REVIEWERS of historical works overuse the adjective "revisionist" to the point that it has become a cliché. In this case, however, the adjective is doubly merited. Shook Over Hell is genuinely revisionist on two fronts: it changes our understanding of psychiatric casualties in both the Vietnam War and the Civil War; and it does so not by sleight of hand, redefining terms while leaving the substance unchanged, but by solid research, sound analysis, and lucid (if at times repetitious) writing.
Eric Dean first challenges the myth of the troubled and scorned Vietnam veteran. The myth goes something like this: Sent to fight a dirty and unwinnable war, whose purpose they never understood, against an enemy they rarely saw in menacing jungles and rice paddies, amid a civilian population that hated and betrayed them, American soldiers in Vietnam turned to drugs and "fragging" and returned to a nation that scorned and spit upon them. As a consequence, many of these veterans formed a pathological subculture of unemployed addicts, criminals, and underachieving misfits who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and astronomical suicide rates. These experiences contrasted sharply with those of veterans of other American wars, who came home to victory parades, the GI Bill, and other kinds of preferential treatment, and who therefore readjusted quickly to civilian life with few psychiatric complications.
Dean convincingly demolishes every part of this myth. Citing numerous surveys and studies, he demonstrates that in the 1970s and 1980s Vietnam veterans had higher median incomes than their nonveteran peers and were unemployed at the same rate, had similar rates of drug use and addiction, and, in percentage terms, used more GI Bill benefits to attend college than had veterans of the Second World War. Wildly inflated estimates that 60,000, 100,000, or even 159,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide (six to sixteen times the rate for a comparable civilian group) are replaced by careful studies concluding that 9,000 veterans had taken their own lives by the early 1980s, at a suicide rate similar to that among civilians. As for psychiatric casualties during the war itself, twelve cases were diagnosed per thousand in Vietnam, as compared with thirty-seven per thousand in Korea and twenty-eight to 101 per thousand (depending on assignment) in the Second World War. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that fewer than 15 percent of U.S. troops in Vietnam served in combat units; the rest were in support, supply, and medical services.
But what about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Have not Vietnam veterans suffered an extraordinarily high rate of such delayed reactions in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, survivor guilt, sleeplessness, depression, startle reactions, stuttering, loss of energy and sexual desire, and other dysfunctional behavior years after the horrors these men experienced in Vietnam? PTSD emerged as an officially recognized psychiatric syndrome in 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association listed it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. PTSD represented a refinement of what had been known as shell shock in the First World War and as battle fatigue or combat stress reaction or, more generally, psychiatric casualties in the Second World War. PTSD differs from some of these in part because it focuses on the delayed trauma of combat, which may not manifest itself fully until months or years after the event.
The category "PTSD" developed from efforts to understand certain behavior patterns that occurred among Vietnam veterans. Dean makes it clear that diagnoses of PTSD gained a life of their own: once the category had been recognized, it was applied to all sorts of behaviors not previously considered exceptional. PTSD has now become a fad. Dean quotes numerous examples of this phenomenon: some professional football players are said to have "developed post-traumatic stress disorders comparable to those experienced by some Vietnam veterans"; during the agricultural depression of the 1980s mental-health workers said that "psychologically rural Iowa resembles a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder"; teenagers pressed to overachieve by their "hothouse style of upbringing are now suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome like Vietnam veterans." The Defense Department jumped on the bandwagon, attributing the mysterious ailments suffered by some veterans of the Gulf War to PTSD instead of to exposure to Iraqi chemicals, which may be responsible. A backlash against the PTSD fad inevitably emerged. One veteran spoke out bitterly against the "ludicrous blubbering and psychobabble" about the Vietnam veteran as a misfit and a loser. A jaded film critic assigned to write a review of yet another Vietnam movie declared, "So familiar has this story become that I have started to think of it as a brand new film genre -- the PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) genre."
Dean pulls no punches in his analysis of this fad as a consequence of political and social agendas advanced by Robert Jay Lifton and other anti-war psychiatrists, who used the myth of the psychologically crippled veteran to discredit the war; by right-wing patriots, who (paradoxically) used the same myth in their argument that American soldiers were frustrated by restraints from Washington that prevented them from winning a war they could have won; and by veterans' organizations, which lobbied for more government assistance "to entrench and extend their already extensive benefit package." Dean also offers caustic commentary on the quest for "acquisition of power and influence by the psychiatric profession," which has
a track record of advancing diagnostic categories that lack clear underlying unity based on scientific evidence, but that, nonetheless, have the effect of responding to popular needs and aggrandizing the power and authority of mental health professionals.
EVEN though Dean discusses the possibility that PTSD is "a grab-bag of symptoms" rather than "a distinct psychiatric disorder," the core of this book is an application of the PTSD concept to Civil War soldiers. Part of the myth of the scorned and troubled Vietnam veteran is the implied contrast between his postwar treatment by a hostile or indifferent society and the hero's welcome given veterans of other wars. Although many studies of Civil War soldiers have appeared in recent years, they have focused mainly on the wartime experiences of these men; their postwar history has been relatively neglected. Union veterans returned home as victors, celebrated by parades and official receptions. Confederate veterans did not have this solace, but the romanticization of their heroic courage and pure devotion to a sanctified though doomed Lost Cause fulfilled the same cathartic function. Dean writes, "A reexamination of the Civil War veteran through the lens of the Vietnam experience promises new perspectives and challenges, regarding ... the assumption that Civil War veterans readjusted well after their war."