13 February 2008

American Stress Disorder

The disturbing thing about Kathy Dobie's article on Marine Corps neglect of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Feb. 18 Nation magazine is that it isn't the first such expose of the American military's willingness to ignore the mental and emotional casualties of the current war. The Marine Corps' apparent reluctance to deal with PTSD, as reported here, seems like a throwback to the days of General Patton, who reportedly assumed that "shellshocked" soldiers were shamming cowards. Remembering the movie Patton made me wonder whether what we now call PTSD has gotten worse over time, and whether that reflects on our country in any way.

In Iraq, repeated and extended tours of duty in a persistently hostile environment are exacerbating factors in stress disorder. The phenomenon itself isn't unique to Iraq, of course. Shellshocked veterans were known to exist following World War I, and the archetype of the crazy Vietnam veteran is well known to this day. On the other hand, my first retrospective impression is that, the Patton incident aside, shellshock or PTSD weren't considered major issues during or immediately after World War II. There's a hint of it in the portrayals of maladjusted veterans in some 1940s films noirs, but the motif doesn't really continue into the 50s or 60s, until Vietnam gave it new vitality.

WWII, of course, is the "Good War," with just about unanimous public support. The First World War never had the same level of support, despite massive government propaganda, because large ethnic groups (Germans, Irish) objected to our siding with Great Britain. After the war, more people were willing to believe that it had been a waste of lives for no good reason -- a fact that made WWII a harder sell in this country before Pearl Harbor. Vietnam and Iraq have been even more divisive. If I'm right about World War II, would the popularity of the war and the solidarity of the home front be a deterrent to stress disorder?

Is it possible, on the other hand, that war is getting worse, that the ordeal of Iraq is harder on today's grunt than the battles of WWII? That seems doubtful, given the lack of large-scale pitched battle in Iraq, but then, what if we, Americans as a culture, are becoming less fitted for war? Are our soldiers more susceptible to PTSD and similar disorders than their grandfathers because they've become "soft," from one point of view, or more civilized, from another? If we are becoming less warlike, that'd be a positive development except for the fact that we're still fighting wars.
It'd be easy to say that the next step is to end war, but before anyone leaps to that conclusion, we ought to look carefully at the world and ask whether we, the people of the world, can get out of our current predicament entirely by peaceful means. If your answer is no, if you see intransigence at the top or across the border that will only respond to force, then you might not necessarily think it a good thing that fewer people seem capable of facing the requirements of war. Of course, it's up to scholars and statisticians to give us the facts about stress and modern war, but until the results are in, you'll excuse my speculation.

1 comment:

crhymethinc said...

Two things I want to mention.
1) Actually there are documented cases of "shell shock" at least as far back as the American Civil War. I don't think it's the pitched battles so much as trench warfare. The constant artillery barrages, never knowing when a shell is going to hit your foxhole. The lack of sleep, the massive constant adrenaline doses, etc. probably have a lot to do with it as well.

2) As I've said before, the better alternative to modern warfare is assassination squads. Since it is always the political leaders who cause the problems leading to warfare, it is the political leaders who should be targeted, not the (mostly) powerless civilian population. Warfare by assassination would be far less expensive - no bases to support, no large numbers of soldiery to pay for. And it seems to me that if the politicians knew that they would be the ones to pay the price for bad public policy, they would be much less likely to promote bad public policies.

The bottom line is, the people who are directly responsible for the world's problems are the people who should be forced to pay for them.