A friend who died recently lived his life in two halves. In his youth he was the boisterous, swaggering, electrifying bass drummer with a lederhosen band. An excellent natural lyric tenor addicted to the schlager repertoire, a fighter of German marines during wine festivals, a charmer of the ladies, he seemed destined to become an 18th century recruiting sergeant and die of gout.
However, the world has changed, and he did what seemed like the closest thing, and became a sergeant in the Dutch army. But the Dutch army is not designed for combat, and so he was made to sit between bloodthirsty bands of Slavs during the Balkan Wars, and in autumn 1993 was sent to Vukovar for the first, failed attempt to exhume the victims of the massacre (more).
Everyone agrees that that was where the second, PTSD half of his life began, but in retrospect I wonder whether it was not the (unfulfilled expectation of) horror that changed him (for that was the general drift of retellings), but rather the conflict in him between his desire to act and the United Nations and the Dutch’s preference for genocidal inaction, and how that conflict in him was then mishandled by the army.
Another, older, similarly Falstaffian friend from the same milieu served with Unifil in Lebanon in the 80s and was similarly affected by the gratuitous murder by Israelis of a beggar boy. But on his return, with no form of counselling, he has channelled his life in fruitful ways.
In contrast to him, Mr Drummer, encouraged by army psychologists, who said that he could reasonably expect to be traumatised, took on the PTSD label, found a mother figure rather than a wife, and pondered the past instead of wrestling with children. Worst of all, he became a baritone.
This is not my field, and I hope it never will be, but I wonder in all humility whether Martin van Creveld isn’t right:
PTSD, as it suddenly emerged during the American Civil War, is not so much a medical phenomenon as a cultural one. It is the product of a society which tolerates it and, all too often, encourages it and even celebrates it. It does so partly because the idea that war is bad for the soul is taken very much for granted; and partly because of the fear of litigation. Whatever the reason, things have got to the point where American troops returning from places like Afghanistan are now obliged to undergo annual testing for PTSD. Instead of feting its heroes, society, treating them like damaged goods, does what it can to humiliate them.
I like the sound of James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense:
In a speech last month, Mattis tackled a concern that is on the minds of a number of combat leaders: A public that wants to paint veterans as victims and why that is potentially damaging to the fighting spirit of America’s warriors.
“I would just say there is one misperception of our veterans and that is they are somehow damaged goods,” Mattis said. “I don’t buy it.”
“If we tell our veterans enough that this is what is wrong with them they may actually start believing it,” he said during questions after a speech at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco.
“While victimhood in America is exalted I don’t think our veterans should join those ranks,” Mattis said.
“There is also something called post traumatic growth where you come out of a situation like that and you actually feel kinder toward your fellow man and fellow woman,” Mattis said.