The Political Economy of Shell Shock
January 30, 2017 § 2 Comments
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not officially recognized until DSM-III, published in 1980. But that, of course, does not mean it does not have a long history. In the First World War, symptoms that look a lot like PTSD were called ‘shell shock.’ We have all heard of shell shock. When I played hockey, I was a goalie. It was not uncommon for me to come out of the net after a game where I was peppered by shots to have my teammates joke about me experiencing shell shock (I played for a string of really bad teams). In other words, shell shock has become part of our lexicon.
One of the jobs of historians is to complicate matters and what we think we know about the past (my other job as an historian is to explore what we know about the past and why and to what uses such knowledge gets used). I joke with my students that historians can ruin anything in this manner. And so, shell shock.
The British were the first to diagnose and name shell shock, in the fall of 1914, right after the war started. The name itself actually came from the soldiers themselves. There was not, however, much in the way of agreement over what shell shock actually was; it became a catch-all phrase. It could be physical. It could be psychological. It could even be a lack of moral fortitude.
But shell shock was also complicating for the British Expeditionary Force (as the British Army in Europe was called in the First World War) and its attached colonial expeditionary forces (most notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, the Dominions). In particular, it was demoralizing. So, the British High Command did what you would expect: it banned shell shock. In June 1917, the order came down: the term was no longer to be used in any reports, any diagnoses, in any conversation. It simply no longer existed.
This echoed the German response to shell shock, which the Germany Army dismissed simply as a lack of moral fortitude. So it punished shell shocked soldiers.
By 1922, the British government was adamant that shell shock would never exist ever again. The Southborough Report of that year recommended that the symptoms of shell shock should be regarded as nothing greater or lesser than any other battlefield injury. The government and the army came to the conclusion that troops who were well-trained and properly led would not suffer the fate of the malingerers of World War I.
The reasons for denying the existence of shell shock differed between 1917 and 1922. In 1917, it was a question of morale and defeating the Germans. In 1922, it was a question of finances, as the United Kingdom was nearly broke. Shell shock diagnoses from World War I cost money, in the form of compensation to affected veterans. The government simply didn’t want to pay anymore casualties in any future wars.