As we approach Anzac Day, it’s right that we remember, and reflect on, the importance of war in Australia’s 20th C history. The year 1915 was quickly marked down, even at the time, as a turning point. The role of Australian troops at Gallipoli, in Egypt and in the trenches in France became a source of national pride, an index and icon of national identity and the basis of Australia’s claims, after the war, to have a strong voice in the shaping of the (then) new world order.
But of course there’s always the other side – the dreadful costs of war. Not only was the World War I deathrate among Australian troops appalling; not only did many return permanently physically disabled; but the emotional and psychological costs were immense, and terrible. Years after the war, the sufferers of what was then called shell-shock were still hospitalized and incapacitated for ordinary life; men who had gone to war mentally and physically fit returned to a life of alcoholism and mental illness.
Nowadays, we would call these injuries ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, and increasingly (after Vietnam and Afghanistan) we recognise that it is a condition that can and must be fully acknowledged and well treated. But it hasn’t always been like that.
‘Shell-shock’ victims in World War I were sometimes thought to be in some ways ‘weak’ or insufficient to the needs of war (a classic case of blaming the victim).
Even more interestingly, understandings of their deep emotional pain differed very markedly in different places throughout history. Joanna Bourke, studying the emotional effects and regimes of war in 20th century Britain found that deeply-embedded British notions of class affected their readings of World War I post-traumatic stress disorder. Upper-class army officers were of superior calibre; they could experience ‘shellshock’. But working-class troops under their command couldn’t aspire to shellshock – they (it was thought) suffered only from the much-despised ‘neurasthenia’ or nervous weakness. Amazingly, the same understandings were extended to animals. Officers’ horses, like their masters, could become shell-shocked, while the lowly mule was thought to be immune.
What about emotional reactions to wars in the long past? After all, from pre-Classical times right through the middle ages and early modern period humans have engaged in brutal, bloody, hand-to-hand wars. Did their warriors get post-traumatic stress disorder, and if not why not? The question intrigues Professor David Konstan, who went looking for recognisable accounts of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Ancient Greek epics. At first, it doesn’t seem to be there. Then he looked closer at the accounts of the warriors fighting in, and returning home from, the legendary wars of Troy. What did he find? On the one hand, they are presented as heroes, almost godlike beings who must be admired, and if possible imitated. On the other, they fly into irrational rages, beat and enslave women and servants and in the case of Ulysses, arbitrarily slaughter a crowd of his wife’s supposed suitors, even though she has remained entirely and strictly faithful to him over the long years of his absence! It might sound like classic post-traumatic stress disorder behaviour to us; to them, it’s just what heroes do, par for the course.
Like practically every other emotion, then, post-war trauma has never been understood the same way in different places and at different times in history. We believe, nowadays, that we have a much better, and more humane, understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and its treatment. We should remember with pity and perhaps remorse the plight of those returning Anzacs who suffered from the lack of acknowledgement of their mental state and the need for its proper treatment. But we should also remember that how we think now may not be how we think in the future. In the year 2114 people may be wondering why we (apparently) knew so little, and did so little, for the traumatized from our own wars.
Posted by Philippa Maddern