On Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Chapter 2 of the book of my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else, is devoted to the impact of the “war on terror” (including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) on dreaming.

Three of the focus group members had a direct personal connection to the Iraq war: Dan, who was fighting in it; Sophia, his wife; and Lola, whose nephew had just joined the Army and been deployed to Iraq.  Here are three of their dreams, discussed at more length in chapters 2 and 6.

Dan:“I am an observer or advisor to a small military outpost.  We get attacked by an air assault, planes dropped tons of soldiers all over our camp.  It was men and women in our camp.  I was with a small number of soldiers who escaped, we were walking through the swamp, doing good, when another group of escaping soldiers ran right into us—bringing the enemy on top of us.  We all ran, and I found an empty refrigerator to hide in.  I remember pulling some seal off the door so it wouldn’t seal on me.  I shut the door and waited.  The enemy found me, the guy was mad at me for some reason—I wouldn’t tell him something or I lied—anyway he wanted to cut off my finger.  He asked if I was part of A11 (my company) and I said no.  I noticed a soldier from our camp who was now an advisor or emissary for the enemy.  He stood up for me and saved my finger, and my life.”

Sophia:“Long and horrible….Dreamt Dan was married to both my sister B and myself.  He was taking me to his place of work where we ended up going on a mission.  This work place was under the guise of a normal office with lots of employees, doing normal work—but he was actually a spy or undercover operative doing dangerous missions, but like a contract worker.  At one point I end up with him in a new helicopter vehicle that we have to jump out of.  He has tons of hi-tech vehicles and equipment and acts ambivalent through the whole dream.  I know that B is expecting him to come home later to take her out but the employees cook a huge feast and everyone sits to eat—but I am not invited to sit and I get extremely upset.  It escalates through the dream.  I plead and cry to him to take me home but he won’t.  The dream revolves around me wanting to go home but can’t.”

Lola:“A guy I work (B) with and his wife (V) and I are trying to cross a bridge.  We are on a flat cart with no sides sort of like a carpet ride.  The three of us are zooming very fast on a path.  We go up a big hill of water, down and up and over.  We come to a bridge that is being built.  There are men everywhere with weapons.  We try to reason with them to let us cross.  They take V away.  B and I are locked up in an open cage overlooking the construction of the bridge.  The men are ogling V.  B is getting crazy.  I tell him to keep his cool, that is the only way we are going to escape.  I look out and see a woman in the distance.  She is winking at me and motions for me to look down.  I see a way to escape…We find V and the woman in the distance winks at us to go.  We are back on the cart again on a wild ride.  Up and over we go…We see a big crowd ahead.  It is a stadium and President Bush is there speaking.  We glide right up to him and tell him he must pull the troops out of Iraq, because we have our own war going on right here.  We tell him about the men at the bridges that we just escaped.  He tells us not to worry; he will take care of it.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is closely associated with experiences of war and terrorism.  Recurrent nightmares are one of PTSD’s most common symptoms.  For more on the cause and treatment of PTSD, see the following:

Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans, Stanley Krippner

The Spiritual Side of Traumatic Stress Normalization, J. Michael Hakanson

Trauma and Dreams, Deirdre Barrett

Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope, Kelly Bulkeley

Quiz: American Dreamers

Read the seven quotations below, and see if you can match them to the seven political leaders who spoke them.

A. President Richard M. Nixon, “First Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1969.
B. President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks about the Congressional Elections,” television broadcast, October 26, 1982.
C. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream,” sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, July 4, 1965.
D. Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, introducing the Democratic Leadership Council’s report on “Saving the American Dream,” July 19, 2006.
E. Governor and President-elect George W. Bush, speaking to the Texas Legislature, December 13, 2000.
F. Senator Barack Obama, speaking at a Democratic rally in Tempe, Arizona, October 23, 2006.
G. Steve Forbes, page 5 in A New Birth of Freedom, published October 25, 1999.
1. The American Dream does not come to those who fall asleep…. We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.
2. [T]he substance of that dream…is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a dream. It’s a great dream…. God grant that America will be true to her dream.
3. Deep down, this country wasn’t built on fear. This country was built on hope. This country was built on a belief in limitless possibilities, on a belief in dreaming big dreams.
4. For [more than 200] years, Americans have been united by a simple, common dream that tomorrow will be better than today. The promise of American life, handed on through a dozen generations, rests on this basic bargain: All of us should have the opportunity to live up to our God-given potential, and the responsibility to make the most of it…. To remain strong in the world, the American Dream must be strong and alive here at home. And as we continue to navigate through these changing economic times, restoring the promise of the American Dream is the central economic issue of our time.
5. We believe in the American dream, because we’ve had a chance to live it. The American dream isn’t about the accumulation of material things. It is much deeper and more profound than that. The essence of the American dream is the understanding that we are here on this earth and in this land for a higher purpose: to discover—and develop to the fullest—our God-given potential. Anything that stands in the way of the dream, we must fight. Anything that enhances the dream, we must support.
6. I have faith that with God’s help we as a nation will move forward together as one nation, indivisible. And together we will create an America that is open, so every citizen has access to the American dream; an America that is educated, so every child has the keys to realize that dream; and an America that is united in our diversity and our shared American values that are larger than race or party.
7. It’s time to stop playing on people’s fears and to begin asking what we can do together to make things better. None of us can afford to play politics as usual. We love this land of ours, because it’s a special place where people are free to work, to save, to believe, to build a better future. The cynics may call it corny, but this way of life we all cherish is best summed up in three simple words: the American dream. From our beginnings as a nation, that dream has been a living, breathing reality for millions. It still is. But it faces serious threats.


