- War As Hell: Blasting Survivors’ Minds
In Shook Over Hell, Eric Dean dramatically introduces his study of battle psychosis in the Civil War with a more immediate and popular concern: the psychological consequences of the Southeast Asian conflict. The strategy to engage the reader’s initial interest succeeds. Yet, a book of this length could hardly do justice to the psychological aspects of both wars. After all, they are the most complicated, controversial, soul-wrenching, bloodiest, and longest military actions in our history. Dean’s argument about Vietnam, which will arouse the wrath of antiwar critics, would require a separate work to meet all the complexities involved. Yet, without treating Vietnam, his main subject of mental dysfunction in American wars, most especially in Lincoln’s army, would probably attract few readers. Understanding why foot-soldiers went berserk and how they were treated afterwards might not appeal even to Civil War buffs. At the same time, however, Shook Over Hell, an important and fascinating book, deserves a wide readership, especially among scholars. It brilliantly treats a major and long overlooked aspect of modern warfare. Furthermore, Dean skillfully reveals the interrelationship of military psychological experience and national policy for the insane during the last century and a half.
To treat the Vietnam framing first, Dean is convinced that Time, Newsweek , the New York Times, as well as sundry TV newsmen, ignored the history of battle psychosis in prior American wars and claimed that the G.I. in Southeast Asia was uniquely subject to stress and demoralization. Articles in the 1970s and 1980s sensationalized problems of drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, and violent crime. By one spurious estimate, 1.5 million former fighters in Vietnam were supposedly afflicted with PTSD—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (a new, clinical term for what had been called the “hypo” or “blues” in the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, and “battle fatigue” in World War II). Meantime, Dean reports, witnesses at hearings in Washington and other expert investigators provided more positive assessments. Far from being the [End Page 732] lonely, unappreciated, and unemployed victims of public indifference and government neglect, Dean contends, the G.I. just back from Vietnam was better educated, healthier, more emotionally stable, and soon employed at better jobs with higher pay than their age cohorts who never left home. Moreover, he writes, they had fared better than soldiers of past wars with sufficient food, shelter, and clothing, efficient aerial transportation, adequate back-up services, frequent breaks for R&R, and limited war-zone service of a year. In addition, to smooth reentry into civilian life, soldiers homeward-bound could sign up for a range of educational, medical, and employment benefits, thanks to the political power of veterans organizations. No previous U.S. army, Dean insists, had ever enjoyed so many advantages.
Shook Over Hell presents a strong case. A combination of national guilt and determined anti-war polemics did establish PTSD as a new phenomenon as Dean contends. Nevertheless, his case is incomplete. All wars are hideous, and Vietnam was surely no exception. Dean fails to explore in depth the stresses of guerilla combat, the absence of reassuring demarcations between friend and enemy, the unnerving presence of land mines everywhere, the frustrating differences in cultures and language so that South Vietnam allies were almost as unpredictable as the invisible adversary. Frances Fitzgerald justly observed that U.S. troops were “like an Orwellian army” who “knew everything about military tactics, but nothing about where they were or who the enemy was.” 1 In the Civil War Southern troops might wonder if the ubiquitous slaves were harmless or threatening. Otherwise, the soldier in blue or gray knew friend from foe, and everyone spoke the same language.
However underdeveloped Dean’s Vietnam theme may be, he is much more convincing when tracing the evolution of PTSD, about which historians have shown little interest. Terminology might change, as he notes, but symptoms of battle exhaustion were many, varied, and common to...