Compassion Fatigue

A few months ago I wrote an essay on Compassion Fatigue, based on the short story by Dave Eggers that you can find here. Coming from a military family, it’s an essay I thoroughly enjoyed writing and so I have decided to share it. I hope you enjoy it. 

In this essay I will be examining the origins of compassion fatigue and will be giving examples from both fiction and non-fiction. I will then be investigating the causes. In 2004, Dave Eggers wrote short story that gives a very interesting example of compassion fatigue. In the short story, a man sees in a newspaper a soldier, lying dead in a faraway nation, having been dragged from his jeep and mutilated in the dust.

This man feels immense empathy to this soldier of whom he knows nothing and unusually feels that the death is personal. He suggests that when he hears about a huge train crash in his country, it doesn’t phase him. It’s not as though he doesn’t care; this character is clearly humane, but the thought doesn’t trigger empathy to the extent of the soldier killed in a faraway nation did. The man felt great trepidation (fear or anxiety of something that may happen). The feelings of empathy to this extent he had been feeling for a year. This short story was written in 2004, and Operation Iraqi Freedom (the war in Iraq) began in 2003, a year before. This man has clearly been feeling this empathy due to the Iraq war. Dave Eggers, the author, is American so it would make sense for this Unknown Soldier to be American, particularly as America suffered 4,491 casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I however feel that Dave Eggers has, maybe deliberately, miss interpreted the reality of compassion fatigue. Since World War 2, British military have suffered 7582 fatalities (source: an average pulled from both BBC News and Wikipedia), whether it be in combat fighting or due to aid missions. The reality is therefore a cruel one; since 1945, 109.8 British Troops have been killed every year, on average. British Society, in my opinion since probably The Falklands War (1982), has therefore been exposed to horrific images and stories from all around the world on a moderately frequent basis.  We have become accustomed to waking up, switching on the news or reading a newspaper, and hearing of the latest military death, whether it be British, American or any other nationality. Our compassion for these deaths has been therefore diluted to the extent where it has become a normal occurrence. This is extremely sad. It is now indeed rare to read about one of these deaths and feel compassion and sympathy to the extent of the man from the short story, just because it’s become such a normal thing. It is worth noting however the value of empathy to the military, do they just want understanding and recognition of what they have achieved on operations instead of compassion and empathy?

There does however seem to be even more inaccuracy; the man in the story states that if a man is killed or mutilated in his own country, he does not feel as much empathy and compassion as he would if a man was killed in a ‘faraway nation’, whether it be Iraq or somewhere else. But again I feel in reality, it’s the other way round. If there is a murder or a freak accident in our country, its hits us harder than if it happened on the other side of the world because we can relate to the people involved more. Yes, if there was an accident on the other side of the world that involved someone of our own nationality, we feel it’s more personal and perhaps therefore, more sympathy. But the fact that he mentions that he would feel less empathy if he heard of trains colliding, hundreds dead in the neighbouring state than if he heard of a murder of a soldier in a faraway country is ridiculous. I believe that in real society, this is not the case; it far more personal and painful if it happen in a place we know. Perhaps therefore, Eggers is describing an ideal human; someone who accepts that dying in your own country is much more preferable than dying somewhere unknown and therefore we should feel more empathy. But society doesn’t feel that.

Expanding on this idea, can compassion and empathy for the military ever be what it should be? It may be limited because of society’s lack of understanding for what the military do and how they operate. Perhaps the stereotypical soldier in society’s mind now shows a lack of professionalism and a trigger happy finger. Is that the cause for the downfall of the public’s opinion of the military since World War 2? Are our troops that protect and defend us not heroes anymore? They receive criticism on a daily basis, highlighting their downfall (much of this criticism resides in the Daily Mail and the Sun). But is it all valid? Were the press in WW2 just blind to the severe mistakes made by countries then? Or is the British Military really falling downwards; not in terms of skill and professionalism I would argue, but the public’s opinion and understanding of the military has declined rapidly due to frequent hyperboles in the media and journalists needing a story that will sell. The story of a huge military mistake is more likely to sell, unfortunately, than a story that wholly compliments the military, so perhaps the press are looking for mistakes more than they used too; looking for examples of poor professionalism and then exaggerating them to the extreme so they can make a story out of them. The people who then read these stories end up with a changed opinion. Over time, will press be able to alter the opinion of British society of the military for the worse in this way? Ultimately this brings me back to the Dave Eggers short story. The newspaper the man reads shows the image of a (probably American, due to the nationality of the author) soldier lying dead on the ground. Why though, choose this picture. A soldier has been killed in action, thus ending his life which in any case, deserves respect. Why use a picture of him lying dead, mutilated in the sand, do summarise his life. Why not use a picture of him smiling, alive with his family? Was this fictional paper just seeking to criticise him, seeking mistakes and thereby creating the wrong impression to the reader?


2 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue

  1. Admittedly I haven’t read Eggers’ short story yet but after reading your essay, which is very good by the way, I thought I would share some of my thoughts. I know this might sound tired but a lot of how we understand a situation comes from the way in which it’s reported in mainstream media and usually we have stories that tend to homogenize and dehumanise large groups such as the military/soldiers – or any type of “other” group such as immigrants, minorities, etc. In presenting these individuals as a stand-in for large, very nuanced communities, we lose the context of who these people are: people. In Canada last year, we had two attacks that resulted in the death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and officer Patrice Vincent, and I can tell you that these stories gripped our nation. The response was partially that of shock – over the tragedy of the events, and the fact that things like that didn’t seem to happen here- and also deep sadness because we learned the details of these two individuals who had dedicated their lives to protecting our country. We got a very real sense that these were men who had friends and family, who loved and were loved – and that made the impact of their loss so much more significant. Anyway, I’m sorry if I’ve gone off course but I enjoyed your essay and just wanted to contribute a few of my own thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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