Shellshock and Redemption

By now most everyone is familiar with the phenomenon known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. We associate this disorder primarily with veterans of combat. What many people do not know is that this disorder was included into the bible of therapeutic mental health disorders only after a long struggle by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and some other US veterans organizations in the 1970s. Prior to that inclusion, veterans who were suffering from what was then commonly known as shell shock were left to their own demons or, in some extreme cases during wartime, executed by the military for cowardice under fire. Even today, some returning vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements who have symptoms that suggest PTSD have been accused of faking these symptoms to get out of a third or fourth tour in those battle zones. In fact, in one recently publicized incident, the Surgeon General of the Army ordered military counselors to stop processing requests for psychological assistance from GIs returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Michele Barrett’s new work from Verso titled Casualty Figures takes a look at the lives of five men who fought for the British military in the First World War and suffered some form of shell shock. The five vignettes that make up the bulk of the text include passages from the men’s letters home to family and loved ones. They also include brief sections of unpublished accounts by the men themselves regarding their battle experiences. Those experiences included battles where 10,000 of the German enemy and 3,000 British soldiers died in one battle. The stories also tell of men being holed up in trenches for days on end with nothing but corpses to keep them company and other tales of battlements being built from the corpses of the enemy. They relate moments of realization by the individuals portrayed that the war itself was pointless and served no soldier’s interest, no matter who he was fighting for.

The two most interesting men portrayed by Barrett are Bombardier Ronald Kirth and Air Vice Marshall Sir William Tyrell. After Kirth refused to obey an order to bombard a church, he was demoted to a lower rank and loses his leave and some of his rations. This experience and his experience that caused the death of a friend when they were bombarded while manning a pill box led him to become a pacifist. The death of his friend and the events immediately following the bombardment when Kirth was catapulted several meters into the air caused Kirth to experience total amnesia. That episode would be the first of many such experiences. Realizing that he would not have suffered this if he hadn’t been in the pill box (or the war), and understanding that the amnesiac episodes are his brain’s method of coping with that he saw and felt, Kirth became opposed to all wars.

Tyrell, on the other hand, saw his bout of shell shock as a weakness that he must destroy by becoming tougher and more military-like. The rest of his life was spent doing exactly that, both in his professional military life and his personal life. The stories of these two men vividly illustrate the nature of a society steeped in militarism and its effect on individuals subjected to the militarists’ propaganda and institutions. Likewise, the stories of the other three — two who died young and a third who lived within himself until he died — show the effects of those who fight the militarists’ wars for whatever reason. Indeed, it is these three who may be more typical than either Kirth or Tyrell.

By telling these stories, Barrett brings home to the reader the pointlessness of modern war and the damage it inflicts on the survivors. Looking through the lens provided by Barrett’s selection of these five men’s stories, the reader is reminded quite graphically of the consequence of one of humanity’s bloodiest adventures in human slaughter — World War I, the war to end all wars. Many of the men who ended up dead from wounds in World War I nowadays survive similar wounds thanks to medical progress. Unfortunately, this fact only seems to make war more palatable to the politicians, generals, arms manufacturers and powerbrokers that depend on it for their livelihood.

Long Shadows is a book similar to Casualty Figures in that it relates the stories of men (and two women) who served in the military. The difference, however, lies in the fact that the individuals in Long Shadows decided to use their experience and the trauma it caused to work towards opposing future wars of power and empire. It wasn’t always an easy path to that decision for these folks, but it is one that all of the individuals writing in this collection believe to be the best one they could have made. The nineteen veterans whose thoughts and memories appear in this book are all members of the Madison, Wisconsin Clarence Kailin chapter of Veterans for Peace, an organization of veterans with over 120 chapters throughout the United States. The collection’s writers include a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, vets of World War Two, the Korean War, the war in Vietnam, an Israeli-American vet, and veterans of the Middle East and Asian wars that began with Desert Storm in 1990.

