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A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century Paperback – February 12, 2003

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ISBN-13: 978-0674011199 ISBN-10: 0674011198 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Shephard's ambitious study, bolstered by an impressive array of sources diaries, medical case studies, patient interviews, official publications, and physician reports chronicles military psychiatry in the 20th century. It begins at the chronological intersection of modern warfare and psychological medicine during the Great War and examines this troubled marriage through the periods of shell-shock (World War I), combat fatigue (World War II), and post-traumatic stress disorder (Vietnam, Falkland campaign, and the Gulf War). 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. The author, a former producer of "The World at War" series, concludes that perhaps "military psychiatry is often done best not by psychiatrists but by doctors, officers, or soldiers who understand the principles of group psychology and use the defenses in culture to help people through traumatic situations." This fine study should appeal to all readers. Recommended for psychology, psychiatry, and medical history collections, as well as for large public and academic libraries. John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Lib., Athens
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

I knew from the quality of the writing and scholarship in the initial chapters of this book that it would be a pleasure to read, but I also realized it would be a challenge to review the book because of its scope and detail and the controversy the author provokes. Shephard begins, ``There is a compelling reason to take a much wider look at what has happened in the past: we are making a mess of this problem today and need to learn the lesson that, in treating the aftermath of war, good intentions are not enough.'' Shephard is a British writer who has produced historical and scientific documentaries for the BBC, including parts of the excellent series The World at War. Here he vividly presents the attempts of psychiatrists, neurologists, and psychologists who helped the military and civilian society treat or prevent the psychological breakdown of service members exposed to the horrors of war. The book focuses on Britain and America in World Wars I and II, then skips to a cursory look at America's Vietnam War and its fallout up to the 1990s (with only a brief commentary on Korea). Shephard briefly covers the Falklands campaign and the Gulf War with its persistent ``syndromes.'' French and German problems and practices in the world wars provide short but informative contrasts.

Shephard conveys the grim realities of war in striking vignettes of service members and patients. He captures concisely the personae of the shapers and movers of military psychiatry, including the few, such as Dr. William Rivers of World War I fame, who are known to general readers through literature or films. The book provides a fascinating account of the interplay of competing ambitions, clinical styles and interests, personal and institutional prejudices, and public opinion. Shephard succeeds in linking the ``undoubted successes and numerous disasters'' of military psychiatry with wider societal expectations and military and medical practices as they changed during the 20th century.

One disaster was the U.S. screening program in the initial years of World War II. Shephard's account left me simultaneously laughing and appalled, and I remembered the sad patient I had seen as a resident in 1968 whose thick chart for ``inadequate personality disorder'' began when he was rejected for military service because he was unable to urinate if others were watching. Alas, Shephard does not cite later observations and studies indicating that soldiers with substantial psychopathology could function well and even heroically in units with good leadership and comradeship. One provocative theme is the cultural shift from the traditionally Victorian masculine virtues of courage and self-denial of emotional expression in the service of duty (what used to be meant by ``showing nerve'') to the traditionally female virtues of free emotional expression and the giving and seeking of sympathy and care (which could lead to a pathologic ``case of nerves'' or ``nervous breakdown''). This theme culminates in the chapters, ``From Post-Vietnam Syndrome to PTSD'' and ``The Culture of Trauma,'' which will arouse anger in some readers and will reinforce the blind prejudice of others but should be read carefully and thoughtfully by all.

Shephard acknowledges the real suffering of many veterans and the honorable intentions of those who created the diagnostic label and criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder and championed treatment and compensation programs for it. His sharp critique is founded on experience during and after the world wars. We have seen similar syndromes before, made similar mistakes, and have sometimes done better. We should also determine why many of the veterans with the worst histories of exposure do well without treatment.

Shephard disproves many persistent myths that I hope will be dispelled by widespread reading of his book. He presents hard-learned lessons that are in perpetual danger of being forgotten. Shephard illuminates the struggles of the ``tough realist'' clinicians, in whose path I respectfully follow. In World War I and then starting from scratch again in World War II, the realists worked increasingly close to the battle, trying different but simple techniques to return many overstressed soldiers to duty in a period of hours to days. Those soldiers would have become psychologically disabled if they had been evacuated. The best realist clinicians educated unit leaders, general medical personnel, and chaplains to reduce the psychological and physiologic causes of stress-induced breakdown and to restore many stressed soldiers in their units, not in medical cots. I wish Shephard had included more historical details of that endeavor.

