The Battle Over PTSD
The battle over the meaning of a traumatic experience is fought in the arena of political discourse, popular culture and scholarly debate. The outcome of this battle shapes the rhetoric of the dominant culture and influences future political action.
--Kali Tal, Worlds Of Hurt: Reading the Literature of Trauma
There’s a major struggle for meaning going on in America now that centers on war trauma among returning soldiers and veterans of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Libya.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the current official term for what has plagued soldiers throughout history as they returned from wars to civilian society. PTSD became an official term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, following a period of struggle among psychiatric authorities and activists that focused on the experiences of Vietnam veterans. The DSM is regularly revised and updated.
What sort of meaning one ascribes to war trauma depends on who one consults and how connected they may be, directly or ideologically, to the Department of Defense, which has a major stake in establishing certain parameters of meaning in how PTSD is perceived in the culture.
The key terms for the military are about establishing resiliency to facilitate the reintegration of soldiers into their units for future deployment and the idea of a warrior class with a warrior ethos. In the case of resiliency and reintegration, those concepts are also key in civilian-based trauma recovery. It just depends on what one is building resiliency for and what one intends to reintegrate a soldier into, civilian life or future re-deployment.
The era of the citizen soldier has faded into the past when there was a draft and when wars like World War Two were “popular” and widely understood to be defensive and to make sense to most people. Now, we have a completely volunteer military, an institution that is becoming more and more separated, even aloof, from civilian life, as it deploys its soldiers to fight foreign wars that, for many, make less and less sense and use up more and more national resources.
No one is a “soldier” anymore; whether you’re in special ops doing lethal night raids into Pakistan or repairing computers on a FOB, you’re now a “warrior” — as if you wore studded breast-plates and carried swords and lived by the rule come home with your shield or on it.