Fear, WW2, Our Pandemic – A reflection by historian, Mark Sandle.

I am trying to release these reflections at spaced out intervals…who knows how long we will have in this quarantine!  I waited to post Mark’s first reflection on “Fear and Anxiety” related to stories from WW2 until this week because I thought it would be fitting as we walk toward the cross.  Roy Berkenbosch wrote a great sermon for Fellowship Church yesterday where he asked us to pause for a moment and…

“reflect on the  courage of Jesus to march into the thick of conflict (on Palm Sunday)- to deliberately act out the role of Messiah-King, singling his fulfillment of prophecy, yet knowing that he was not what the crowds expected (a warrior-type king) and that the ensuing conflict would cost him the ultimate price.

Read Mark’s first paragraph and some common emotional themes between war and those in Jerusalem experiencing Holy Week (not least of all, Jesus) will become apparent.  

Mark ends with 8 ways soldiers handled fear in helpful ways, in the comments please respond with patterns, rituals, habits, etc., related to the eight, that you have found to be helpful during this time.

Get To Know Your Profs - Dr. Mark Sandle: Room 6:01 Student Blog ...

Some thoughts on Fear and Anxiety I: Stories from WW2

I am currently researching the human dimensions of war, with reference to WW2. In my book I will explore how humans experienced war: the broad spectrum of emotions and behaviours which people lived out during this extraordinary time. My aim is to reveal a little of  how fear and love and hate affected combatants and prisoners and civilians, of how they coped with loss and anguish and despair, of why some resorted to treachery and revenge and indifference, while others lived in solidarity and hope.

Recently I have been working on my chapter on fear in WW2. And then the pandemic broke. So I am taking this opportunity to write up a couple of things about fear and anxiety that I have been working on. Its very much a work in progress. Maybe these voices from the past have something to say to us in our current predicament.

Obviously there are many ways in which wars and pandemics are completely different. Most of us are not facing a tank or a dive bomber in the flesh (although war is still a commonplace feature in many parts of our world today). But there are some similarities or parallels. Combatants had to deal with a constant gnawing fear and anxiety when they weren’t in conflict, and it is this which seems most relevant to us now. Understanding how millions of ordinary people coped might help us to face down fear and restore it to its proper place in our lives.

In my opening to my chapter, I noted the following:

As I sit here and read about fear in war, I am struck by how deep down the stories of fear affect me. The words on the page seem to open up a world I know nothing of, and yet in truth I know all too well the effects of dread and fear and anxiety in my own life. The dread of illness or pain. The fear of losing a child or a loved one. The deep unexpressed fears. The constant nagging presence of an unspecified anxiety. The waking early. I know nothing of war in my own life, yet in my imagination and my reading I seem to recognise the way that fear constantly assails the mind and the body and the spirit.

Fear was everywhere in WW2. And fears were multiple and overlapping. Fear for yourself. Fear for others. Fear of others. Fear of death. Fear of separation. Fear of injury. Unexpressed generalised fear. Deep abiding fear. Momentary, excruciating fear. Fear mixed with anxiety and dread. Fear produced great resilience and courage, and also panic and cowardice.

At first glance it seems rather self-evident that fear was a ubiquitous part of the landscape of WW2. After all, this was war. People die. People get bombed. People risk their lives. People get horribly maimed and burned. People have no idea what is going to happen to their loved ones. Every day fear cast a shadow. So how did armies address fear, and what did combatants do to try and cope with fear?

For the army hierarchies, this was a critical issue. Fear had to be understood, managed and diminished if the combatants were to be “effective soldiers”. The American army in particular undertook some in-depth studies to try and understand both fear and anxiety. To give you a flavour of the findings of these reports, let us look at John Dollard’s Fear in Battle (1944). Between 1942 and 1945 Dollard acted as a consultant with the Morale Services Division of the US Department of War. Together with psychologists from Yale University Institute of Human Relations, Dollard did a survey of 300 volunteers. It should be emphasised that these were volunteers (and so their experiences may differ from conscripts) and they were veterans, which may also have skewed the findings a little.

