Why Are PTSD Rates So High Among Veterans?

One of the many masks of war

W.J. Astore

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a major problem among veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The VA government web site explains that “OEF/OIF service members are at risk for death or injury. They may see others hurt or killed. They may have to kill or wound others. They are on alert around the clock. These and other factors can increase their chances of having PTSD or other mental health problems.”  The site goes on to say that “Research on OEF/OIF Veterans suggests that 10% to 18% of OEF/OIF troops are likely to have PTSD after they return.” (OEF and OIF are acronyms for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

That’s a lot of veterans.  Hundreds of thousands, potentially.  Why is this number so high?  Is there something uniquely bad or intense about wars in Iraq or Afghanistan?  We can point to several factors, to include constant redeployments – four or five were not uncommon – on high-risk and high-stress missions, only to witness regress instead of progress.  Add to this the everyday shifts between secure bases and insecure field ops (as with air crews in World War II), direct electronic connections to home (which can prove discomforting rather than reassuring), and transitions from battlefront to homefront that are often too rapid for bodies and minds to adjust.  Finally, we’re witnessing better diagnosis (think of the “epidemic” of concussions in the NFL, which is much more about better recognition of the symptoms rather than an explosion in cases).  Small wonder there’s almost a pandemic of PTSD cases among the troops.

Are today’s troops not adequately prepared to handle the stresses of war?  Were warriors of the past somehow different?  A colleague, the classicist Steven Willett, explained that within ancient Greece there’s no direct evidence of warriors suffering from what we today term PTSD (though doubtless men suffered physical and mental anguish in the aftermath of brutal physical combat associated with Greek phalanxes).

In Willett’s words,

The evidence [of PTSD] is nonexistent because their [the Greek’s] emotional attitude to service and death for the state is not ours.  One way to appreciate this is to look carefully at the beautiful funeral sculptures set up in the Kerameikos of Athens after the first years of the Peloponnesian War.  Dead soldiers stand serenely in the confidence of having done their duty, perhaps with a favorite dog or horse by them, and the parents looking on never betray grief.  The emotional ambience is calm, the tears long shed, the family proud in its sorrow.  A lot of these funeral sculptures are available on line, but the best are in National Archaeological Museum of Athens.  The families and relatives of Spartan soldiers who had died [are] nobly celebrated, while those of the survivors almost mourned.  Think of Thermopylae.

It got me thinking anew about America’s current wars, and how these wars – unlike those for the Greeks – are not directly for communal defense.  Nor are America’s wars fought by communities, not when 99% of Americans exempt themselves from military service.  In Greek society, all able-bodied men believed it to be both duty and honor to wield shield and spear to defend their communities.  (Socrates was one of them.)  In America today, “support” for the troops often begins and ends with a bumper sticker.

Shared sacrifice for communal ideals: such common purpose doubtless acted as a cushion for the physical and mental blows inflicted in Greek warfare.  No matter the era, troops in combat see and experience horrible things, but the trauma is arguably easier to process when blows are cushioned by necessity, and softened by sacrifices shared within tightknit communal settings.

And that’s precisely what’s lacking in the USA today: a sense that our overseas wars are for a communal cause, for honored ideals held in common.  (Other than a vague sense of protecting the “homeland” from “terrorists.”)  The lack of a strongly held communal cause/purpose for our wars ultimately contributes, I believe, to PTSD rates among our returning veterans.  A sense of confusion – why did I suffer – what was it for, intensified by bitterness – my suffering wasn’t worth it – I killed people and saw my buddies killed and it was all for nothing, plagues the troops that our government sends to war ostensibly in our name.

The military historian Sir Michael Howard quotes Carl von Clausewitz on the larger meaning of war.  War, Clausewitz wrote, “cannot be divorced from political [communal] life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements [of political purpose and war] are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.”

If we want to lower PTSD rates, the easiest way is to stop sending troops to war, full stop.  And the second easiest way is to stop sending troops to pointless wars that are devoid of political or communal sense.  Wars that serve no larger communal purpose lack meaning.  And where meaning is debased, so too is our troops’ ability to deal with wars in all their horrors.

4 thoughts on “Why Are PTSD Rates So High Among Veterans?

  1. Professor.

    A timely topic if there ever was one. However, a proper academic analysis and discussion must consider the possible factor of, “Build it and they will come.”

    Let’s consider the Civil War. No chance of a PTSD diagnosis and payment, and yet the veterans from that most terrible of our wars went about their lives forming the greatest industrial nation the world has know. Personally, my father’s paternal grandfather, a veteran of the 12th New Jersey Volunteers, by the sweat of his brow and the strike of his carpenter’s hammer, raised honest and hardworking offspring like himself. He did receive a soldier’s pension and I assume, a burial stone at the public expense.


