A Casualty of the Spirit

PTSD in History in Literature and in All of Us

In the wake of the United States military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, mainstream and social media were all consumed with the news. A suicide bombing that resulted in the deaths of thirteen of our soldiers and marines. Reports of our abandonment of citizens and allies. Images of terrorists celebrating America’s defeat. The result, reportedly, for untold numbers of those who served in the Afghanistan War as well as the War in Iraq and Vietnam, was to tear the scab from barely healed wounds of those afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. But this time, Americans everywhere, even war-weary civilians who were ready for the difficult and winless twenty-year war to end, were casualties. They suffered alongside those who served. Their malady? A casualty of the spirit—as PTSD was once known.

Accounts of the disorder have peppered literature throughout history, although referred to as shell shock, combat stress, battle fatigue, or war neurosis, until the psychological wounds were given the name “posttraumatic stress disorder” in the 1980s during the post-Vietnam War era.

There are references in the Bible (Deuteronomy 20:1—20:8 of the King James version) that address the fearful and fainthearted soldiers, acknowledging the need to remove them from battle. 

When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, …

And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart.

Shakespeare addressed the affliction in multiple works. One of the more explicit is found in Henry IV when Lady Percy speaks to her husband Hotspur about his mental state as he plans to go (back) to war.

“Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks;
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?”

But it would take the tales of the horrors of trench warfare and of soldiers being gassed during World War I to bring combat stress to the fore. In Eric Maria Remarque’s semi-autobiographical novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Bäumer, a German soldier, described the destruction he witnessed in the war and its effects on him and the men around him. Remarque writes, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

And soon the children and grandchildren of the Great War would find themselves victims of the same debilitating stress. During the Second World War, depending on the theater of operation, from twenty to forty percent of the casualties were attributed to battle fatigue—the higher percentages most often found in the Pacific theater. Those who slogged through the damp jungles and razor-edged, hip-high grass of Guadalcanal and climbed the mountainous terrain of Okinawa recount horrific tales of incidents of PTSD. Suicides among the soldiers were not uncommon “Some of the division grew so hardened to comrades committing suicide that they used the grimmest of black humor as a defensive mechanism,” Bill Sloan wrote in Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu1944. “It’s getting so they won’t even let a guy out of here that way without a pass. 

“Flak happy” was another term for PTSD—the  word “flak” was an acronym derived from the long and unpronounceable German fliegerabwehrkanone, the anti-aircraft guns used in the field of battle. In Europe, hundreds of army air force fighter and bomber crews suffered combat fatigue from flying daily though skies filled with the deadly bursting shells of anti-aircraft fire or into the face of oncoming German fighter aircraft of the Luftwaffe. Many removed themselves from combat or were removed from flying status. The actual number is hard, if not impossible, to find as flight surgeons were known to record the airman’s status as “transferred” or “returned to the zone of the interior” without further elaboration. One of those airmen is the subject of the upcoming work, A Gathering of Men (to be released in 2022); and the book’s appendix contains brief histories of airmen with “RFS” designations. Some withdrew before departing the United States—the mere thought of the terror they would face becoming insurmountable. Others were grounded after their first flight, or their tenth, or their twentieth. PTSD is as individual as the men themselves. 

Today, at least, the condition is recognized and treatments are available that have had more success than in the past. These treatments are due our young men and women who have served in combat and faced selflessly what are for the rest of us unfathomable horrors. We can offer our condolences to the families of the fallen and share our disappointment at the failure of our nation in this war. And we can hope that time will help us come to terms with the legacy of our years in Afghanistan and heal the wounds of our veterans.

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