PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is affecting more British veterans than ever before. A British charity says that it’s treating over 4,500 veterans, the greatest number ever presenting with symptoms consistent with the affliction, the greatest number in its 95 year history. This is unsurprising given the recent highly charged, large scale deployments to Afghanistan (Operation Herrick) and Iraq (Operation Telic). Looking at matters through the lens of experience we as historians unfortunately see history “repeating itself.” The experiences of soldiers in recent conflicts may be, not unjustly, compared with those of their predecessors in other small and not so small wars of the twentieth century. And while some aspects of warfare have changed (the increasing depersonalisation of war through UAV, IED, advanced rifles, etc) the basic human nature (boots on the ground) has not. Thus we may observe that as long as humans disagree, those disagreements may become polarised, tending toward violence; organised conflict will occur; and where conflict occurs, people will be hurt, maimed, killed.
Both low and high intensity forms of warfare have the potential to leave the soldier (and gaining recognition in increasingly greater numbers, non-combatants of all hues), with scars that transcend merely the physical. Some are left with PTSD, a condition psychology is still attempting to decipher and treat. It was if the mind was unable to process the information it was presented with and instead chose to revert to a less complicated state. As Patricia Prestwich described in her article ‘Victims of War’, some of the returning soldiers were rendered unable,
‘…to maintain normal daily contacts with friends and neighbors [sic]. Men who had been outgoing and sociable before the war were now portrayed as taciturn and obsessed by their personal nightmares or hallucinations. They wandered about, muttering of “the Boches, the English, and trenches” or drawing crosses on walls. As the friend of one veteran reported, before the war he would talk with everyone. But recently “I met him in the courtyard and suddenly, for no reason, he began to cry and hold his head in his hands. I took him home.”
Lance Sergeant Dan Collins was diagnosed with PTSD and later committed suicide. After his early and needless death his girlfriend stated ‘ started noticing things. Nightmares were the main thing. It was pretty clear he was back there reliving everything.’ The British Army doesn’t record suicides among serving and veteran soldiers. Dan’s ultimate sacrifice will never appear on any war memorial. In 2012 (BBC, link below), the rate of suicides by British soldiers outstripped the rate of casualties suffered fighting the Taliban. The shame about today’s PTSD is the fact that for generations suffering had to be done in silence or victims were stigmatised in society and by their peers. Some who broke down were executed to stiffen resolve. Others withdrew into private hells of silence, even from families and loved ones. Some self medicated through alcohol and drugs, some suffered ED, nightmares, flashbacks, violent outbursts, hyper-arousal, bed-wetting, nervous dispositions. But most suffered in silence.Some unfortunately took their own lives, seemingly faced with a problem they felt they were unable to solve on their own.
Looking back at some of the stories of ex soldiers breaking laws and engaging in what could politely be termed ‘anti-social behaviour’, one should look for a greater context than the immediate factors. Perhaps, as in the case of the First World War, one afternoon a man survived while he saw all of his friends die, along with thousands of others.
The stories of these men and women should not be lost to the morass of academia, in families and institutions, people should ask themselves what they went through, facing the enemy and later their own demons.
Patricia E. Prestwich, “Victims of War”? Mentally-Traumatized Soldiers and the State, 1918-1939′ in Proceedings of the Western Society for French History (University of Alberta, Volume 31, 2003).
Violence among returning soldiers
BBC Suicides outstrip Combat Deaths
Shell Shock Article