The focus of 21st-century combat and operational behavioral health (``stress control'') is on primary and early secondary prevention at the unit and community levels. The same should be true of civilian programs of community mental health and management of psychological trauma, which grew out of the military experience. Better preventive interventions can greatly reduce the need for tertiary treatment of chronic cases far to the rear of combat or after the war. Shephard describes the many approaches to tertiary treatment masterfully, as he does numerous other topics of public interest.

I hope the public response to A War of Nerves will encourage Shephard to finish writing the saga of post-World War II military psychiatry (behavioral health). I know he can find more gold by panning deeper in streams he has just skimmed in this book, by exploring the well-studied Israeli experience, and by addressing the special problems of ``peace-keeping'' missions. Shephard's account of the first half of the saga is a masterpiece, but the second half remains to be told.

James W. Stokes, M.D.
Copyright © 2001 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (March 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674011198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674011199
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 5.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #974,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By John M. Nardo on February 28, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Any person interested in traumatic neurosis should read this book. It is meticulously researched, clearly written, and presents a balanced report of the struggles of the military psychiatrists of the 20th century to deal with the dilemma of war and its impact on soldiers. Any therapist, soldier, or veteran will finish much the wiser. Thanks, Ben Shephard!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Alter Wiener on June 22, 2011
Format: Paperback
The War of Nerves focuses on Psychiatry, a study and treatment of brain and mental damaged soldiers: Past Trauma Syndrome Disorder effecting people engaged in warfare. Ben Shephard manifests scholarly dedication to the sources (65 pages of Notes) depicting how damaging PTSD is, soon after the injury, or later on. It would be worthwhile to mention how PTSD affects those who had sustained injuries or lived in constant fear under circumstances other than in wars. Many victims affected by civil wars, ethnic cleansing, natural disasters, terrorist attacks etc, are prone to PTSD not less severe than those on the battle fronts between nations. A shell fell in front of some British soldiers at a trench in France in WWI. Some of those soldiers were not wounded, yet they could neither see, nor smell or taste properly. Some soldiers were unable to stand up, speak, urinate or defecate. This phenomenon is characterized as The Shock of the Shell. When German soldiers knocked at the door of our apartment to pick me up for deportation my nerves were shattered; I was trembling and stammering. I had experienced similar symptoms as the soldiers being exposed to an explosive artillery shell that landed a few feet away from them. At the front-line some soldiers broke down. At the selection-line, when German soldiers - on the selection line - ripped off babies from their mothers arms, all mothers broke down, inevitable casualties.

As a teenager, I saw the Germans, torturing, beating, shooting, hanging, and other unimaginable acts of extreme wickedness carried out against innocent people. Experiencing or just witnessing such atrocities may lead to desperation and despondency; spiraling downward into deep psychosis. Referring to the Holocaust, p.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Brooklyn reader on April 14, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is remarkable for many reasons: for its erudition, for its sweeping historical analysis, for its careful attention to detail, for its excellent writing, and perhaps most of all, for its humanity. This is a book we cannot afford to ignore; our soldiers are still fighting--and still, very often, without the benefit of the knowledge and wisdom contained in the history and experience Ben Shephard collects in this volume. Within and behind the information in this book hover profound moral questions which go right to the baffling core of human reality: what happens to our psyches when we participate in mass, government-sanctioned/organized mass murder of each other? How do we understand the very concept of "our humanity" when to be human has, through the ages, involved warfare, and on a huge scale? Shepherd's work is a magnificent contribution to these sadly age-old and ongoing questions.

The following takes up some of the same questions, in novelistic form: The Listener: A Novel
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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Brandt on July 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
A fine, well researched history of military psychological practices in the 20th century and easily comprehensible by the layman. As an American, I found the English spelling and punctuation annoying (honourable British writers reverse the use of single and double quotations, don't you know, Love), but you can get past that. I'm sure the British have similiar feelings about the American writing style. I can best compliment War of Nerves by telling you that I am citing it in a book on mental disorders during the American Civil War. Aside from that, I was intrigued by Shephard's thoughts on the creation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a recognized mental condition, i.e., that it came into the lexicon as much or more from social and political reaction to Vietnam as a step forward in mental evaluation.
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