Strange Hells

Why should we honour those that die upon the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.

William Butler Yeats

Death is synonymous with warfare, even as it approaches its most restrained forms. So too is the destruction of populations, societies, cities, and civilizations often the mark of war. The crisis that warfare presents to the human condition is near-absolute; hence the breaking of the second seal reveals personified War, riding a red horse, take his place with Famine, Death, and Conquest (sometimes interpreted as Pestilence) in the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelations. While war has not brought about the end of mankind, though it has often projected to be our eventual end, it unleashes stresses and forces that act upon groups in many diverse ways. War has shaped the collective history of mankind, and historians from Thucydides onward have aimed to record and comprehend as technologies, civilizations, governments, and societies move through the stresses of war.

It is only very recently in comparison that science has acknowledged war’s profound effect on the individual’s conscious and development. Through the vast majority of human history, warfare, while a scourge, was counted upon as an eventuality, part of mankind’s condition, arising as naturally from the realm of the Divine as the rest of the ills of society. Adversarial relationships were in-calculated into our very origins, as from the beginning wars arose between gods and monsters, heroes and the forces of chaos, and the realm of the exalted and the realm of the damned. War was a disaster arising from humanity’s follies, sins, weaknesses, evil, and fear that marked us as a species. Hobbes’ state of nature reflected well this belief that humanity was naturally at war all the time with itself, solitary but to work towards the overthrow of another.

That warfare might be unnatural to man or be a scourge to the individual was not to be suggested until the Enlightenment’s founders, with their belief in reason, began to assert the idea of man’s essential noble savagery, blank slate, and natural rights. Yet, even then, the development of the concept of mental disorders and afflictions would not be recognized for another century.

Thomas Lea's painting The 2000 Yard Stare

Thomas Lea’s painting The 2000 Yard Stare

Warfare has always been an exercise in endurance, physically and emotionally, acknowledged by the concepts of moral forces recorded in Sun Tzu and explored in Clausewitz’s On War. The stresses of war were something to be considered in the selection of generals and troops who could well manage them, but the impact of war upon the soldier was still primarily thought of as one of the body. The soldier’s primary concern was his body, with which he bore the labors of soldiering and with which he often paid the price war extracted. War’s aftermath was a society replete with cripples, amputees, and beggars whose livelihoods were stolen by the loss of a faculty. In Europe, as armies ceased disbanding in enemy country (the able soldiers often taking to mass-banditry or seeking new employment), the number of walking wounded returning home increased, where as before it was often comparatively rare given the hardships of the journey or lack of funds to make it.

The rectification of these ills was the foundation for some of the first social welfare institutions. In 1593 the Act for the Necessary Relief of Soldiers and Necessary Relief of Soldiers and Mariners was passed under Elizabeth I of England, diverting a section of parish revenues to aid veterans. The establishment of hospitals solely for military care and pensions for soldiers arose from royal or private endowment, or from the regiments themselves, and eventually became a social provision. Popular songs spoke of the compensation of wounded soldiers, who filled the streets and bars of their respective home countries:

“The Doctor was called, and he soon staunched me blood

And they gave me a fine elegant leg, made of wood.

They gave me a medal, and 10p a day,

Contented with Sheila, I’ll live on half-pay”

As wars grew larger, involving an ever-greater section of the population in large and bloody conflicts, social support for veterans, many of whom were also increasingly franchised voters, became overtly political. The issues of compensation for veterans in America for example grew substantially in the aftermath of the Civil War with the formation of united organisations like the Grand Army of the Republic to supplement regimental associations, and ultimately led to the formation of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars in the aftermath of the First World War. The “Bonus Army” march on Washington highlighted the need for sustained benefits for veterans and war-wounded, and such provisions made in the aftermath of the Second World War reflected the understood importance of consistent benefits for soldiers and veterans, who were citizens of the nation but also had sacrificed a certain amount of their individual liberty and their literal bodies for the national interest.

But behind all this was another, less recognized phenomena: the impact of war on the human mind. Bodily injuries were visible and open to the doctor or surgeon’s ministrations, but the impact of war on human psychology was far less understood or recognized. Medieval concepts of the soul and the pre-medieval belief in bodily humors were relatively scant on the impact of an event upon a human mind. Even in one of psychology’s first serious treatments, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, warfare did not figure as a cause of mental affliction. Rather imbalances in blood and humors brought on by anger might explain a soldier’s strange behavior, as would a variety of other root causes like a bad diet or enchantment by witches.

