World War 1 Soldiers. This picture is available under the Creative Commons License.

North-west France is peaceful, green, cheese producing countryside, with cave-curated sausages, duck confit, locally-produced cidre, and wines.

On July 1, 1916 it became the bloodbath of the WW1 Allied attack which saw 1.2 million Allied lives lost over a nasty five year battle with flame-throwing tanks, bayonets, chlorine gas, mines, bombs, and machine guns firing 4000 rounds per minute, each containing 2000 shrapnel balls. On June 6, 1944 it became the landing ground for Allied forces for D-Day, which again saw thousands murdered in the name of freedom and democracy.

Today, the wide expanses of quiet countryside belie this horror and the thousands buried there. The quiet is eery and the expanses still too empty even more than 90 years on. Still each year, the local potato farmers collect 500,0oo kilograms of shrapnel and war remnants from their fields.

It is hard to imagine the psyche of murder that sent young men up over the trenches in their thousands. It’s harder still to imagine the psyche of men behind machine guns who had deadly aim.

In 1914, the values of the Allied countries that sent their young to war in 1914 prided themselves on the “gentlemanly” values of chivalry, and the outbreak of war allowed the best proof of this by protecting woman, king and country. While comforting to a point, come the day of duty and the barrage of gunfire, the mental leap from civilian to soldier must have been great – too great, in the cases of many post-traumatic stress sufferers.

The propaganda of the Allied countries helped to get in the right mindset for battle; brochures and posters screamed the evil of the Hun. Leaflets air-dropped into German lines simply said: “you’re surrounded – give up now!”  The effects of these on the attitude and bravery to do what was necessary and “right” must have helped.  But it’s hard to believe that it made it any easier to point your bayonet directly at a fellow 21-year-old and pull the trigger.

Whether fighting to defend, or invade, the realities of wartime remain the same: you are a soldier and you will need to kill. Or be killed.

When looking at the mentality of war, it’s a basic “fight or flight” chemical reaction:

  • Sensory nerve cells pass the perception of a threat, or stress, from the environment to the hypothalamus in the brain.
  • The hypothalamus transmits a signal to the pituitary gland resulting in the production of cortisol. Cortisol is released into the blood stream, resulting in an increase in blood pressure, increase in blood sugar levels, and suppression of the immune system.
  • Simultaneously, the hypothalamus transmits a nerve signal down the spinal cord to the adrenal glands which receive nerve and chemical signals initiated by cells in the hypothalamus.
  • Nerve signals activate the release of epinephrine or adrenaline into the bloodstream which is important in the fight or flight response and activates the lungs to breathe more deeply, heart to beat faster, and your muscle cells to react, causing beads of perspiration and raised hairs at the surface.*
So that’s how the your brain helps you override the fear of attacking and being attacked – and survive!
*Taken from ‘How Cells Communicate During The Fight or Flight Response’ http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/cells/fight_flight/
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