13 November 2015

America’s Veteran’s Day and Remembrance Day in the former British Empire are always time for an annual outpouring of platitudes, war propaganda, and historical falsehoods.

This year in the US and Canada the media is filled by stories of suicides among soldiers, both serving and retired, as well as post-combat stress disorder (PTSD) illness. The public is outraged and wants to know why.

As an army veteran and war correspondent, here are my thoughts.

Regarding suicides, the answer is simple. The recent imperial wars waged by the Western powers – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria – were all dirty modern conflicts fought among civilians in underdeveloped nations.

Foot soldiers were used to fix the enemy and occupy tactically important areas. Western technology in the form of air power was used to crush resistance by brute force.

These are nightmare wars for Western soldiers. Large numbers of civilians are killed or wounded. The civilian population turns against the occupying forces, sniping, planting mines and killing stragglers. Smiling children plant bombs. Captives are often tortured, or shot out of hand.

Soldiers who endure such conflicts become deeply scarred. All war is a crime writ large – some soldiers can handle the mental strain, a minority cannot. They return home haunted by the horrors of the colonial wars they have witnessed – and, often, the pointlessness and waste.

The best way to end the soldier’s psychological anguish and post traumatic stress syndrome is to stop sending our men to fight imperial wars in faraway places that are of zero national important to our nations. But as the recent Republican debate showed, our leaders just can’t seem to break their imperial impulse for wars overseas.

But it’s also my view that we have over-exaggerated the effects of PTSD. Being in combat is highly stressful and damned scary. But soldiers have endured such terrors since the dawn of time and have not cracked. Having covered 14 conflicts, I can attest to this fact.

I recently made my sixth visit to the battlefield of Verdun. Over one million French and German soldiers died there in a year’s savage fighting inside an area with a circumference no greater than 12 km. One of the epicenters of the battle was the small fort of Vaux, with a garrison of 150 that was enlarged to 600 men by troops seeking shelter from the storm of shells outside.

For six days and seven nights, over 1,200 German heavy guns ranging from 240mm, 305mm, 380mm and 420mm monsters pounded the fort, reduced its exterior to a moonscape. Crack German troops assaulted the fort, using machine guns, grenades and flamethrowers. Poison gas shells blanketed the fort and seeped inside.

At Vaux, and other key forts like Douaumont, Moulinville, and Vacherauville, the French garrisons cowered in the dark, gasping the toxic air filled with sulphur and carbon dioxide, while huge 420mm shells – the size and weight of a car – crashed onto the superstructure, shaking the whole fort.

None of the defenders knew when the superstructure would collapse, burying them alive. In fact, the French had painted the encouraging motto on the fort’s entrances, “better be buried alive than surrender the fort.”

Ft. Vaux held out for six days and seven nights. It was forced to surrender by a lack of water, not a lack of courage. The garrison, many terribly injured, gassed, and burned, drank their urine or licked the dank walls for moisture. The fort’s commander, Commandant Reynal, was feted for his heroism by Germany’s Crown Prince.

Verdun was probably the most terrible battle in modern history, rivaled only by Stalingrad; 259 of the French Army’s 330 infantry regiments went through the hell of Verdun. But the French Army did not crack, though it lost nearly two million dead in the war. Neither did the Germans crack.

Compared to what the French and Germans went through on the Western Front, our small colonial wars in Afghanistan and the Mideast were ugly, minor affairs. If we are determined to continue sending our soldiers into nasty colonial wars, we must be prepared for many of them to return broken and traumatized.

We also need think about the Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, and Libyans who have been bombarded and shelled for years, sometimes decades. What about their mental health?

But the moral of this story is simple. Avoid all new wars. As Benjamin Franklin so wisely observed: “No good wars; no bad peace.”

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2015

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4 Responses to “HOW TO END PTSD”

  1. KeninCanada says:

    Pulitzer prize winner Richard Rhodes quotes army psychiatrists from the second world war, “They found that fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed was the most common cause of battle fatigue in the individual, and that fear of failure ran a strong second.” Why They Kill, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, pg 293.
    This may explain why colonialist wars are so problematic. Most soldiers understand that they must kill their enemies, but killing civilians causes greater stress.

    • I don’t think trying to find out why we have higher reported rates of psychological casualties lies in the politics of the war. A modern soldier could just as easily be convinced that he was “fighting them here so we don’t fight them at home” as his grandfather could be that he was on Guadalcanal to stop a Japanese invasion of California.

      The reasons lie in the nature of the modern military, it’s institutional culture and the larger culture troops return to. The enemy is so weak and we are so rich that we can afford to pander to the latest fads in mental health care and the expectations of most of the public that soldiers will come back damaged.

  2. As if I was not convinced already after living through the second world war, seeing the ravages of the first world war left no doubt in m mind, that we make claims, that our conduct does not attest to, namely, that we are the species with the highest degree of intelligence and that we are civilized. Neither is true. We are just a greedy bunch of dumb barbarians. Wars are fought to satisfy the mental cancer of greed, that so many people are inflicted with. I saw the trauma of Yper 15 years ago and will never forget the horrors of that conflict. Did the assassination of prince Ferdinand in Sarajevo justify this kind of carnage? Now we have the UN, which was supposed to avoid any further conflicts to escalate, but it has also been rendered impotent by a superpower, that seems mightier than the rest of the world. We should blame those, who start wars not the victims, who are attacked with the justification of lies. And which religion is exempt from guilt, when it comes to having innocent blood on its hands? What is their definition of God?

  3. It should also be recognized that we are fighting these wars with all-volunteer armies made up of people who have mainly joined for a job. This mercenary angle combined with our our society’s focus on lionizing the “victim” is a recipe for more PTSD. Once soldiers are expected to have PTSD and the stigma is removed not surprisingly you get more reports of it.

    Another factor must be the mental health profession’s economic interest. It has expanded the definition of PTSD in DSM V (the mental health manual) to include trauma caused by hearing stories of ghastly events. Veterans lobby groups, the medical marijuana business and “service dog” providers all have financial interests in expanding the number of troops claiming to suffer from PTSD. It is also a convenient claim for lawyers to use in calling for acquittal or mitigation in criminal cases.

    Perhaps we are at the stage where our very expensive all volunteer armies may not be usable for protracted operations. The speed at which politicians declare they’ll be “no boots on the ground” or that their armies will be limited to training or only small SOF groups will be used might herald the end of the usefulness of regular armies.

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