Evocative and often heartwrenching, these stories are a collection of epiphanies by men and women who discovered through personal experience how terrible and pointless war really is. While many of them are now pacifist, one or two are more specific in the wars they oppose. Specifically, they oppose wars of empire and conquest, while supporting the right of people to defend themselves from invasion and occupation. Coming from all walks of life — wealthy, poor, farmers, city dwellers, progressive and reactionary, white skinned and black — each of the individuals underwent a transformation either during their wartime service or in the years succeeding it that brought them to a point where they felt the only option was to speak out no matter what the cost. Some, like WW II vet Charles Sweet, came to this decision because of their children. Others, because of their need to deal with personal demons and guilt. One or two never would have predicted while they were serving that they would join the ranks of the antiwar protesters. Still others, like Will Williams, needed to find a place to transpose the anger within himself (an anger growing from the racism he experienced as a black American) into something positive.

If you don’t tear up at least once while you read this book, then you are not capable of tearing up. Whether it’s a veteran telling the story of seeing his buddy die or his attempts to deal with the torture and wanton killing he either took part in or was unable or unwilling to stop, the emotional level of these memories left this writer drained. Some of the vets herein were diagnosed with PTSD, but most were left to deal with their demons on their own. Still, the book is not all wretched sadness, Indeed, it is the hope for a more peaceful future growing out of the struggle these men and women have joined that is the overriding message in these pages.

As the friend of several members of living and deceased Vets for Peace, I responded immediately and positively to a request to review Long Shadows. Having grown up in a military family during the Vietnam era, I think I understand something of what it is like to buck the expectations of relatives and society and take a stand against the military and its purpose. For those who actually wore the uniform to reject it and the brainwashing and come through that intact is worthy of respect. To use those experiences in support of preventing others from becoming veterans is even more noble. That, I believe, is the primary intention of the men and women appearing in this book. That is also why you should share this book with those currently serving or considering such a move. It might convince them to change their mind.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Arch Stanton said on February 26th, 2008 at 2:26pm #

    Thanks, but I don’t think I need you to tell me what I’m capable of. What about the hundreds of thousands (probably over a million) slaughtered in Iraq and Afghanistan ? Save some of your tears for them.

  2. ron said on February 26th, 2008 at 2:38pm #


  3. Mike McNiven said on February 27th, 2008 at 2:33am #

    US armed forces is a VOLUNTARY force with billions of tax payers $$ for medical care! Why should the anti-imperialist forces spend their limited resources on this subject? Millions of Americans are suffering from the PTSD of the US imperialist system in the form of unemplyment, lack of medical care, lack of housing, lack of retirement benefits ,…without any support! What are you trying to say when the answer is : don’t join in the first place!

  4. ron said on February 27th, 2008 at 5:20am #

    What I am trying to say is this:
    PTSD is a serious ailment with many folks. Soldiers suffer from it more than most of the rest of the US. Whether you like it or not, they deserve health care. The answer you provide is false. The real answer is to prevent wars from happening in the first place. That is our job! Our job isn’t to blame the soldier.
    As for that all-volunteer line. That assumption is based on a misunderstanding of class in the US. Recruiters prey on the poor and wroking class youth. Sure, they want a few kids from fancy prep schools and colleges for their officer corps, but the overwhelming focus of their effort is in working class communities. In other words, kids with few options to make a living are being recruited to kill for you so that you can drive your car and feel safe.
    There’s a big difference between losing one’s job and losing one’s limbs or mental capabilities. Take a look at the DSM-V before you equate PTSD with the stress caused by unemployment.
    As for shedding tears for the victims of the US military–advocating for vet treatment does not preclude such an act. However, I don’t think they want our tears–they just want our military out of their countries.

    As for the books—one is a study of shellschock and the other is about soldiers taking the lessons of war and using them to fight against wars.
    The contempt you exhibit for those folks who join the military leads me to think that you could do well by reading the latter.

