War Trauma across the Modern Era

AHA Session 60
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Mark Micale, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The Audience

Session Abstract

War and its psychological impact have always displaced and created communities (local, national, soldierly), as well as disrupted and generated networks of knowledge (transnational, medical, military). Yet it was not until the modern era that war-induced mental distress amongst combatants—now broadly called “trauma”—was medically codified. The condition was first consistently diagnosed among Swiss mercenaries and French conscripts and termed “nostalgia”, associated as it was with the separation of these soldiers from the familiar surroundings and communities of home. By 1916, however, with the large-scale breakdown of troops on the Western Front, it was recognized that symptoms affected men from a variety of backgrounds and races, though not necessarily in the same ways. The role of war as a trigger was implicitly accepted in the array of new monikers like “shell shock”, “Kriegsneurose [war neurosis]” and “hystérie de guerre [war hysteria]”. Curiously, the notion of community or crowd still played a role in the understanding of the condition, which was thought to be created and cured by “suggestion” and hence psychically contagious. This impression cut across national lines and was the subject of transnational medical debate. Psychiatry in the Korean War, the subject of the third paper, demonstrates how combat not only gave rise to new psychological symptoms, but pushed Koreans to interpret and treat them through borrowed frameworks. American military psychiatrists introduced Koreans to psychotherapeutic methods used successfully in the Second World War. Psychiatrists also had the opportunity to test the latest pharmaceutical breakthroughs on distressed soldiers. The development of South Korean psychiatry was largely shaped by this cross-cultural wartime encounter.

A century of development in the medical and cultural understanding of war neuroses poses fascinating questions, which our comparative panel will address. What—if any—components remained consistent in the comprehension of war-related trauma across time and region? How did networks of transnational medical and intellectual exchange affect the attitude and treatment an ailing soldier would encounter? How did varying political contexts shape the definition and acceptance of war trauma? Did prejudices about non-Europeans determine their military-medical experience? The comparative nature of the panel also provides fresh perspectives on the impact of gender and race on popular ideas of trauma and offers new insights on a topic that is rarely studied beyond the national context. From a historiographical angle, the panel offers the opportunity to debate whether the emphasis on Freudian interpretation has enriched or diminished historical debate, and what alternatives are available to historians as they grapple with describing the historical significance of a topic that continues to evade any clear medical definition.

While exploring how particular communities experienced war trauma and how transnational medical networks exchanged and negotiated ideas about it, all three papers present exciting new archival research that challenges traditional ideas about the historical perception of war neurosis and reframes debates surrounding war, trauma and masculinity.

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