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Biology 202
2003 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Implications of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for War Veterans

Stephanie Habelow

War is a complex concept that is increasingly difficult to understand, particularly in an age that allows for live images of combat to be beamed around the world. Many war films depict the brutalities of war and affects war has on participants, but it seems that these representations merely skim the surface. The 20th century is an era that saw a significant amount of military action: World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the Gulf War - millions of men fought, some survived and live among us today. Unfortunately, the war experience for many veterans is traumatizing and as a result, many have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This disorder is often quite mentally debilitating; this, then, begs the question of the social implications of the disorder as well as whether this has any bearing on the necessity of war.

At the minimum, PTSD is a branch of emotion that stems from stress or anxiety. Stress is not uncommon among humans as it can be caused by something as simple as gridlock or an argument. When we feel stressed, our body is attuned to exhibit the fight-or-flight response during which "the body releases chemicals that make it tense, alert, and ready for action" (1). PTSD, however, is a sector of stress that is very specialized for it occurs after traumatic events; these may include car accidents, earthquakes, rape, or military combat. People suffering from PTSD experience paranoia, flashbacks and generally have difficulty engaging in normal daily activities (2). One Vietnam veteran diagnosed with the disorder explains that he often has extreme emotional outbursts: " 'I developed a nasty temper, became very nervous, and have bad dreams that take me back into the war, like it's happening all over'" (3). The flashbacks that many veterans experience suggests that PTSD is largely related to the way they remember the event.

In order to create a memory, the brain releases chemicals "that etch these events into its memory bank with special codes" (4). However, when one experiences a traumatic event, the memory becomes vivid because the context surrounding the event is so significantly different from anything the victim has ever experienced before. For instance, many Americans may find that they can remember what they ate for breakfast on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, but cannot recall what they ate on any other Tuesday. It seems, then, that during a traumatic event, our senses are heightened - this may be due to the fight-or-flight response that readies us for action. Since we sense (or know) that something is amiss, our brain releases more chemicals that allow us to be more alert; this in turn may be the mechanism that helps us to remember traumatic events so well.

Although many of us may have vivid recollections of 9/11, we may not necessarily feel traumatized by it - unless, of course, it directly affected our life in some way. Veterans, however, are often completely traumatized by war because it is such an unnatural (though increasingly common) experience. The majority of men thrust into combat are in their 20s and at this time are still developing as a person. Consequently, when they are then plucked from their homes and placed in an extremely foreign environment, it forces them to shed their identity, thereby necessitating "radical breaks ... between self-systems as a consequence of participation in distinct social systems" (5). This results in the construction of a "fractured" self that often leads to confusion upon veterans' return home because they feel different and people say they seem different, yet they cannot seem to clarify who they were before the war. This confusion is mainly due to the brutality that war entails: killing - the taking of another human life - is an act that is taught in basic training as necessary for survival. One veteran describes his experience in basic training:

'In basic training, I felt wonderful. I felt physically perfect, mentally alert ...
Naturally there was a certain amount of brainwashing that goes through basic
[training]. They would constantly pound it into you that you have to kill to
survive. You know, you are going to Vietnam and you are going to fight a war
and all you are going to do is kill, kill, kill, kill'(5).

This is a particularly compelling story because it juxtaposes the military's image as a highly organized and efficient unit, with the reality of war as chaotic, terrifying, and anything but meticulously executed. Because young recruits who enter basic training may come to feel "physically perfect" or like a machine, they are unprepared for the terror they encounter when engaging in hand-to-hand combat which becomes a act of stalking - particularly when soldiers are faced with the enemy. Not only must they face another person who they have been instructed to kill, they must also face their own mortality as well as the enemy's mortality. At precisely this instant, two people must decide who will blink first, fire, and save their own life at the expense of another who happens to be in the same position. In this way, combat appears to be extremely traumatizing due to psychological fragmentation.

Furthermore, it is also the repetition of killing that seems to have the potential to create a physical memory. Although one becomes inured and desensitized to a particularly act after executing it many times, when the task is killing people, one still becomes desensitized to it, yet at the same time, it appears that even though there might be less hesitation, the soldier still experiences the rush of adrenaline and then the emotional crash that later follows the incident. Here, a veteran describes this phenomenon:

'We just kind of stumbled on the Vietcong and fortunately for us they had their
weapons laying on the ground. We had ours on our person. This one gook
reached for his automatic weapon and I shot him ... The first instant that it
happened was like a flow of adrenalin or whatever, I felt great. It gradually sank
in and made me sick. And then the next day I found out the kid was only 14 and
that did not help' (5).

This is similar to what many other veterans have told researchers about their experiences in combat. It seems that the "high" of killing may be in direct response to soldiers' survival mentality - once the enemy is eliminated, you are safe because you have diminished the threat against your own life. One veteran states that "Getting out safe was the only thing on [his] mind" and that "[He] only thought about survival. Every time somebody got killed [he] was glad it was not [him] lying there" (5). Another echoes the sentiment expressed by the previous veteran regarding his experience with killing which he says "felt great" but when he fully realized what had happened "the effect was one of depression, one of a nonfuture, discontent" (5).

It is these feelings of failure and wrongdoing that often make re-assimilation into civil society so difficult for veterans. This seems related to the idea of self-control in that soldiers do not have complete control over their actions while in combat since they are merely carrying out orders. Of course, they can make conscious choices like whether to fire their weapon or not, but because survival has become so ingrained in their minds, it seems that true self-control is obliterated from their being. It seems that upon returning home veterans may find the contrast between civilization and war overwhelming. In the war situation they lost control over their actions, whereas at home they reclaim it, but feel out of practice in controlling themselves. This harkens back to the idea of memory and how veterans perceive and remember the trauma they experienced.

Research shows that many veterans with PTSD exhibit significant changes in the make-up of the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex which are parts of the brain that control learning, memory and stress as well our response to fear and stress (6). Thus, because PTSD veterans' brains are different, they may also have trouble learning new material due to the neurological effects of PTSD.

There are myriad social implications of PTSD that include experiencing difficulty with feeling any strong emotion, particularly love, or feeling disconnected from reality, and feeling guilty (7). All of these reactions impact veterans' relationships and their ability to function in society. If the effects of war are so debilitating, then why is war necessary? Even though wars are fought against so-called "evil", is there anything more evil than completely annihilating humans' sense of self - aside from the havoc that war wrecks on the area in which it is fought. It seems that the social implications of military combat PTSD victims calls into question the justification of war - for while war does occur between countries, it is carried out by people, by fellow humans beings who should never have to bear witness to such extreme horrors.


1) Stress info
2) American Psychiatric Association
3)Kulka, Richard A., et al. Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation. New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1990.
4) Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Wars, and Terrorism
5)Wilson, John P., et al, eds. Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. New York: Plenum Press, 1988.
6)The Invisible Epidemic: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Memory and the Brain
7) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Understanding the Pain

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