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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/21/09

PTSD Nation

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My father fought in WWII. My son fought in Iraq. My son has PTSD.

It turns out that my father probably had it too. Only I never knew it until a friend, whose father died years after mine, told me about her father.

She told me how this calm intellectual man, who was part of the team of Harvard Law School students that helped draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights, would stare off absently in detached moodiness and was given to sporadic fits of violent rage. My own father, also a quiet and gentle man most of the time, showed this same pattern.

She told me that her father, who fought in Europe, never talked about the war. Everything she learned about it, she learned from her mother. My father, who fought in the Pacific, was the same way.

"You know, I'm convinced he had PTSD," she told me. "We didn't have a word for it then, except the 'battle fatigue' or 'shell shock' labels for the most extreme cases, but it's the same thing."

That is when it hit me. We were raised by a generation with PTSD. Nearly 16 million men came home from that war. Came home to families, neighborhoods, schools and jobs to raise the next generation, the "baby boom" generation, after living the unspeakable horrors of war.

Even the training itself was traumatic. We took young men, still practically children, whom our society tried to teach to be kind and loving people, and turned them into young men whose job was to kill and destroy. How can anyone make this leap from teenager to soldier without severe trauma and stress?

Pearl Harbor was the traumatic shock of my parents' generation. It was their 9/11. Ever since, our nation has remained on a permanent war footing, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, without pause.

Since then, violence and war have flooded our culture in movies, TV shows, and now videogames. The leap from teenager to soldier comes more easily these days.

According to On Killing by Dave Grossman, only 15-25% of combat infantry in WWII were actually willing to shoot at the enemy. They did not run away. They simply would not fire their weapons.

So the military improved its conditioning. The willingness-to-fire figure rose to 50% in Korea, over 90% in Vietnam and approaches nearly 100% in Iraq. This may be progress of sorts, if our focus is on producing more soldiers with "zero defect" in their willingness to kill. If our focus is on building healthy citizens and parents in a peaceful society, it may not be so good.

Let me be clear. I am not criticizing our soldiers. I loved my father. I love my son. I am merely noting the costs – to them, to us, and to future generations – of keeping our nation in a permanent state of war: 6 million vets from Korea; 9 million from Vietnam; 2 million from the Gulf War; 2 million more from Iraq.

After so many decades of living with the hidden killer of PTSD, maybe it's time we started looking for other healthier ways to secure the peace for ourselves, our neighbors, and our posterity. With all the emotional and financial investments we keep making in war, maybe it's time to invest a little more in "R&D" on alternatives that do not impose such high costs of trauma and stress?

* * *

Bill Scheurer is the Executive Director of Beyond War (, Editor of PeaceMajority Report (, and the author of "us & them: bridging the chasm of faith" (ISBN-13 9780972525411), a small book of interfaith inquiry.
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