Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue, and Wor(d)se

Horrors Of War Hit Home

Kelly Kennedy, George Carlin, and the Reason for Traumatized Iraq Veterans
By Juan Cole / June 25, 2008

The late George Carlin did not like the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder.” He famously said,

‘ I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I’ll give you an example of that.

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to it’s absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap.

In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along and very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll betcha. I’ll betcha.’

I have concluded that Carlin was right about that issue. Being traumatized by war is not a disorder. In fact, if you are not traumatized by the sight of body parts flying all around you as you are splattered with the blood of people you know, then you would have a disorder. Why not just say “war-traumatized”? Or better yet, “war-scarred”? The PTSD phrase has the unfortunate effect of making it seem abnormal for people to be negatively affected by wartime violence.

It is like the phrase “Vietnam syndrome,” in which the understandable reluctance of the Baby Boom generation to launch big, long-lasting land wars in Asia was medicalized, as though there was something wrong with them that they were not warmongers. Why not say that they had ‘learned the lessons of Vietnam,’ or were ‘Vietnam-scarred’? Why suggest that there is something wrong with them for it?

So below is a report from CBS on how the US networks have sanitized the Iraq War for viewers, and how we cannot understand the long-term trauma suffered by US troops who served in Iraq unless we understand what they’ve been through. Warning: her description of what she and others saw in Iraq is explicit and disturbing. Carlin would be proud of her:

“Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy saw first hand the horrors of the war in Iraq. She spoke to CBS News about her experiences and about how post traumatic stress disorder is affecting the troops.”

Source / Informed Comment

The Rag Blog

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1 Response to Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue, and Wor(d)se

  1. sarah says:

    i have never read your blog before. i thought this was a great post.


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