more often than not it is the will to do what’s ugly. Every time I do that, I’m… I’m trading away little pieces of myself […] The part that I’m trading away is Oliver Queen. And lately I’ve been feeling like there is nothing left, except the Arrow.

Here lies the crux of Arrow’s message - the definitive nature of acts of violence. Is it possible to commit regular acts of violence without having them define us? That’s a question that resonates with the questions I’ve discussed in my academic work. How can veterans struggling with, or defined by acts of war, flourish during peace?

Broken trust

Many warriors begin their training with a form of dehumanising conditioning. Following this, many engage in events that reveal a different aspect of humanity to that which is familiar in civilian life. For instance, they may engage in live combat, witness the deaths of civilians, engage with prisoners, or witness anger and hatred first-hand. They experience things outside of our everyday understanding of morality. But, despite their novelty, these horrors are still revealing: they teach us about morality. The nasty parts.

A portrait from Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan series depicts the moral pain and anguish faced by some warriors. Australian War Memorial
As a colleague once remarked on my reflections on political posturing by Benjamin Netanyahu, “it’s important to remember that killing is very much a human practice.” What he meant - and has since argued in a wonderful book - is that our belief in the inhumanity of war is illusory. War is, and has always been, a human enterprise. Like any other experience, participation in war can teach us about ethics.

At times, what combatants learn is misleading. For example, a condition called “moral injury” - which has been suggested as a distinct diagnosis from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder - arises when combatants witness violations of trust or duty, and lose their sense of trust as a result. At times, this loss of trust is mistaken: it assumes nothing is morally reliable as a result of one, or a few, isolated incidences.

At other times though, what a warrior learns about the world, or him or herself, is both true and troubling. Sometimes we cannot trust other people, and sometimes we betray the trust of others. Oliver struggles with this knowledge throughout his time as a vigilante. (Note also the dehumanising that has taken place in Oliver’s attitudes toward other people.)

The entire time that I was gone, I could never completely trust someone. And when that goes on for so long, you stop seeing people for people. You see… threats. Or targets. And when I decided to come home, I just didn’t know how to turn that part of me off.

“Turning it off”

I have argued elsewhere that a major challenge for combat veterans is reconciling warrior identity with peacetime context. Being a warrior demands a full-scale commitment of one’s identity. However, most warriors aren’t only warriors; they are mothers, sons, brothers, sisters, and friends. When they return home, it can be difficult to leave the warrior ethos behind and reinhabit these other roles.

In a sense, Oliver’s mask - his entire vigilante identity - is a metaphor for this. It is a way of persisting in his identity as a warrior outside of the war zone. This refusal tears him away from his family, forces him to keep secrets. In the end, Oliver sees his mother murdered and his sister traumatised as a direct result of his secrets.

The message? Oliver’s inability to integrate his warrior and civilian roles into a coherent identity leads to pain. Switching off the warrior identity isn’t necessary. What’s necessary is integrating the various aspects of identity.

Integrating identity

Arrow provides us with two different methods of integrating one’s identity. One, I would argue, is healthier than the other.

The first way of integrating identity is to uphold warrior identity at the expense of other social roles. One of Oliver’s most dangerous opponents, Ra’s al Ghul, provides him with this option. Ra’s invites Oliver to take his place as leader of the shadowy League of Assassins.

Surely men have branded you a murderer, a torturer. But see, I would never shame you with such bluntness. Because I see it in your eyes. The struggle you have with your dual identity. Oliver Queen and the Arrow. Neither are giving you what you crave…

You will never be anything more than a vigilante for those whose lives he saves at the risk of your own. And the city will turn on you, and your closest allies within the police department will call you a criminal. You will be scorned and hunted, and then killed. Dying as you began your crusade… alone.

What Ra’s offers Oliver is the opportunity to free himself from fragmentation. The cost, though, is to reject his identity: Oliver Queen. Although he declines the offer, many veterans find similar paths too attractive. They re-enlist, become private security, or join the police. At times, however, this can be an escape rather than a solution.

Oliver rescues Felicity from a range of physical risks, but in the end it’s Felicity who redeems Oliver. Sadat Can Uygur/flickr

A healthier solution, I believe, is the path Oliver ultimately chooses. A re-commitment to interpersonal relationships. In Queen’s case, his romance with Felicity Smoak. After avoiding involvement with her for several seasons, Queen finally opens himself to vulnerability in human relationships. He learns to trust again, and in doing so, overcomes his dehumanising gaze.

Then I walked into your office. You were the first person I could see as a… person. There was just something about you.

We can learn a great deal from literature. Various texts reveal close bonds from non-war contexts can help overcome injuries of trust. Several academics have used Ancient Greek literature to make this point (myself among them). However, popular culture can reveal similar themes, and we would do well to pay attention to them.

This is the third and final post in a series of articles on _Arrow and the morality of vigilantism. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here._