Monday, April 28, 2014

War is Hell, Continued

I wrote a few months ago about recent U.S. Army studies showing the ruinous effects of prolonged combat on mental health. But this is no new discovery. Rick Atkinson offered these thoughts about the problem of combat fatigue in the U.S. Army during World War II:
The brutal fighting, oppressive conditions, and recognition that the war was far from over took a profound psychic toll, not least among troops said to be “ghosted,” haunted by the memory of dead comrades. “Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure,” the theater surgeon general told Eisenhower. “Thus psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare.”

Those evacuated from the front with combat exhaustion . . . were said to be “going back to the kitchen.” So many thousands now headed to the kitchen that SHAEF censors banned disclosure of their numbers; the public would not know that the U.S. Army alone hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons during World War II, including one in four admissions during the bitter fall of 1944. “I can’t take much more of this fighting because it is getting the best of me,” an infantryman wrote to his family. “This nerve business I’ve been trying to cover up from my own men, but I’m sure they have noticed it because I’ve noticed it in some of them.”

. . . But neither competent treatment nor all the Blue 88s [sodium amytal] in Europe could efface war’s capacity to fracture men’s psyches. “Between the physical fear of going forward and the moral fear of turning back, there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness,” an American Civil War veteran had once observed, and that dilemma still obtained. Lieutenant Paul Fussell, who would narrowly survive the war to become one of its shrewdest expositors, believed that “after five months of combat duty, a frontline officer is used up, neurasthenic beyond saving.” Most experts concluded that soldiers wore out for good after 200 to 240 days of battle, although two psychologists monitoring the advance into Germany posited that a GI’s combat skills began to decline after a month of fighting, with many “close to a vegetative state” after forty-five days.
Atkinson also quotes an army chaplain as saying that “sound mental health requires a satisfactory life purpose and faith in a friendly universe.” What soldier in a brutal war could maintain that faith?

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