While poets and storytellers grasped the impact of battle on mental facilities, they often put them down to excesses of spirit or even possession. The beserk mental state of Viking warriors or Cuchulain’s rages were not thought of in psychological terms. Instead war’s passions, similar in many ways to love’s, were the basis for the pre-modern discussion of psychological afflictions arising from war. Yet, as these sorts of mental wounds were often more insidious than physical wounds, they were often kept below the surface of social consciousness or were swathed in a variety of other obfuscating dimensions like alcoholism or opiate addiction. Psychiatric institutions (slowly growing more humane, though still resembling prisons over hospitals) always kept a healthy population of veterans, but many had wound up there for social aberrations arising from symptomatic behaviors of their deeper trauma, which was either unrecognized or unattended to for lack of any firm treatment options. Suicide was not uncommon, especially where soldiers found themselves unable to renter society, but this too was rarely acknowledged. A rare exception was Thomas Hood’s satirical ballad ‘Faithless Nelly Gray‘, which tells the sad story of Ben Battle, a double amputee who is scorned by his love when he returns to England:

“So round his melancholy neck
A rope he did intwine,
And, for his second time in life,
Enlisted in the Line.”

Within the ranks of the military itself, codes of conduct and expectations of behavior kept any signs discreet or severely punished persons who acted out, considering aberrant actions in the face of the enemy, especially among enlisted men, to arise from cowardice. Stresses among commanders were often treated with a degree more recognition and sympathy, though it was also true that commanders bore a certain implied responsibility for the fates of their armies and were also often more likely to be severely punished or censured for failures. Often times the soldier who was irascible or acted out would be made an example of to other soldiers, something likely no soldier wanted to talk about (likely understanding more of the affliction then was let on).

The First World War brought the issue of involuntary combat afflictions to the light for the first time to the populace. This was due to the increasing number of soldiers considered unfit for duty due to behaviors noticeably linked to the impact of bombardment with high-explosive shells. ‘Shell-shock’ as it was known was different than reactions linked to cowardice because its effects were often extremely pronounced; men were literally reduced to weeping, uncontrollable shaking, and manifested psychosomatic symptoms.  While many military authorities continued to insist this was cowardice or an excuse to flee the horror of combat (and advocated measures like tying afflicted men to the barbed wire), the advance of psychological understanding in the early twentieth century began to open examination into behaviors, and medical professionals like W.H.R Rivers operated the first large psychiatric hospitals. However, these were still primarily for officers, and men like unfortunate Private Harry Farr often found no sympathy.

But the standard was at least beginning to be set, and the symptoms of psychological stress grew in recognition, even though for most men the symptoms were less overt than the convulsions of shell-shock victims and lasted, quietly, through their whole lives. War poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both treated for psychological afflictions, captured the extent of the horror in their poems like Owen’s rather horrifying ‘Mental Cases‘. Men who returned to society from the horror of the trenches to find civilians going about their lives without any discernible impact often experienced intense social isolation. Sassoon captured this in his poem ‘Blighters’

THE House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls, 
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

By the time of the Second World War, while the British Army still did not recognize shell-shock as a valid affliction, there was a more general understanding of the potential for men to suffer psychiatric casualties and for these to be treated. While General Patton famously slapped a soldier complaining of his nerves in a field hospital in Sicily, the US Army did officially bring in the classification ‘Battle Fatigue’ and recognized, as the British had in the First World War, the importance of circulating men through active combat zones, and giving extended rest and refurbishment whenever possible. This principle would later extend to ‘Tours of Duty’ and lead to more extensive psychological profiling of soldiers before enlistment and during their service. Eventually the designations of Combat Stress Reaction and Post-Traumatic Stress disorder were given to the practice of treating soldiers and veterans suffering acute mental anguish, and since the 1980’s efforts have been made to provide a range of services and outreach to assist servicemen and women who suffer from sometimes long-dormant and difficult-to-interpret mental difficulties.

The controversy over the causes and extent of mental illness in the contemporary armed services goes back and forth. Not every soldier is a psychological casualty, nor are suicide rates significantly higher in the services (though they are higher) than society as a whole. The causes of PTSD or any kind of mental affliction in the American or British Army are many, and it is not good to overgeneralize about the extent of the problem or treat soldiers like mental grenades. For all that, it is also folly to insist, as some have continued to, that it doesn’t exist. The tragic story of the death of Chris Kyle, a Marine Sniper who dedicated his life to assisting his fellow soldiers struggling with PTSD, is testimony to the reality that this area requires sustained emphasis, and soldiers deserve the support of their nation and the real confidence and respect of their fellow citizens. Without it, the transition of soldier back into society will likely continue to be marked by difficulties and anguish hard for the population at large to understand.

A final poem entitled ‘Strange Hells’, written by Ivor Gurney during the First World War, perhaps best reflects the insidious difficulties facing service persons at the end of experiences with stresses hard to comprehend for those who did not witness them.

There are strange Hells within the minds War made
Not so often, not so humiliating afraid
As one would have expected – the racket and fear guns made.

One Hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked low their heads
And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
“Apres la guerre fini” till Hell all had come down,
Twelve-inch, six-inch, and eighteen pounders hammering Hell’s thunders.

Where are they now on State-doles, or showing shop patterns
Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns – but has to keep out of the face how heart burns.

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