- Historic Sites
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
Yet none of these traditional standards of judgment are at all likely to tell us what we need to know to understand PTSD. PTSD belongs to the soldier’s history of war, a history that until recently has been hidden from view, seldom celebrated, poorly documented, hardly remembered, almost never studied. Because the soldier’s history of war does not readily submit to the orderly requirements of history, and because, when uncovered, it often challenges the orderly traditions by which military history has shaped our understanding of warfare, the soldier’s war has been the great secret of military history. And within this special, secret history of war, the darkest corner of all has had to do with war’s essential, defining feature: combat—what it is like to have lived through it and to have lived with one’s own combat history for the rest of one’s life.
Throughout history the sustaining picture we have been given of the soldier in combat is his anonymity and his changelessness. Only a heroic act may elevate a soldier from the ranks; otherwise he never escapes from the great uniformed masses, turned this way and that, charging here, retreating there. Let a writer describe the career of an ordinary soldier at war and he will show us a man who, nervous at first, usually rises to the immediate occasion and does his duty. Purified by his baptism of fire, he attains a state of soldierly grace in which each succeeding combat experience hardens him and protects him from misfortune. If he survives his war, he disappears into manly retirement. Along the way some fail the test of combat. And because the way in which a society conducts war follows in some respects its most deeply held values, those who fail are outcasts.
Though in vogue for centuries, this simplistic view of the soldier at war was at last challenged by the Industrial Revolution. Mechanical advancements enabled combatants to fire their weapons faster, more accurately, and at greater ranges than ever before, forcing the once densely packed battle formations to disperse, to seek intermittent cover from enemy fire, and to adjust their methods of command.
What was a good deal less obvious, however, was that there had been a corresponding transformation during the nineteenth century in human relationships and sensibilities: a democratic as well as an industrial revolution had occurred. The modern ways of war sprang not only from deadly new machinery but from a new importance and appreciation of the individual man on the battlefield. If military technology now influenced the conduct of war with an unprecedented force, so, too, did the individual soldier’s performance in combat. On the eve of his own death in the Franco-Prussian War, the French officer Ardant du Picq had concluded in his classic Études sur le combat that the human cost of combat was going up. “Man is capable of but a given quality of fear. Today one must swallow in five minutes the dose that one took in an hour in Turenne’s day,” he wrote.
Du Picq was precocious. At the time only a few observers perceived the higher human burdens of modern battle. Instead, military commanders and soldiers, very like the societies from which they emerged, saw warfare in Homeric terms, as a matter of valor, courage, manliness, sacrifice, and, on occasion, the intervention of the gods. At all events, whatever a soldier did or did not do on the field of battle was believed to be the result of his absolute and conscious control over his own actions. Men chose to be heroes, and they chose to be cowards.
The persistence of the romantic view of warfare is remarkable, to say the least, when it is cast against the military history of the last century. Certainly the experience of our own Civil War should have spelled the doom of romance, but as Gerald Linderman’s recent study Embattled Courage has shown, the reality of combat was repressed by the war’s veterans. Had soldiers of the Civil War suffered mental breakdowns because of their combat experiences, either during the war or afterward? If so—and there can be little doubt that they had—the terms upon which society and soldiers alike regarded warfare ensured that their experiences would remain hidden from notice, ignored or confused with other ailments.
Society was protected from these uncomfortable questions not only by its own beliefs but by the state of medical knowledge in the mid-nineteenth century. Psychological treatises of the time belonged more to the realm of philosophy than medicine. Medical practice aimed at the alleviation of obvious physical complaints, and upon the outbreak of the war, military surgeons, overwhelmed by the massive number of soldiers torn apart by shot and shell, would not have been sympathetic toward soldiers who complained of suffering invisible wounds. In any case, neither society nor medicine provided a means by which such soldiers’ complaints could be understood.