His “findings in brief” were as follows:

  1. Fear is useful to the soldier when it drives him to learn better in training and to act sensibly in battle.
  2. The commonest symptoms of fear were: pounding heart and rapid pulse, tenseness of muscles, sinking feelings, dryness of mouth and throat, trembling, sweating. Involuntary elimination occurred infrequently.
  3. 7 out of 10 men reported experiencing fear when going into first action.
  4. Fear is greatest just before action.
  5. 64 men out of a hundred agreed that they became less afraid the more times they went into action.
  6. Fear of “being a coward” diminished rapidly after the first action.
  7. Wounds most feared were those in the abdomen, eyes, brain and genitals.
  8. Enemy weapons most feared were bombs, mortar shells, artillery shells, bayonet and knife, and expanding bullets.
  9. Fear of bombs centred in the sound of the bomb dropping and on the concussion of the exploding bomb.
  10. The presence of hunger, thirst, fatigue, ignorance of plans, idleness increases the danger from fear.
  11. 8 out of 10 men say it is better to admit fear and discuss it openly before battle.
  12. 75 out of 100 believe that all signs of fear should be controlled – in battle.
  13. Experienced men who crack up should be treated leniently, deserters shot, and green men made to stay and face the music.
  14. The most important factors in controlling fear are: devotion to cause, leadership, training and materiel.
  15. Only 1 man in 4 thought that feelings of fatalism or belief in luck were of much importance in beating fear.
  16. Veteran soldiers learn that to be busy means to be less afraid: “when fear is strong, keep your mind on the job at hand.”
  17. Thinking that the enemy is just as scared as you are is helpful in controlling fear.
  18. 8 out of 10 men believe that hatred is important to the effective soldier – but hatred of the enemy’s cause, not of him personally.
  19. Fear may stimulate a soldier to fight harder and better, if danger to the self also suggests danger to the outfit or the cause.
  20. The best discipline is based on the willing acceptance of orders by purposeful and instructed men.

These findings are related mainly to the army’s attempts to manage fear in combat and so make the soldier effective in battle. However, if we broaden this out to consider fear in war, (ie the much broader experience of being at war: digging in, waiting, in transit, pre-combat, post combat, rest etc.) then we find some different things begin to emerge about fear.

Soldiers feared so many things. The anticipation of being bombed or shelled. And then when it did arrive, it was the visceral assault on the senses which brought pure terror: the screaming unrelenting noise, the shaking of the earth. It was the landmines that you couldn’t see. The fear of ambush just around the corner. So much fear and anxiety was generated by uncertainty, by what was not known, as much as what was known. Many soldiers feared showing fear. In other words, the fears that most preoccupied them were related to shame, and their feelings about themselves, and notably what others would think of them. This sense of social disgrace was often more powerful than the fear of being killed or wounded.

What did they do with all this fear? How did they make it through? There were several things that helped (and you will have to wait for my book to be published to get the full list!), but here are some that speak most pertinently to our situation.

