Cover image for A war of nerves : soldiers and psychiatrists in the twentieth century
A war of nerves : soldiers and psychiatrists in the twentieth century
Shephard, Ben, 1948-
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2001.

Physical Description:
xxiii, 487 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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RC550 .S535 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A War of Nerves is a history of military psychiatry in the twentieth century--an authoritative, accessible account drawing on a vast range of diaries, interviews, medical papers, and official records, from doctors as well as ordinary soldiers. It reaches back to the moment when the technologies of modern warfare and the disciplines of psychological medicine first confronted each other on the Western Front, and traces their uneasy relationship through the eras of shell-shock, combat fatigue, and post-traumatic stress disorder. At once absorbing historical narrative and intellectual detective story, A War of Nerves weaves together the literary, medical, and military lore to give us a fascinating history of war neuroses and their treatment, from the World Wars through Vietnam and up to the Gulf War. In so doing, he answers recurring questions about the effects of war. Why do some men crack and others not? Are the limits of resistance determined by character, heredity, upbringing, ideology, or simple biochemistry? Military psychiatry has long been shrouded in misconception, and haunted by the competing demands of battle and of recovery. Now, for the first time, we have a definitive history of this vital art and science, which illuminates the bumpy efforts to understand the ravages of war on the human mind, and points towards the true lessons to be learned from treating the aftermath of war.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Psychiatrists were brought into war, independent historian and The World at War producer Shephard argues, because they seemed to be able to alleviate its mental traumas in ways both the military and civilian communities considered necessary. With a focus limited essentially to the British and U.S. experiences, with some references to German and French practices (and nothing at all about the Soviet Union), much of Shephard's text presents the personal and professional rivalries among individuals and movements firmly convinced of the validity of their particular patterns of treatment. Of greater significance, however, is Shephard's idea that modern military psychology can be thought of as an argument between "dramatists," concerned with defining and analyzing traumas and symptoms, and "realists," concerned with returning men not only to combat but to life. Since 1945, especially since Vietnam, according to Shephard, the "dramatists" have dominated, resulting in acceptance of a model of post-traumatic stress that assumes perpetual crisis and perpetual therapy. Shephard argues that, in at least one well-documented case, counseling professionals have perpetuated trauma-induced dysfunction by encouraging preoccupation with the trauma. In contrast, Shephard emphasizes the importance of social and cultural, as opposed to medical, responses to war stress: immediate local help, given by those who understand concepts of military group bonding, is crucial, underpinned by leadership and comradeship, dissociation and displacement; so are sex and memories of sex and "above all, singing, humor, and alcohol." Far from being placebos, he says, such defenses help contextualize traumatic situations by reasserting nontraumatic norms, even in combat. It is an argument currently unfashionable, but meriting correspondingly wide circulation and discussion. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Shephard's ambitious study, bolstered by an impressive array of sources diaries, medical case studies, patient interviews, official publications, and physician reports chronicles military psychiatry in the 20th century. It begins at the chronological intersection of modern warfare and psychological medicine during the Great War and examines this troubled marriage through the periods of shell-shock (World War I), combat fatigue (World War II), and post-traumatic stress disorder (Vietnam, Falkland campaign, and the Gulf War). Shephard melds contemporary literary, military, and medical documentation by offering a panorama of war neuroses with conflicting schools of treatment. He suggests qualified answers as to why combatants react differently to stress and discusses the appropriate roles and investments of the military, government, and society in the rehabilitation of those psychologically crippled by war. The author, a former producer of "The World at War" series, concludes that perhaps "military psychiatry is often done best not by psychiatrists but by doctors, officers, or soldiers who understand the principles of group psychology and use the defenses in culture to help people through traumatic situations." This fine study should appeal to all readers. Recommended for psychology, psychiatry, and medical history collections, as well as for large public and academic libraries. John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Lib., Athens (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Shock of the Shell
1 Doctors' Minds
2 Shell-Shock in France
3 Trench Work
4 The Somme
5 Psychiatry at the Front, 1917-18
6 Home Fires
7 Europeans
8 Arguments and Enigmas, 1917-18
9 'Skirting the Edges of Hell'
10 Inquests
11 'Will Peace Bring Peace?'
12 The Lessons of Shell-Shock
13 Dunkirk, the Blitz and the Blue
14 'We Can Save those Boys from Horror'
15 Front-line Psychiatry
16 New Ways of War
17 D-Day and After
18 A Tale of Two Hospitals
19 The Helmeted Airman
20 Learning from the Germans?
21 Prisoners of War
22 A Good War?
23 Vietnam Doctors
24 From Post-Vietnam Syndrome to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
25 'When the Patient Reports Atrocities...'
26 From the Falklands to the Gulf
27 The Culture of Trauma
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