“Shell-Shocked” Americans and Memories of War Trauma

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:50 PM
Columbia Hall 7 (Washington Hilton)
Annessa C. Stagner, University of California, Irvine
The First World War marked the first time the United States military officially recognized war trauma and attempted to treat it medically. American efforts distinguished the United States from European participants of the war, and became for many American policy makers at the time a source of pride and indicator of American exceptionalism.  In the decade that followed, however, military officials, members of the academy, and American media grappled with what appeared to many a gross failure to cure soldiers. The memory of uncured “shell-shocked” veterans fed into the anti-war culture of the 1930s and shaped many military policies regarding mental war injuries during World War II.  

 This paper recounts the American experience of “shell shock” during World War I.  It not only explains the optimism that policy makers voiced in their ability to cure shell shock, but also the ways in which military officials, members of the academy, and American media came to terms with American failure.  Moreover, this paper examines how this episode was remembered in the decades that followed, most especially during the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II.  While at times the experience of World War I shell shock has been vividly remembered and used as justification to avoid war or as evidence of the necessity of constructing new military policies, at other times it has only been represented by silence. This paper concludes with a chronological examination of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City up until 1940.  The memorial emphasized death and sacrifice, but how did it remember the “living dead,” whose lives remained altered by war? A look at this memorial and the accompanying museum reveals these changing perceptions and debates about war trauma.