Dylan Thomas, yesterday, asked if PTSD was less common after the “good” war, of 1939-1945, when the justice and, more to the point, the necessity of the fight was clearer. “Shell shock” was the WWI term for the mental problems suffered by vets. In WWII they called in “battle fatigue” and other things. The rise of organized crime and the “Jazz Age” in the 1920s was attributed by some to the number of vets desensitized to violence and unwilling to return to the constraints of civilized society, like Prohibition. Bill Mauldin did a cartoon about two WWII vets reading a newspaper that seems to contain nothing but stories about veterans turning ax murderer, etc. There are plenty of appearances in the literature of the world wars about the psychological aftereffects of the stress of combat. Watch “The Best Years of Our Lives” which was, in its day, a courageous and honest film about returning veterans. One protagonist has his share of nightmares. Not every vet has these problems. Probably a minority have any such problems, and as the majority of soldiers in any war are never, or hardly ever, in harm’s way, that is not surprising. But the men who form, as they say, the tip of the spear, are rather more likely to at least require a little readjustment, and in some cases, actual help.I saw an interview with the Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot. He was asked what it takes to make a good fighter pilot. He said, “Chiefly, a lack of imagination. If you regard what you do as the technical problem of bringing down another machine, you can do your job. If you start thinking about what your guns are doing to men (who are little different from you) inside that machine, or start thinking about what their guns might do to you, you are probably lost. People with a lot of imagination don’t last.”It was a truism in both world wars that every man has a breaking point, and will eventually reach it. As one WWII vet put it, “In that war you knew that one of four things would happen to you: you would get killed, you would go mad, you would get wounded bad enough to be pulled permanently from combat, or the war would end and you would be able to go home.” There was no doing your time, and getting rotated home. The last two of the four choices were all you had to hope for. And for most of the war, the third option seemed to be best you could realistically hope for, since surviving until the end of the war seemed so unlikely. It is said that Europe was filling with thousands of GI deserters by 1945. Don’t hear much about them.Were were in combat in WWI for less than a year. In WWII, from Pearl Harbor to VJ day was less than 4 years. We have now been in Afghanistan for as long as we were in Vietnam, though obviously on a much smaller scale. We’ve been in Iraq twice as long as we were in WWII. The stresses of war are cumulative. Ray went through the Gulf war and after, and Iraq and Afghanistan. He is one tough hombre. But the toughest piece of metal will bend or break under enough stress. If the armies in Iraq and Afghanistan were, like the armies of the world wars, full of draftees who never willingly enlisted, the number of such cases would, I am sure, be much higher.So, yes, whatever you call it, PTSD has been around for a long time, called by various names, and often never traced to its source. How many WWII vets became alcoholics, or worse, and no one ever attributed their problems to its base cause? Of course, sometimes stress just brings out traits and weaknesses latent in the individual, weaknesses that in normal life would never have been revealed, or never have been as bad.
May 3, 2017