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.
Shephard’s engaging and impressively researched study offers a detailed survey of psychiatric—and to a lesser extent, social and cultural—responses to war trauma from the First World War to the Gulf War of 1991… He ranges freely through British and American material and manages to incorporate useful discussions of German and French psychiatry as well… [Shepard] covers the medical dimension with equal mastery and introduces a rich panoply of psychiatric characters and movements.
Shephard didn’t write A War of Nerves with Iraq in mind; the bulk of it focuses on the two world wars and Vietnam, with a short section on the Falklands and the 1991 Gulf War at the end. But its unflinching look at the awkward intersection of psychiatry and the military offers a fascinating left-field perspective on war and its hidden costs. Weaving together a panoramic array of source materials (official reports, soldiers’ diaries, interviews with doctors, Pentagon memos, snatches from novels and academic treatises), he catalogs 20th-century attempts to lessen the agony of war, at least for the troops—an unenviable task.
A War of Nerves is magnificent: expertly researched, richly textured, nuanced where the nuances matter, brutally clear where that helps… [T]his book will stand for what it is: an instant classic. In the United States, there’s a saga, well embedded in popular consciousness, of the nexus between soldiers, psychiatrists and war-induced mental conditions… Mr. Shephard tells the story brilliantly, this tale of mass insanity and petty personal rivalries, of colliding morals and contending philosophies, and their still incalculable effects.
Both a historian of psychiatry and a producer of documentary films, Shephard brings finely honed skills from both fields to his book. He matches his meticulously documented historical research with a journalist/producer’s trained eye for the single detail, the precise anecdote, the appropriate quote that tells a story. The combination produces a fascinating and compelling exploration of a complex and still-controversial topic that could easily be ponderous and dull.
A War of Nerves is a fascinating and harrowing book. It is a history of what in the First World War was called ‘shell shock,’ that easy name for the complete ‘moral’ and physical collapse of an individual soldier, and its reception by the military. [The military was] apt to treat it with an accusation of cowardice…prison or sometimes a firing squad… But Ben Shephard shows that most of the twentieth century saw a campaign to find out what causes soldiers to break down and to develop ways to help them recover.
An impressive history of mental illness and its treatment during wartime. Drawing on almost 100 years of medical records from Britain, France, Germany, and the US, the author shows how military commands consistently downplayed soldiers’ psychiatric problems… An invaluable resource for doctors, scholars of war literature, and military leaders.
[In his] ambitious study, bolstered by an impressive array of sources…Shephard melds contemporary literary, military, and medical documentation by offering a panorama of war neuroses with conflicting schools of treatment. He suggests qualified answers as to why combatants react differently to stress and discusses the appropriate roles and investments of the military, government, and society in the rehabilitation of those psychologically crippled by war… This fine study should appeal to all readers.
Shephard emphasizes the importance of social and cultural, as opposed to medical, responses to war stress: immediate local help, given by those who understand concepts of military group bonding, is crucial, underpinned by leadership and comradeship, dissociation and displacement… It is an argument currently unfashionable, but meriting correspondingly wide circulation and discussion.
Ben Shephard’s study of how war wounds men’s minds, and of medicine’s efforts to heal the damage done, is based on years of dedicated research. It is the best book I have read on the subject and it will endure.
- 512 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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