  5. Shabnam said on February 28th, 2008 at 1:41pm #

    Why do people should support PDST for those mercenaries whom you call “kids with few options to make a living are being recruited to kill for you so that you can drive your car and feel safe?” They should let “elites” who are the real beneficiaries from these crimes send their children to the front, and then we will see how difficult the task is going to be. The rich have different parts to play and they are playing them to kill Iraqi people and rob their wealth. Majorities of the population of the “democratic west” are involved in funding and supporting these crimes against humanity because THEY BENEFIT FROM IT.
    These mercenaries from the working class were not attacked to justify their crimes against the population of the region and especially Iraqi people. These killers went to Iraq to collect benefits and practice their vicious “cultural values” that have learnt by playing war games on their fuc…. computers to experience their REAL gratification and enjoyment in place of videos and “reality TV Shows” to get out of their boredom in their violent societies and treat the indigenous population of other countries with the same medicine and treatment that their father and grandfather and great grandfather with cooperation of few locals who became their agents did to indigenous population of Americas and Palestine and beyond before them. These killers whom you call soldiers deserve nothing but punishment since they have voluntarily killed, so far, more than a MILLION people in Iraq alone, have raped many women and men with enjoyment, and they have carried out the crimes of the imperialism and Zionism to kill people, to destroy Iraq and to rob their museum and historical remains to eliminate their contribution to civilization and mankind. Are these criminal acts not similar to acts of those crazy before them who have done similar things to indigenous population of Americas in order to take over and expand their influence? Neither these mercenaries nor their “superior” must be supported. The punishment for these ignorant and terrorists and rapists is to be send to school and force them to learn the history of Zionism and Imperialism and to learn how did they become ” victorious” and what does it mean when we say American “exceptionalism.”
    Why is that you and people like you, Noam Chomsky, call those Palestinians whom sacrifice their lives to LIBERATE their land and themselves from OCCUPATION by the European setters, Zionists, who kill and destroy the indigenous population of Palestine every day and they have been forced out of their land and properties into terrible refugee camps worse than the German fascists with the support of colonial and imperial West TERRORIST but you and people like Chomsky hesitate to call these real terrorists what they really are?

  6. ron said on February 28th, 2008 at 3:02pm #

    There’s a phrase–you can’t see the forest for the trees–which applies to your rant. Soldiers are wrong for giving up their free will, but that does not excuse those that sent them. Our job is to convince people they should not join the ranks of mercenaries. Treating them as if they are less than human when they are all too sadly quite human is a strategu guaranteed to fail.

  7. ron said on February 28th, 2008 at 3:02pm #

    There’s a phrase–you can’t see the forest for the trees–which applies to your rant. Soldiers are wrong for giving up their free will, but that does not excuse those that sent them. Our job is to convince people they should not join the ranks of mercenaries. Treating them as if they are less than human when they are all too sadly quite human is a strategy guaranteed to fail.

  8. Shabnam said on February 28th, 2008 at 4:28pm #


    Who did excuse elites? I wrote they play different part usually as the designer of the war, which is pretty safe, and they collect the most benefits from it, and what are we doing in this website? To alarm ignorant people of all sides including the ignorant Iranian “opposition” and ignorant constructed “minorities” in the targeted countries such as Iraq, Iran, Sudan, former Yugoslavia, who are to be used by imperialist and Zionist for “greater Israel” and expansion of the imperial and colonial power through the game of “divide and rule” around the world, and ignorant Americans who support the war actively or passively. We are asking them not to join these destructive forces and do not share your language skills or your knowledge which might have any values to these criminals. We warn them don’t get involve with the intelligent agencies of our time
    where function “openly” through different organizations and think tanks such as The National endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, VOA, the Institute for Near East Policy. We say don’t fight the war of Zionist/imperialist and their puppets and do not support their phony slogan such as “democracy” , “war on terror” or “no blood for oil.” Haven’t we?

  9. ron said on February 28th, 2008 at 7:07pm #

    I honestly believe we agree on more than we disagree. I prefer to use that as a means to work together than use our differences to argue.

  10. E. said on February 29th, 2008 at 11:05am #

    I wish Dissident Voice would include bibliographic info with its reviews. I’m trying to find this Long Shadows book and it’s tough to find on Amazon with just the title.

  11. ron said on February 29th, 2008 at 4:13pm #

    here’s the publisher and ISBNs

    # Publisher: Atwood Publishing; First edition (October 26, 2006)
    # Language: English
    # ISBN-10: 1891859641
    # ISBN-13: 978-1891859649

  12. E. said on February 29th, 2008 at 4:26pm #

    Thanks, Ron!