By Michael Kanter | United States
Imagine waking up in the middle of the night, and feeling as though you are under fire during operation Apollo in Afghanistan. Imagine the intense fear fills you and the crushing depression follows. Now imagine this happens every single night, preventing you from sleeping. Imagine you can’t get the feeling, the fear out of your body. These are just some of the horrors of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental illness caused by war.
Although since the First World War (WWI), our societal empathy and medical science have improved our understanding and diagnosis of PTSD; both preparation and prevention — as well as treatment and support for PTSD sufferers — are still largely inadequate and ineffective. Our understanding of PTSD has evolved since WWI, and that paradigm shift has changed both preparation and diagnosis of this condition during WWI and subsequent Canadian military conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Rwanda. The treatment of PTSD, both during and after the wars, has evolved, and suggest what additional changes and improvements can be made.
PTSD has existed since Ancient Greece with different names, such as “Soldier’s Heart” (in the American Civil War), “Shell Shock” (during WWI), and “Combat Stress Reaction” (during WW2). During WWI, victims were not treated for their PTSD, rather they were persecuted for it. Some British officials initially refused to consider victims disabled; some generals even suggested they “should be shot for malingering and cowardice.”(Simkin) The definition of PTSD has changed enormously over time. Today, according to Veterans Affairs Canada, “PTSD is a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, particularly those that threaten life.” In contrast to the WW1 stigma, it is now understood just like other mental conditions, PTSD is an affliction and not a weakness of character or an excuse.
In addition to its psychological harms, PTSD can make integrating into post-military life difficult. Veterans with PTSD may have difficulty providing for their families or participating in family life, disrupting their relationships as spouses, parents, and engaged community members. Although the Government tries to support veterans and their families, offering family counseling and publishing a guide for veterans coming back to family life, it remains a tough struggle.
When it comes to dealing with PTSD, it all starts with proper preparations. For WWI, Canada’s preparation, both physical and psychological, was inadequate at best, with a 59,000-strong militia of so-called “weekend warriors” who only trained on weekends, drilling, marching, and occasionally shooting, without ever scrimmaging in large groups (Cardwell). The disastrous results of inadequate military preparations were almost 60,000 Canadians casualties and a life expectancy of new pilots in combat in 1916-17 that was just 20 minutes (Wyatt).
Since prior to WWI, PTSD wasn’t formally recognized as a significant issue, there was no preparation for the illness. Today, preparation is looked at as a way of preventing or avoiding the illness, although it is usually ineffective, or worse, counterproductive because some of the ‘triggers’ of PTSD are inherent in a military engagement, and thus cannot be eliminated (Robson and Manacapilli 7-27). Military training systems dehumanize the enemy, turning humans into targets. This attempts to avoid the guilt and hesitation and makes soldiers willing to pull the trigger. This approach, used for centuries, doesn’t protect soldiers.
A big difference is a guilt caused by conflicting messages. Society is more focused than ever on protecting civilians and treating the enemy humanely, while soldiers are taught in basic training to dehumanize and kill their enemy (Junger). This increases the guilt felt by soldiers because they now are judged for every emotional decision they make, through a moral contradiction. Despite attempted changes, the epidemic of PTSD among soldiers suggests we still cannot “prepare” for the emotional trauma of war.
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