Because my 33-year-old father was on the verge of embarking for Europe and the allied invasion of Italy, my birth certificate reads: U.S. Army Hospital, Fort Benning, Georgia. When he finally returned, PFC Lee Olson’s decorations included a Purple Heart Medal for shrapnel wounds suffered from a German hand grenade in the Battle of Monte Cassino, one of the longest, bloodiest and most costly land campaigns of World War II.
After my dad died from a sudden heart attack in 1956, I recall my mother wistfully confiding to me that “Your father was never the same person after the war.” A stoical Scandinavian, this was her cryptic explanation for my dad’s emotional disengagement, frightening impatience, brooding sadness and inability to hold a steady job. Like so many other spouses of returning vets, she mourned for the prewar husband who remained missing in action.
Perhaps she hoped that one day I’d understand why he could never be the loving father he might have been and after decades of trying to fathom and forgive my dad, I finally grasped how the personal had become poignantly political for one unsuspecting 12-year-old boy. In that sense, my mom and I were undocumented collateral damage.
World War II combat veterans rarely if ever gave voice to what they’d done or witnessed and my father was no exception. My best guess is that his emotional scars would be diagnosed today as chronic or delayed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which the American Psychiatric Association defines this way:
The person has experienced, witnessed or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened deaths or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others, and his/her response involved fear, helplessness, or horror.
Ellen Goosenberg Kent, a close student of PTSD, correctly observes “[If] you think PTSD happens because the war is good or bad or you come home a hero or a villain, it’s really irrelevant. What’s really relevant is that the experience of war – and experiencing man’s inhumanity to man – causes psychological damage.” Over half of the U.S. casualties in the aforementioned Italian campaign were classified as mental wounds.
By the war’s end, sixteen million Americans had served in the armed forces but no more than 900,000 soldiers experienced extensive combat. For soldiers consistently in combat for twenty-eight days, the breakdown rate reached 90 percent. Importantly, the stigma and shame attached to any personal revelations caused many members of the “greatest generation” not to seek help. Even by the early 1990s, at least 25 percent of WWII veterans remaining in veterans’ hospitals were psychiatric cases.
Some readers might recall Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. combat soldier from World War II. Credited with killing 240 of the enemy and awarded the Medal of Honor, Murphy was photographed for the cover of Life Magazine in 1945, feted in parades and acted in 44 Hollywood films including To Hell and Back, based on his war memoirs. Murphy was also a serious war casualty. His postwar symptoms included insomnia, nightmares, hypersensitivity to loud noises, depression, and paranoia. In addition to being addicted to Placidyl, a powerful sleeping pill, Murphy always slept with a loaded pistol next to his bed. At the time of his death in a plane crash in 1971, he was bankrupt after squandering millions of dollars on women, bad investments and gambling. Murphy was also deeply committed to obtaining better mental health care for veterans, including from Korean and Vietnam Wars. Toward that end he courageously broke the taboo on publicly disclosing the chronic mental damage caused by combat duty. Because he was a genuine war hero he couldn’t easily be admonished to “stop whining and get on with your life” or in today’s vernacular, urged to “man up!” That said, it’s instructive that his passing barely drew mention in major media outlets.
My point in this retelling is that although credible evidence suggests that World War II could have been prevented at earlier points, once it began there was no alternative but to defeat a monstrously evil enemy. As such, the massive psychiatric casualties experienced by our veterans were a heart-rending but unavoidable cost.
Here we get to the nub of the matter. While there is much to admire about the United States – my freedom to write this piece is certainly one – the post-World War II foreign policy of the country and institutionalized military-industrial profiteering that President Eisenhower warned about do not merit inclusion on any list of celebrated national attributes. In the 70 years since the necessary war to defeat Hitler’s Third Reich and imperial Japan, I’m unable to cite any plausible cases where U.S. Armed Forces or the CIA have been deployed to defend our nation’s ideals, the freedom of ordinary U.S. citizens or any plausible notion of morality. Therefore the massive and growing number of severe psychological maladies plaguing our veterans is yet another unconscionable cost of empire.
In recent years the V.A. has been overwhelmed with PTSD patients from the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars even though some 50% of those with the symptoms do not seek treatment. This already involves elite U.S. Special Operations forces, members of which operate in 134 countries. According to the Pentagon, commandos are experiencing alarming rates of alcoholism, spousal abuse and broken marriages, and rates are expected to climb rapidly due to delayed onset PTSD. In the past two and one-half years 49 Special Ops have killed themselves.
If we accepted responsibility for the effects of combat on the psyches of our veterans and their families, we would resist allowing any more of our sons and daughters to engage in warfare that lacks an iota of the moral clarity ascribed to World War II.
Finally, it’s obvious to any objective observer that the top 0.1 percent, a permanent plutocracy of inherited wealth holds the reins of power in our country. Given that fact, one would hardly expect high level government officials to come clean to suffering vets about the nefarious economic motives that placed them in harm’s way.
And while it’s unclear whether truth telling by the rest of us will help set free the demons hounding the veterans of our recent wars, ending U.S. militarism is the only way to prevent the scourge of soldiers’ PTSD from reappearing in the future.
Gary Olson teaches political science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is EMPATHY IMPERILED: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (New York: Springer/Verlag, 2013).