I love research. A good thing since writing historical fiction requires hours and hours of it. Yesterday was a case in point. I’m editing — strike that — I’m doing major surgery on a novel called Blind Regret which has two story lines, one set in WWI, the other set in the early 1990s.
On page 117, my edit note says: “too quick, create dialogue, show don’t tell”. Depressingly, that particular page is full of black scribbles and one red one for added emphasis. Martin Devlin has been having a tough time after the death of two friends and leg amputation of another. He’s dealing with the situation by being insubordinate and generally behaving like a jerk, so his Captain sends him off to a facility in England for rest. There, he’s treated by Dr. Berger. Today we might call his difficulty post-traumatic stress, but not in 1917.
At one point yesterday, I decided the doctor would counsel Martin on how to endure the stresses of war, in essence, how to return to the front and survive. Hmmm. My imagination needed a few prompts and so I turned to Google, trying various searches until presto, I found just the thing at in an article called The Face of Battle which sets out conditions to enhance combat performance and reduce combat stress. This article became a reference point for the following scene.
“We were going to talk about survival,” Dr. Berger said as soon as Martin sat down. “I imagine you wonder why you’ve survived while your friends have not. Soldiers often feel this way.” He sipped his tea then leaned back. “As I said yesterday, surviving is harder than dying. Many of your own men will feel the same and they’ll want to give up because their reservoir of courage is empty. And what’s your job? You have to help them find new courage and to do so, you have to be strong. Caring for them will help you care for yourself.
“Remember, Devlin, you can’t get through it alone and the sooner you understand this, the sooner you will find others who can help you like Pete and Bill did. This kind of support isn’t weakness it’s strength, the kind of strength that will ultimately cause our enemy to lose their will to fight.
“I’ve seen many L26s [a term I made up for soldiers with this condition]. They’re tired, frustrated men who have lost their initiative and decisiveness. As a result, they put their men at risk. Not just themselves. I’ve counselled them just like I’m doing with you. Help your men take pride in their unit, help them bond together, train them well, keep them physically strong, fight for them to get the necessary rest. When you can, give them information rather than keeping them in the dark. These are the tasks of a leader. If you lead well, you’ll regain your sense of purpose.”
Martin looked away. “Even if what you say is possible, it won’t work for me. I’ve lost their respect. Captain Lindsay called me an asshole and he’s right. That’s how I’ve been treating my men.”
“Well, Lieutenant, you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with the job you were trained for.” As Martin began to protest, Berger thumped his hand on the table so hard his tea cup rattled. “Dammit, man. Don’t you see? Those young soldiers need you. My son is out there somewhere and I know he’s scared. Christ, he’s only nineteen. I know he needs someone like you to get him through it. We’ve all got to get through it and the only thing I can do for him is help men like you get back to the front. If I could go myself, I would. I would take his place in an instant, but I can’t. So you, Lieutenant Devlin, you with your brains and your quick wit and your ability to lead – at least that’s what your profile sheet says – you have to help us win this bloody war.”
By the time Berger finished, Martin’s eyes were wide and his mouth open. “Yes, sir,” was all he could think to say.
Dr. Berger wiped spittle from the corners of his mouth then mopped his forehead. “I’m sorry, Devlin. I shouldn’t lose my temper. My wife has always scolded me for doing so. She says it’s my least attractive trait.” He cleared his throat. “Let’s forget that last bit and return to what I said earlier. If you lead well, you’ll regain your sense of purpose and ultimately, your friends’ deaths will have some meaning. A man could be proud of that.”