On Memorial Day it is usually the deceased who we are memorializing. But for all that they lost in terms of a future life, and for all they went through in the process of losing it, you can at least say their suffering is over. That’s not the case with those who face the living death of severe psychological problems caused by war. Not to forget the people with so-called moderate psychological problems. Let’s also at least briefly remember all those who lost only the smile of youth, and the joy of life.
It is a situation that really puts the lie to the movies and books and various tales of glorious, sanitized war. John Wayne never had PTSD. But the fact is, the toughest, most disciplined, and strongest minds of any of us can be unhinged in war zones. That is how terrible it is in reality. If the experience of massive violence can break someone with the strength of a trained soldier, what would it do to an average civilian? In fact, studies have found symptoms of PTSD in people who live in gang-plagued, high-crime areas.
It was politically active Vietnam veterans’ groups who raised awareness of the mental health of returning combat soldiers, leading to PTSD being included in the DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental health disorders, fourth edition.) If they had not put it on the map, one has to wonder how much farther behind we would be lagging in recognizing the problem. Not that it is being dealt with anywhere close to the optimum. The Department of Defense estimates about 17% of combat soldiers have symptoms of PTSD; you don’t have to be a cynic to figure it is more than that.
In this country the condition was first noticed after the Civil War. Families and friends saw changes in returning veterans. Back then they thought it must be entirely a physical condition, something to do with the heart. “Soldier’s Heart,” was the name they gave it, and that was the name of an outstanding Frontline documentary on the subject, which you can watch in its entirety here. (Posted in four segments.)
Not sure if the Mexican American War and the Spanish American War produced their own names for the condition. All we can know for sure is – they produced the condition. By World War I it had acquired the name Shell Shock, as it was assumed that the incessant concussions from cannons were the cause. No connection was made to those soldiers who had the same symptoms but were not fighting close to any cannons.
World War II gave us the slightly more clinical-sounding term, Combat Fatigue. Not as technical as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but moving in that direction from Soldier’s Heart and Shell Shock. It would be interesting to know what ancient people called it, as surely they saw it in their returning veterans. How many have there been, over the centuries, and the millenniums? Worldwide, the minds that have been maimed and destroyed in war must number in the billions.
Then, like waves moving out from an impact, we have the dislocations of mind in people around the afflicted soldiers. It radiates outward into the society from there. The true, full extent of the damage is unknowable.