Fighting Fear

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My final contribution to the war effort took place after the fighting had ended, but if the psychological matters it addressed were no longer the stark ones of life and death, they were urgent enough to the soldiers they affected. Logistically it was easiest to release troops stationed in the United States, and this is what Washington headquarters blithely commenced to do. The effect of this on troops overseas may be imagined. They had done the actual fighting, yet who was being rewarded? The men who had cushy, safe assignments close to home. When the injustice of this was drawn to Washington’s attention, the policy quickly changed: Combat troops were to be discharged first, noncombatant overseas troops next, and soldiers on stateside duty would have to wait their turn. We accomplished this by establishing a point system, in which credit was given for number of days in combat, number of days overseas, and number of days in the Army.

And so the troops came home. Millions of soldiers melted back into civilian life, as did I. There was a relief in taking off my uniform—it was a lieutenant colonel’s by then—but I admit to feeling a pang at surrendering the kind of authority the Surgeon General’s Office had conferred upon me. Harry Truman had warned General Eisenhower: “Things are different for a President than for a general. When a general gives an order things happen: thousands of men move, guns go off, bombs drop. When I, as President, sitting here at my desk in the Oval Office, give an order, nothing happens.” It had been exciting for me to have so much power, to be able to think up an idea and then have the whole Army adopt it. It was rather heady to be able to conduct Army-wide questionnaires on any topic I chose, asking questions such as “Do you bite your fingernails?” (17 percent did, as I remember) or how many prayed when going into battle (72 percent).

From a medical viewpoint, the most exciting event had been that discovery that every man has a breaking point. This had not been known previously to psychiatry or to anyone, I believe. Dr. Strecker had come to that conclusion during the First World War but had based it on anecdotal rather than scientific evidence. It is now accepted in the military but is still hardly common knowledge. That it is true has enormous implications for understanding social structure and human nature.

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