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U.S. GIs will confront their toughest enemies here: psychiatrists

Shephard actually believes the best way of dealing with war trauma may be the traditional British stiff-upper-lip solution: bottling it all up, pulling yourself together. America's touchy-feely therapeutic culture—with its industries of counseling and recovery that exalt the confessional imperative—is damaging in itself.

"The soldier is left with nothing but people telling him war is trauma. If you treat people as medical patients, they will become patients."

But what will happen to the soldiers of the current conflict, once the battles are over and they're shipped back home? Shephard says there are dozens of factors that will decide how many soldiers suffer from mental problems after the war, including "what kind of cards soldiers are dealt. If you have nice clean fighting and no incident where you blew your friend's head off, then you're more likely to come out of this all right."

The social environment they return to will make a difference. At the moment, most Americans support the war, and even the most fervent anti-war protesters lavish sympathy on the troops. But as the gulf grows between the official version of why and how the war is being waged and the ground-floor reality of occupation and Iraqi bitterness, it's easy to see that this conflict could exact a terrible toll on the soldiers themselves. The combination of what Shephard calls "this media fog of trauma culture" and the dawning sense that they fought an unjust war could be devastating for the troops. He says sharply, "You may be getting the worst of all possible worlds."

A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century by Ben Shephard; Harvard University Press. Paperback, 487 pages, $15.95.

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