Saturday, 28 February 2009

shell shock

The BBc website tells of the accusation by Britain's highest decorated serving soldier that the mental health needs of veterans are not being given enough priority. Having worked with veterans of the Falklands adventure this is no surprise to me. What stood out in the account however, was this statement:

"You spend six months on the battlefield and you have to defend yourself every day and then you come back to normal life and go to Tesco and someone runs into your trolley.

"You have to stop and think - it is only a trolley, you are not on the battlefield."

Simple and direct. It made me stop and think. And imagine. And then wonder what sort of civilisation it is that makes such demands of people. What is going on here? There is a fundamental wrongness in a world in which vast amounts of money and ingenuity are expended in the mission to discover new and better ways to destroy each other. Not only that but there are large organised groups of human beings whose one function is, ultimately, to kill other human beings. They are trained in the most effective ways to do this. They are honoured when they do it well. Their leaders are given statues in public places and schoolchildren are taught of the battles. Flags are carried and waved and the tunes of glory played.

We are told that this is human nature. That may indeed be so, but I do not believe it. If it were human nature then PTSD would not exist. Its very existence reveals that such behaviour runs counter to our nature. It is a perversion of all that makes us human. And the result of our culture's addiction to this perversion is the ranks of veterans who sleep, traumatised and alone, in the streets of our cities.

Of course, there are no statues to them - the people who are actually on the battlefield. That honour is reserved for those who send them to kill and to die. None of them are likely to be subject to PTSD. That honour is reserved for the poor - those who are, ultimately disposable.

PTSD was first called by the far simpler and more understandable name "shell-shock". It was rampant among those in the trenches of the first world war for whom constant artillery barrages and the sight of their friends and comrades literally vanishing in a shower of blood and formless human tissue was shocking. That is, normal and not psychopathic human beings. It affected both officers and men - at least those junior officers who were not shielded by the chain of command. When diagnosed, it was treated in two ways. In one, there was the invitation to talk about the trauma and to make some sort of sense of it. In the other, electric shocks were given to counteract the physical symptoms of paralysis or tremor. The aim, of course, was simply to return them to their units for more of the same. Both were, perhaps, equally effective to that end. The first, however, was given to officers and the second to enlisted men.

Now, we know so much more, do we not? No. We have not learnt a thing. Shell-shock, a simple and easy to understand term has given way over the years to the unwieldy and latinate post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Apart from that, treatments have not really improved. And still they are dependent on class - the officer being far more likely to get it, whereas the enlisted man more likely to be medically discharged out onto the street.

In the meantime, even the fairly functional returning soldier has to contend with the problems of adjusting to a situation where a sudden movement in the peripheral vision is not the taleban but the next door neighbour running to get the washing in and that sudden sound is her cat knocking over a milk bottle. Where does all that adrenaline go? How does he prevent it from impelling him to action? Often he doesn't and then, well there is always the prison.

Until the madness of armies and weapons is erased, then this will continue. Human beings were not designed, or have not evolved. to be under constant threat. And the ingenuity of our brains has devised so many ways of creating and maintaining this threat - from cruise missiles to CCTV - that we are perhaps all heading into a chronic low-level shell shock.

Unless we wake up and say "No".

No comments: