‘The Human Mind Was Not Made for War’

Robert Chamberlain, a veteran of two tours to Iraq and a Rhodes scholar who has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder
Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos
Robert Chamberlain, a veteran of two tours to Iraq and a Rhodes scholar who has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, on the day he was promoted to the rank of army major, Brooklyn, 2011

Almost every major war brings the introduction of a terrifying new weapon. During the US Civil War, Union and Confederate troops employed a revolutionary bullet—known as the Minié ball after its creator, the French army captain Claude-Étienne Minié—that spun from the gun barrel, dramatically increasing its velocity, accuracy, and lethality. World War I saw submarines, poison gas, and nonstop artillery barrages. World War II introduced indiscriminate air assaults, kamikaze attacks, and, of course, the atomic bomb. The Vietnam War brought the helicopter gunship, napalm, and chemical defoliants. With these weapons came an ever-expanding vocabulary to depict their hellish consequences, from shell shock to radiation poisoning to Agent Orange Syndrome.

In 2005 Barack Obama told his Senate colleagues that traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition afflicting thousands of soldiers, “could become the ‘signature wound of the Iraq War.’” Little studied at the time, it appeared to result from the impact of roadside bombs planted by insurgents. Before long, however, the term “signature wound” had come to include the vaguely defined condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These “are two of the signature wounds of this conflict,” an army official told Congress in 2007. “We’re working [on] them, but we have a lot of work to do.”

David Kieran is hesitant to describe these conditions as the raging epidemics portrayed in much of the media. “This is not to say…that [they] are not materially real,” he writes in Signature Wounds. “Of course they are.” The problem, as Kieran sees it, is that the prevailing argument was molded by the forces most opposed to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: the antiwar left. As a result, he contends, the distinction between the “ordinary and temporary readjustment challenges” faced by all veterans and the “long-term, debilitating psychological issues” faced by some was seriously blurred.

It’s natural for critics of any war to stress the toll on soldiers and civilians alike. Yet even a cursory reading of Signature Wounds demonstrates that public concern for the mental health of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans ranged widely across the political map. It may be true, as Kieran contends, that congressional Democrats like Obama focused on TBI to help neutralize Republican charges that those who opposed the Iraq war didn’t much care about the welfare of the troops who were fighting it. But this was hardly their primary motive, and to blame the left for concocting an inflated story of a mental health crisis, much less ensuring its widespread distribution, is an extraordinary stretch.

Kieran’s view is…

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