American and British soldiers have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for about the same length of time, and their casualty rates have been about the same. More than 30 percent of the American troops subsequently suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that involves memory suppression and uncontrollable anxiety. Only 4 percent of British troops do. It’s a statistic that suddenly undermines long-held assumptions.
My own long-held assumption, in this case, was that the rise of PTSD in Western armies was mainly due to a major change in the way they trained their troops. Before 1945, like all the other armies, they just trained soldiers to shoot. After 1945, they started training their soldiers to kill people.
The change was triggered by a discovery that Gen. S.L.A. Marshall made during World War II. He sent out teams to interview American infantry companies immediately after combat, with a guarantee that each soldier’s testimony would remain absolutely confidential — and he learned that up to 90 percent of those American infantrymen had found it impossible to kill enemy soldiers.
They did not run away, they may even have shot their weapons into the air — but they simply could not look down the sights and kill another human being. At the last moment, they became conscientious objectors.
Significantly, however, it was only the private infantrymen, alone and unobserved in their foxholes, who silently refused to kill (but never admitted it to their comrades). Men on crew-served weapons like machine-guns, whose failure to do their duty would be seen by their comrades, did what the army expected of them.
The lesson U.S. military leaders drew was that while the soldiers’ private morality made it hard for them to kill, the right training could overcome their moral inhibitions. So they changed the training.
By the early 1950s, U.S. Army basic training sought to lay down reflex pathways that bypassed the inhibitions, by training soldiers to snap-shoot at human-shaped targets that only appeared for a few seconds. They also addressed the problem directly, psyching their young soldiers up until they believed that they actually wanted to kill.
It worked: By the time of the Vietnam War, 90 percent of American infantry were firing their weapons in combat and trying to kill their targets. Other Western armies adopted the same training techniques, with equally impressive results. But there is an obvious psychological price to be paid for all this, or so it seemed.
The Vietnam War in the 1960s was when the incidence of PTSD among American veterans began to soar. They had been tricked into doing something that was morally abhorrent to them, and that was why so many of them fell apart afterward.
Veterans of earlier wars had suffered higher-than-average levels of alcoholism, depression and suicide, but that was nothing to compare with the PTSD plague that infected the new generation of veterans. The psychological manipulation they had been subjected to seemed to be the key — but then along comes this statistic saying that American soldiers are seven times more likely to suffer from PTSD than British soldiers.
So what is actually going on here? American writer Ethan Watters’s recent book, “Crazy Like Us: The Globalisation of the American Psyche,” offers a highly subversive answer. It is that American society has been permeated by psychoanalytical beliefs about the fragility of the human mind.
This creates an expectation, he argues, that people who have been through horrible experiences will be traumatized. The veterans are simply falling in with that expectation, and exhibiting the symptoms that the theory says they should be showing. In Britain, where the psychoanalytical approach never got such a hold on popular culture, this expectation is much rarer – and so are the symptoms of PTSD.
Watters then goes on to speculate that the very high incidence of PTSD in American veterans is also due to the decline of religion, patriotism and other belief systems that once gave a kind of meaning, however imaginary, to human suffering. This is just ideologically driven nonsense: Britain, where the PTSD rate is seven times lower, is also less nationalistic and far less religious than the United States.
But Watters’s core question remains. Is PTSD really caused by what happened to veterans while they served in the military, or by the expectations of the civilian society they returned to afterward? Suddenly, there is a case to answer.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries. He is also a former military historian who wrote the award-winning book “War.”