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Canadian soldiers patrol an area in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, June 7, 2009. (Colin Perkel/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian soldiers patrol an area in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, June 7, 2009. (Colin Perkel/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


Challenging traditional military culture Add to ...

Canada’s top brass are insistent they’re doing everything they can to support veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, there’s a noticeable hesitancy when they talk about the issue with civilians. The candour of Roméo Dallaire, himself a PTSD sufferer, is exceptional.

It’s a different story south of the border, where the world’s most powerful civilian is commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful army. President Barack Obama has no hesitation in talking about PTSD; in fact, from the start of his presidency, it’s been a matter of special concern for him and his wife.

In 2012, the Obama administration eased the rules whereby veterans with PTSD could claim benefits; extended eligibility to veterans of all wars, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan; and expanded the definition of PTSD to include trauma caused by the apprehension of death or injury. “I’ve met enough veterans to know that you don’t have to engage in a firefight to endure the trauma of war,” Mr. Obama said.

Encouraged by the administration’s shift in policy, veterans have swamped the underfunded Department of Veterans Affairs with a flood of benefit applications. Mr. Obama – against the fiscal grain – is proposing a 4-per-cent increase in its budget.

Mr. Obama’s message on PTSD is delivered with his trademark rhetoric, which artfully meshes soothing therapeutic language with the forcefulness of archaic diction. “Wounded warrior” is the evocative White House term for injured soldier. Good politics? Yes, but much more. Mr. Obama is challenging a military ethos that defines manliness as the ability to withstand the horrors of the battlefield.

The modern understanding of PTSD dates from the 1970s to describe a serious mental disorder identified in many U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War. But the condition itself has likely been around since human conflict began. Perhaps Achilles was suffering from it as he sulked in his tent, refusing to rejoin the Greeks’ attack on their Trojan foes.

The clinical definition of PTSD was foreshadowed in the Great War when front-line soldiers started manifesting the physical symptoms – uncontrollable shaking, catatonia and mutism – of what became known as shell shock. English poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – who themselves experienced the horrors of trench warfare – spoke to its reality, and offered an alternative vision of the soldierly bond, one based on shared suffering and vulnerability. This “softer” version anticipates in some ways the one embraced by Mr. Obama.

Those in the emerging field of psychiatry also recognized shell shock as a genuine ailment. Yet, most staff officers, comfortably ensconced well away from the front lines, insisted that its alleged sufferers were either malingerers or effeminized “hysterics” who had failed the ultimate test of manhood. The attitude persisted through the Second World War (its abiding image is that of General George Patton slapping a shell-shocked GI).

By 1945, the reality that war can inflict serious psychological damage could no longer be denied. But it took on the character of a dirty secret, continually being shoved back into the closet lest it sully the image of the manly warrior.

Those, like myself, who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War often encountered men with PTSD, though we had scant awareness of what we were witnessing. “He had a bad war,” was the customary diagnosis, one spoken in whispers in a way calculated to discourage further inquiry.

In the Welsh grammar school I attended, many of our teachers were ex-servicemen. Some carried visible injuries from battle. Others – it’s clear now – had damaged psyches. My history teacher had been in Bomber Command; his plane had been shot down and he had spent the rest of the war in a German PoW camp. He had violent mood swings and was hypervigilant to any slight, real or imagined. Yet, when he wasn’t smashing furniture or yelling, he was a considerate and scholarly man.

The mindset among the allies after the war was to celebrate victories and to mourn the dead, but to draw a veil over suffering. The attitude proved resilient. In 1982, Britain’s Ministry of Defence initially resisted the inclusion of injured soldiers in the victory parade that followed the Falklands War. Presumably, it was felt their presence would contaminate the aesthetics of celebration.

Mr. Obama is taking on the weight of history when he seeks to reconcile PTSD with heroism. I applaud his efforts. Success will give some substance to his desired legacy as a president who helped to bind up the nation’s wounds.

John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.

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