Fighting Fear

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“If you gotta go, you gotta go” is what they replied when I asked, “Do you want to go into military service?” In 1940 tanks were rolling I across Kurope, bombs were exploding, blackness was descending. The United States was in clanger. Did these young men leap to our defense? No. They were not volunteering; they had been drafted. “If you gotta go, you gotta go,” they said.

I was a civilian psychiatrist at an induction station examining these draftees to determine if they were mentally fit for military duty. Their resigned, apathetic reply to my question hardly seemed conducive to effective performance, let alone to their mental health.

Later studies determined that that single question, asked at induction, “Do you want to be in the service?,” predicted actual emotional breakdown better than any other. Negative responses heralded subsequent mental disorder.

Pearl Harbor, of course, turned the threat of war to reality. Although physicians were not being drafted into the service at that time, I decided I shouldn’t wait. But how could I help most effectively? Not by doing what psychiatrists did ordinarily—that is, treat patients, which takes months or even years and involves only one person at a time.

It came to me that perhaps I could help prevent soldiers from breaking down, rather than try to treat them after they had done so. I reasoned that the apathy I had seen in the inductees was due primarily to their failure to comprehend that they and their families were actually threatened by the enemy. They still thought, “Well, if you’re drafted, you gotta go.” My plan was to use mass media to show Hitler’s and Japan’s intent—and ability—to conquer the United States along with the rest of the world. I reasoned that if this were done effectively, it would make the troops angry and eager—in short, motivated.

My father-in-law, Rear Adm. Alan G. Kirk, who later commanded American naval forces during the Normandy landings, was close friends with Harvey Bundy, special assistant to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Bundy gave me personal contacts. I got an appointment to see Gen. Frederick Henry Osborn, head of the Information and Education (I&E) Division, which was responsible for maintaining Army morale. I told him my proposal. He was receptive, even enthusiastic. I then saw Col. Roy D. Halloran, director of neuropsychiatry in the Surgeon General’s Office. He agreed to institute a section for preventive psychiatry, which I would head while also serving as liaison with General Osborn’s division. I enlisted and was given the rank of first lieutenant. My assignment was to prevent the seven million men in the Army from having nervous breakdowns.

I was ordered to the Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army, Psychiatry Division, and given my desk as chief of the Preventive Psychiatry Branch. Shortly thereafter Colonel Halloran was replaced as head of the Psychiatry Division by Gen. William C. Menninger, M.D., of Topeka, Kansas.

I remember entering General Menninger’s office, standing smartly to attention, saluting, and saying, “Lieutenant Appel reporting for duty, sir.” General Menninger looked at me with a friendly smile and said, “Oh, come off it, Jack. Call me Bill.” Merely “Bill”? How could I regard him with appropriate awe? I soon learned, however, experiencing the immense competence with which he performed, that “Bill” could be a term of the highest respect.

As psychiatric liaison to the I&E Division, I took on my first project—helping make five movies in a series entitled Why We Fight , to be shown to recruits. I recall discussing id, superego, and ego with the experts making the films: a Harvard professor of sociology, a professor of psychology from Yale—and Ted Geisel, or “Dr. Seuss.” I said that the soldier’s superego would tell him it was his duty to fight; his ego would convince him fighting was a good idea; and his id would arouse his emotions, his fear, and his anger. Thus did Sigmund Freud enter the fray on the American side. We enlisted the help of Hollywood, and the films were made and shown throughout the Army.

One of the problems the Psychiatry Division faced was that the military wisdom of the day held that normal soldiers did not break down, that only neurotics did. This belief had led to the policy of screening “weaklings” out of the Army. The policy soon proved a failure. Psychiatric cases accounted for more than a third of all casualties being shipped home from overseas, despite the fact that 12 percent of all men rejected at induction stations had been turned down for psychiatric reasons. Already a substantial winnowing had occurred, and those taken into the armed forces were the psychological cream of the civilian population.

If normal men could break, it meant that the problem of military psychiatry involved the whole Army.

So if screening was not the answer, what was? Edward A. Strecker, who had served as a frontline psychiatrist in World War I, said a lesson learned there was that whereas in peacetime abnormal men break down from normal stress, in wartime normal men break down from abnormal stress. The question: Was this true in World War II?