Answer Key: A-1, B-7, C-2, D-4, E-6, F-3, G-5

Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values

San Francisco Chronicle Insight Article
Originally Published August 17, 2008

“I am something of a dreamer” – so confesses Barack Obama in the closing pages of “Dreams from My Father,” the title of which signaled his strong interest in dreaming, both metaphorical and literal. In the book, he shared two of his own dreams, each testifying to his long struggle with the morally and spiritually ambiguous legacy of his father.

Surprisingly, neither Obama’s critics nor his supporters seem to recognize the significance of what those two dreams reveal about his core values.

As he prepares to deliver his address at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama’s personal dreams provide a deeper psychological context for this key campaign moment.

The first dream occurred when he was a senior at Columbia University, a year after receiving the news of his father’s death. It started with him on a bus trip with an unknown group of people. An old white man sitting nearby informed him that “our treatment of the old test(s) our souls.” The bus stopped at a grand hotel, and the old man somehow changed into a small black girl who began playing the piano.

The trip continued. Obama dozed, then awakened (still in the dream), alone. He got off the bus and stood in front of a rough stone building. Inside, a lawyer and judge discussed the fate of Obama’s father, a captive in jail. The judge was willing to release him, but the lawyer argued against it because of “the need to maintain order.”

Then Obama stood before the door to his father’s cell. He unlocked it and confronted the man, with “only a cloth wrapped around his waist.” His father smiled and said, ” ‘Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.’ ” They embraced, but suddenly his father shrank in size, and a deep sadness overcame him. Obama tried to lead his father out of the cell, but he declined and told his son he should go.

The dream ended there, and Obama said, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him – and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”

We would need Obama’s personal associations to make sense of all the dream’s details. But no special psychoanalytic training is required to identify his feelings of hostility toward his father, intermixed with love and sadness.

Obama narrated this dream in the closing pages of the memoir’s first part, titled “Origins.” The dream marked the end of his beginning, the initiation of his journey back to his ancestral roots, back to his father’s grave in Africa.

The second dream came during that journey, when Obama and his half-sister were traveling by train to his family’s village in Kenya. She told him a disturbing story about their grandfather and his cruelly self-righteous behavior toward others. That night, Obama dreamed he was walking through a Kenyan village filled with playful children and pleasant old men. Suddenly everyone panicked at the sight of something behind Obama; they ran for safety as he heard the growl of a leopard. He fled in a mad dash, finally collapsing in exhaustion: “Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask.”

The detail of the loincloth appears in this dream as in the first, suggesting the giant figure’s tremendous size reflects a doubling of generational influence, the combined impact of his father’s and grandfather’s high moral demands.

If, as many dream researchers believe, one of the functions of nightmares involves the expression of unconscious conflicts between different parts of the psyche, then Obama’s nightmare can be seen as a call to greater awareness of shadow elements from his past – personal qualities he deplores in his paternal ancestors yet fears may dwell within him, too.

Again, we can’t know the full meaning of any dream without additional input from the dreamer. But Obama has told us enough in his memoir to draw at least one fairly straightforward conclusion: His dreams reveal him to be acutely conscious of the ever-present power of family tradition in his life. He may feel deeply ambivalent toward his ancestors, but he has discovered he must find a way to accept their continuing influence over him.

This suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.

Critics who portray him as an anarchist fail to appreciate this quality of his character. So, apparently, do those liberals who have been alarmed at the seeming “rightward shift” in his recent policy statements. His dreams suggest this is not just short-term electoral maneuvering but rather a reflection of a conviction that he must show respect for traditional wisdom, even as he tries to adapt that wisdom to changing circumstances of the present.

This article appeared on page G – 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Link to Article Online:
“Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values,”
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