  2. Military hagiography does not surprise me, for one finds it in every age of every people; except, perhaps for the Chinese, who essentially consider soldiers as marauding bandits and/or hapless tools of the rich and corrupt. “You don’t use good iron to make a nail,” the Chinese say; “and you don’t use good men to make a soldier.” The Chinese do, however, have a lot of statuary depicting famous (and largely mythological) generals, all of them so encumbered by fine silks and ornate jewelry as to make them hardly fit for any kind of fighting. I think the ancient Greeks did a lot of this propaganda-statue thing, as well; sort of like Hollywood making endless, adulatory movies of our glorious warrior guys and girls to entice the gullible young into volunteering for the pointless slaughter. It does surprise me, though, that someone with an interest in military history can speak of the Greeks as virtuous statue-makers while ignoring the greatest story of war ever told in Western literature: namely, The Illiad, by Homer. Forget the typical and ubiquitous statue-propaganda back home in the capital and check out what happens in the field after ten years of inconclusive slaughter — and, more importantly, why it happened.

    As Homer tells us, a Greek king, Menelaus, had a beautiful wife, Helen, who ran off with a younger Trojan prince named Paris. King Menelaus then invoked a “mutual non-cuckolding agreement” with his fellow Greek kings (who had also wanted to marry the nubile beauty), summoning them to war against the city of Troy in the hopes of getting his young “arm-candy” wife back. Lots of Greek statues attest to the timelessness of this tawdry tale.

    So, essentially, a cuckolded Greek king sent vast armies sailing acroos oceans to fight and die for a decade, all because he couldn’t hang on to his own young trophy wife. As one of the unimpressed soldiers — sick of the endless misery pointedly inquired in Book I of The Illiad:

    “What cause have I to war at thy decree?
    The distant Trojans never injured me.”

    This simple couplet always reminds me of the professonal boxer, Muhammad Ali who refused induction into the U.S. Army draft back in the 1960s. Said he, simply and directly:

    “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

    Good for him. A man who could cut through the propaganda bullshit to the awful truth. Fuck the Draft.

    As a matter of fact — and all Greek statuary aside — no American has had any reason whatsoever for waging war against any other nation since 1945. Yet American corporations and their handmaiden career-lifer generals continue to rail and rage against distant peoples who never injured us Americans. Well, the Commander-in-Brief and his fuck-up-and-move-up generals can have their propaganda statues and their military idolatry and their pathological proxy pretentions to purposefulness. I’ll buy not a minute or word of it. Hardly a war in human history has ever had anything but a venal and personal cause, pushed by some petulant prince (see Deputy Dubya Bush: “He tried to kill my dad”), which benefits the common foreign or domestic citizen not one bit. As Homer put it:

    “Hither we sailed, a voluntary throng,
    To avenge a private, not a public wrong.”

    “Is this the pay our blood and toil deserve;
    Disgraced and injured by the man we serve?”

    “Thine in each conquest is the wealthy prey,
    Though mine the sweat and danger of the day.”

    “When wert thou known in ambush’d fights to dare,
    Or nobly face the horrid front of war?
    ‘Tis ours, the chance of fighting fields to try;
    Thine to look on, and bid the valiant die.
    So much, ’tis safer through the camp to go,
    And rob a subject, than despoil a foe.”

    Today’s endless and pointless wars do, indeed, as George Orwell pointed out, exist for no other purpose than enbling our pampered and sheltered elites can rob us subjects while claiming — after decades of failure — do “depsoil” imaginary “foes” who ostensibly “threaten” us. Only a fool or the desperately impoverished unemployed would enlist to “serve” in such a tragic farce.

    And, finally, what awaits the veteran who survives the clueless crusade:

    “A safe return was promised to our toils,
    Renowned, triumphant, and enriched with spoils.
    Now shameful flight alone can save the host,
    Our blood, our treasure, and our glory lost.”

    “Once great in arms, the common scorn we grow,
    Repulsed and baffled by a feeble foe.”

    Sure souds like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to me. The ancient Greeks knew this truth as well, regardless of what their own, wealthy elites had carved for their own glorificaton in priceless marble, wrought by artisan slaves.

    “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Then and now. This shit never changes.


    1. Well put, Mike. Much folly in the Trojan War. But consider the Greek War against Persia. That was a “necessary” war — the Greek city-states were fighting for their very survival against imperial dominance from Persia.

      What would have happened if Persia had conquered Athens? As empires go, Persia wasn’t half-bad, but it was still an empire. So much for Athenian democracy, however imperfect it was.


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