A WAR OF NERVES by Ben Shephard


Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century
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An impressive history of mental illness and its treatment during wartime.

Drawing on almost 100 years of medical records from Britain, France, Germany, and the US, the author shows how military commands consistently downplayed soldiers’ psychiatric problems. In WWI, it took years for generals on both sides to acknowledge that shell shock was more than cowardice, even though sufferers of the condition often became mute or paralyzed. When army psychiatric hospitals were finally established, cures involved milk diets and electroshock therapy. The author, who worked as a producer on the British television documentary The World at War, peppers his text with tales that remind us why a soldier might have lost his mind in the trenches of France. (For example: An explosion throws a soldier into the air. He lands on a decomposed body, smearing his face with rotten entrails.) From Shephard’s perspective, Freud provided the best way for military psychologists to handle their patients. The notion of an unconscious repressing unpleasant experiences became a workable framework for treatment, allowing doctors to hypnotize and cure the traumatized with a degree of success. During WWII, the London Blitz, tank warfare, and island-to-island fighting in the Pacific brought new versions of the old troubles. Generals were still reluctant to address shell shock until it affected their manpower. Unlike their counterparts in WWI, however, psychologists by the 1940s could administer an array of drugs to their patients, who by then were being called depressive. The heroes of this history, all doctors, are named. They don’t really stand out as individuals against the mass of historical material, but their movement to instill respect for the mind’s frailty succeeded, at least in theory. Shephard writes that American veterans of the Gulf War view their government’s failure to look after their mental conditions as just that—a failure—rather than as an understandable lapse.

An invaluable resource for doctors, scholars of war literature, and military leaders.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-674-00592-9
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2001


by B. Zaragoza