Survivor Guilt pt. 2 - The Analysis

In his book On Combat, Dave Grossman addressed the idea of survivor guilt. “It is not unusual for the survivor to think that he was spared at the expense of another and feel a heavy sense of debt to the one who is gone. Some survivors… may feel some distorted sense of not being worthy.”[1] Although this experience with the death of LT Cleary was not the first time I had lost a brother in Iraq, there was something different about how everything happened that sent me into a deep spiral of survivor guilt. It was exactly as Dr. Grossman describes it, a sense of unworthiness, unimportance, and guilt for having survived when someone else did not.

Although I realize now that my reaction to Lieutenant Cleary’s death was illogical and even harmful to my psychological well being, in the moment my ability to make rational judgments was inhibited by the severity of the scene in front of me. This response is not abnormal for soldiers in stressful combat situations. Solomon, Mikulincer, and Flum have stated, “stressful life events create a temporary state of disequilibrium, which must be readjusted to establish new balance. The expenditure of effort during the adjustment process is believed to drain peoples’ emotional resources and thereby contribute to the deterioration of their physical and psychological health.”[2]

Leading up to Lieutenant Cleary’s death I had dealt with the loss of at least eighteen members of my unit to death or injury, as well as countless direct engagements with the enemy, which had taxed my “emotional resources” to their maximum in order to maintain some semblance of equilibrium. The result was that I felt completely drained to the point that I was no longer able to regain a state of emotional homeostasis, resulting in the self-destructive survivor guilt response to the situation before me.

An objective analysis of this situation by someone who has never experienced the gruesome realities of combat may often lead to the conclusion that feelings of guilt at the death of a comrade are often unjustified. In many instances this analysis is correct, but it is also important to understand the role and nature of guilt in combat veterans. Opp and Samson have identified four latent functions of guilt: defending against helplessness, effecting self-punishment, inhibiting impulses, and preventing the event from becoming meaningless. “In order to defend against helplessness during some event that is totally uncontrollable and potentially catastrophic, guilt makes one ‘responsible’ for that event. Therefore one can avoid the overwhelming pain of feeling that the outcome was totally outside of one’s control. Feeling helpless is more painful than feeling guilt.” According to Opp and Samson, guilt also protects a person from their “murderous rage impulses and from psychotic breakdown…and precludes forgetting the event. The event does not become dishonored or meaningless.”[3]

When Lieutenant Cleary was killed I felt completely helpless—a feeling which I had experienced repeatedly over the course of that deployment. It was extremely devastating to lose more brothers after fighting so hard for a full year together. The stress of the situation was compounded by a multitude of factors, to include my temporary loss of control when confronted with the triggerman responsible for the death of our comrades.

In the immediate, my guilt was destructive, but also served as a sort of buffer against thoughts and feelings that I was unable to deal with. After returning from deployment life became less stressful to the point that I could reestablish my emotional equilibrium and overcome the feelings of guilt and shame that I had been dealing with, and realize that I had no control over the events of that day. Now as I look back, there are things that I am not proud of, but I also realize that the death of Lieutenant Cleary was not my fault—there was nothing I could have done. Now it is my responsibility to live the best I can with the life that I have.



[1] Grossman, Dave and Loren W. Christensen. 2008. “Survivor Guilt: Life Not Death and Justice Not Vengeance.” On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. 3rd Ed. Warrior Science Publications.

[2] Solomon, Zahava, Mario Mikulincer, and Hanoch Flum. 1988. “Negative Life Events, Coping Responses, and Combat-Related Psychopathology: A Prospective Study.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 97:3, 302-307.

[3] Opp, Roy E., and Anne Y. Samson. 1989. “Taxonomy of Guilt for Combat Veterans.” Professional Psychology Research and Practice, 20: 3, 159-165.