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Mental Disorder after Two Wars: Sauce for the Goose, But None for the Gander

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 27, Number 1, March 1999
pp. 149-155 | 10.1353/rah.1999.0019

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Reviews in American History 27.1 (1999) 149-155
Eric T. Dean, Jr. Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. xi + 315 pp. Index and endnotes. $35.00.

I have rarely encountered a single-author book that is both very good and very bad. Shook Over Hell is such a book. How this should be -- and possibly why -- aroused my intense curiosity. Eric Dean has examined the post-war psychological and social problems of coming home and being home among American veterans of the Vietnam War and the Civil War. Dean applies different methodologies to these two veteran groups and seasons his historiographic sauce differently for each, cultural constructionism for the Vietnam veterans and philosophic naturalism for the Civil War veterans.

As a practicing psychiatrist whose only patients are Vietnam combat veterans with severe psychological injuries, I am grateful that Dean did this research on the "insane" Indiana Civil War veterans. This is a very good book on post-combat mental disorder and character change in that era. He has done us valuable services on many fronts. All future studies of mental health of veterans in that era will have to look in jails and private lockups for the severely disabled, as his quotations from the Indiana inquests (what today we would call civil commitment proceedings) reveal in their narrative accounts. Hair-trigger anger, violence, antisocial behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, paranoia, suicidality, compulsive roaming -- all parts of the "Vietnam veteran stereotype"--emerge as things that war can do to a person's character and did do in the Civil War. We have no way to establish psychological injury rates for Civil War veterans nor to make rate comparisons between the two wars.

Much of the data that Dean uses to flesh out his six chapters on the Civil War are in the voices of veterans themselves and their families and neighbors. A representative example, one of many that are a great attraction of this book, concerns a John Robinson of the 66th Indiana who was committed in 1897. From the inquest papers we learn he was:

Walking the floor, crying & talking incoherently . . . has complained of his stomach and heart. . . . Very restless at nights -- will get up and walk the floor. . . . All sharp instruments, such as his razor knives, forks &c have to be kept away from him. He thinks the Poor House is staring him in the face and he talks of not being with his family long. Wants to kill himself. . . . He will either commit suicide or kill some of his family if he is permitted to be at large . . . very much depressed. (p. 156)

It is impossible to read the scores of such primary source quotes without feeling great sympathy for the Civil War veteran. However, when the author turns to Vietnam War veterans, the only direct quotations from Vietnam veterans are taken from TV network broadcasts, with all that implies about exemplifying a preconceived image in the mind of the TV news department. Who is to know what some vet said that a TV director didn't like and cut from the program? Otherwise we only hear other people using Vietnam veterans as analogies, or talking about them, or allegedly profiting from their image. While this may be fair in a popular culture investigation, it cannot be used as evidence for what Vietnam veterans actually experienced or what they were (and are) really like. How the media image of the Vietnam veteran was constructed should not be used as scholarly evidence for what psychological injuries Vietnam veterans do or do not have.

If Civil War veterans "benefited from a generous federal pension system" (p. 143), our sympathies have been prepared to see that this is only as it should be. However, every reference to Vietnam veterans receiving benefits is cast in terms that emphasize the crassness of the recipients and the parasitic payoffs that they and their supporters receive. For example, Dean states that "Vietnam veterans themselves have used their image as having been badly treated to entrench and extend their already extensive benefit package from the federal government" (p. 185). Dean quotes media accounts and...


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