  1. Practical actions: it was the feelings of isolation, of being totally out of control, of not being able to do anything about the source of the stress which was so debilitating about fear. And so experienced soldiers taught the new recruits to undertake practical tasks: keep yourself occupied, don’t listen to the horror stories, prep your equipment, don’t carry too much stuff around with you (keep your list of essentials short)
  2. Roll call: regular times with the people closest to you helped reduce the sense of isolation. Times of proximity were important, crucial in fact, to coping with the fear that war brought. Being together at the same time each day promoted solidarity, a sense of being in it together.
  3. Rituals and rhythms: soldiers often developed rituals and habitual practices to alleviate stress. Sometimes these were collective rituals that a whole group would indulge in. At other times, individuals would do certain things at the same time, or in the same order to lessen the power of anxiety. Taking talismans into battle. Getting dressed in a particular order. Often these were reactions to the overall absence of control or power felt by soldiers. What in their own small world could they try and control?
  4. Talking about fear: the fear of showing fear was immense, but often the fear was lessened if someone was courageous enough to own up to feeling fear, or to bring into the open a specific fear they had or were experiencing. One sergeant always soiled himself at the start of combat. He always announced it openly, which allowed others to do the same. Fear exists so much in our imaginations, in the anticipation, in our mental isolation. That is where it derived its power. Sharing it disarmed it.
  5. Times of escape and rest: rest and recuperation were critical. The US army estimated that it would take between 200-240 days for one of their soldiers to “break down” and be unable to perform. The British army estimated that it would take 400 days for this to happen, but that was because the British gave more rest periods to their troops. Rest was critical. And rest was not just physical rest, but mental distance from combat. Times to unwind. Times for sleep. Times for rum.
  6. Helping those in need: soldiers wanted to help the wounded, rescue those in trouble, defend the vulnerable. This was often one of the “practical actions” in point #1. It involved getting something done, but it was about more than being productive or helpful. It was about becoming less preoccupied with oneself, and affirming that if things got tough for you later on, someone would be there for you. It promoted a sense of being part of a network of mutual compassion.
  7. Dark humour: humour often served to lessen the fear by making the situation seem absurd or les powerful. If you can poke fun at it, it immediately became diminished in its intensity. Joking about dying, about death, about combat
  8. Spirituality: although religion was often derided by troops, the evidence is that troops turned to prayer and spirituality to combat fear and anxiety during war. Spirituality and prayer seemed to allow troops to reframe. To put their lives, or the conflict they were engaged in, into a larger, cosmic context, and to consider questions of mortality and immortality. For some, war did devastating things to their faith, but for most soldiers wartime experiences increased their spirituality.

These things were learned the hard way by soldiers from all different nations, from all different backgrounds. For fear was “the common bond between fighting men”. As we face up to months of uncertainty, it is easy to allow fear and anxiety to take up residence in our imaginings. But as the testimony of millions of soldiers affirms, fear can be tamed.

If Tim wants another one, I can also talk about fear and POWs and fear and civilians during wartime!

(I have told Mark that I would very much welcome these additional reflections!)

2 thoughts on “Fear, WW2, Our Pandemic – A reflection by historian, Mark Sandle.

  1. Thanks Mark! It’s so good to be reminded that we are not alone in our fear, anxiety, uncertainty. That others walk with us, and have walked this path before us. One resource I’ve found helpful during this quarantine is my family history with the German occupation of the Netherlands during WWII. I understand in a whole new way the stories I grew up hearing of having life as you knew it abruptly change, and change for an unknown (and as it turned out, years long) period of time with an unknown outcome. Granted COVID-19 is not an invading army and so in many ways this is way less frightening than that was, but the isolation and uncertainty are definitely similar. And I don’t want to minimize the very real scars that the experience produced in my mom, aunts and uncles and my in-laws and maternal grandparents. Mom can still weep when she tells some of the stories. But they did survive and found a new life on the other side. And that reassures me. We are enormously adaptable.

    A couple of practical things I’m finding helpful are:
    1. Set up a daily challenge (e.g. start a 10, or 30-day yoga practice, or double your prayer sessions); it adds some structure to my days.
    2. Do things that take focus and concentration to do well: a new recipe, studying (!!), handwork with a complex pattern, a complicated board game.


  2. Mark asked for some reflections. As I was born after the war in 1946, these reflections are adapted from stories that my Dad and Mom wrote. My Dad was a pastor in Sneek when war broke out. The Gestapo picked him up and brought him to Dachau where he spent 3.5 years. Mom was left at home praying for him. The American Army freed him and eventually, he found his way home again. Many years later he wrote a number of articles in the Young Calvinist about life and death in Dachau. Before the war, Dad was a stern man; after the war a very thankful man. He became much closer to God. I did write a story about their life and am very thankful I could grow up with him as father.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s