Ben Shephard's A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century traces the evolution of wartime neuroses from the puzzling appearance of "shell shock" in the winter of 1914-15 through the "post-traumatic stress disorder" of the Vietnam War's aftermath, and, more recently, to "Gulf War syndrome." Midway through his engrossing narrative, one especially evocative statement appears: "Every man has his breaking point and these, in the fulfillment of their duties as soldiers, were forced beyond the limits of human endurance."
The words aren't Shephard's. The quote comes from a 1944 propaganda documentary made to reassure Americans on the home front that their mentally wounded sons (and daughters) were being well cared for—and it offers just one explanation for an enigma that continues to plague military psychiatry: Why do some foot soldiers, aviators, and sailors crack under fire? In Shephard's view, the documentary marked a dramatic shift from the traditional "get tough" military attitude toward what was widely regarded as cowardice or malingering to a more compassionate view of the human response to fear.
Both a historian of psychiatry and a producer of documentary films—including The World at War—Shephard, who is British, brings finely honed skills from both fields to his book. He matches his meticulously documented historical research with a journalist/producer's trained eye for the single detail, the precise anecdote, the appropriate quote that tells a story. The combination produces a fascinating and compelling exploration of a complex and still-controversial topic that could easily be ponderous and dull.