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A War of Nerves

A War of Nerves

Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century

Ben Shephard

ISBN 9780674011199

Publication date: 03/30/2003

A War of Nerves is a history of military psychiatry in the twentieth century—an authoritative, accessible account drawing on a vast range of diaries, interviews, medical papers, and official records, from doctors as well as ordinary soldiers. It reaches back to the moment when the technologies of modern warfare and the disciplines of psychological medicine first confronted each other on the Western Front, and traces their uneasy relationship through the eras of shell-shock, combat fatigue, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At once absorbing historical narrative and intellectual detective story, A War of Nerves weaves together the literary, medical, and military lore to give us a fascinating history of war neuroses and their treatment, from the World Wars through Vietnam and up to the Gulf War. Ben Shephard answers recurring questions about the effects of war. Why do some men crack and others not? Are the limits of resistance determined by character, heredity, upbringing, ideology, or simple biochemistry?

Military psychiatry has long been shrouded in misconception, and haunted by the competing demands of battle and of recovery. Now, for the first time, we have a definitive history of this vital art and science, which illuminates the bumpy efforts to understand the ravages of war on the human mind, and points towards the true lessons to be learned from treating the aftermath of war.


  • Has the American counseling industry actually amplified the difficulties of the Vietnam veterans?… By pulling more and more terrified men away from the front during the first world war, did the army only confirm to them the seriousness and irrevocable nature of their hysterical conversion syndromes? These and many others are the questions that are unflinchingly addressed in this disturbing and original book. Ben Shephard, a historian and producer of war documentaries, explores the psychic traumas and dramas created during the two world wars and since… [His book is] provocative, deeply shocking, moving and always compelling… This reviewer, at least, hopes that it is widely read.

    —The Economist


  • Ben Shephard writes widely on psychiatry and its history. He was a producer on Thames Television's The World at War.

Book Details

  • 512 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press