Study looks at long-term trauma as a cause of civil war


The idea for his doctoral dissertation came to Erik Goepner in 2010 when he was an Air Force officer working in a remote village in Afghanistan.

As the commander of a reconstruction team charged with helping local governments and their citizens recover from the brutality of a prolonged war, Goepner realized few, if any, of the people they were trying to help had any capacity for the hope they were trying to instill.

“You started to get the sense that because of the trauma everybody had been through—bone-jarring trauma, torture, rape—that they’re just different people,” he said. “They’ve been going through it for 30-plus years. But very little of our [military] education and training suggested an argument for why the conflict continues.”

Now a civilian, Goepner is a PhD candidate at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government working on a dissertation he calls “Hurt People Hurt People.”

“The research question is, ‘What role does trauma play on the future incidence or prevalence of civil war?’ We’re measuring the amount of trauma in a society and comparing that with the amount of civil war that occurs in the future.”

He believes it could be a key finding in how wars are waged in the future, and how to “bring some degree of peace and stability” to conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Erik’s dissertation comes at a crucial time for American foreign policy,” said Schar professor Michael Hunzeker, who specializes in international security and military innovation.

“His core finding—that the trauma previously experienced by Afghans explains the intractability of the current conflict and suggests there is more civil war to come—is an important reminder of the challenges U.S. forces face when tasked with stabilizing and rebuilding countries ravaged by decades of warfare,” Hunzeker said.

Goepner, a Connecticut native and 23-year Air Force veteran, came to George Mason to research his hypothesis because of the Schar School’s mix of public policy and national security. Only later did he discover that students are eligible for generous graduate research assistantships, tuition assistance and a stipend for those attending full-time.

“Plus, I got to work with first-rate professors,” he added. “I just can’t say enough about it.”

Once Goepner’s study is published, both he and Hunzeker believe the findings could make an immediate impact.

“If my hypothesis is correct, then it should caution us about getting involved in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. We could have measured how much trauma those countries had seen in the last 30 years and concluded that the populations had already been beaten down for multiple decades.

“While we care about other people and we want to help, we have to get away from this hubristic idea that we’re going to go in [militarily] and it will all become better.”