Post-Traumatic Stress: An American Concern

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, over 55,000 service members have been physically wounded in combat. At the same time, of the more than 2.6 million service members who have served in combat, between 338,000 and 520,000 (almost 10 times as many) have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In his book — No More Heroes — Richard Gabriel argues that all sane men are subject to breakdown under fire.

“This does not,” however, “preclude the possibility that soldiers of one culture may be subject to more rapid mental collapse than others.”

Indeed, Gabriel continues, “The American culture seems to have within it strains which make the susceptibility of its soldiers to psychiatric breakdown greater than for, say, Russian or Chinese soldiers.”

Gabriel supports his assertion by pointing out the fact that American military service members suffered more psychiatric casualties during the Second World War than any other military involved in that war. A psychiatric casualty, of course, is a combatant who is no longer able to participate in combat due to mental (as opposed to physical) debilitation.

  • The German military experienced about 9 psychiatric casualties per 1,000 combat troops. The Russian military experienced about the same rate.
  • The Japanese military had almost no recorded psychiatric casualties at all.
  • The British rates were a bit higher than the German and Russian rates, but still much lower than the United States.

The United States, by contrast, lost 504,000 men due to psychiatric collapse–enough to man 50 combat divisions. At the same time, over one million men–1,393,000–suffered psychiatric symptoms serious enough to debilitate them for some period of time.

The question then becomes, of course, why?

According to Gabriel, the answer can be found in the fact that life in the United States is simply too comfortable:

“Most Americans are stranger to heavy physical labor. Few are ever cold or hungry, and even fewer are threatened by harsh governmental action, which, if nothing else, breeds a sense of perseverance and discipline in the face of events over which one has no control.”

“If Americans believe anything,” Gabriel continues, “It is that they have control over their own destinies and that human intervention can overcome almost any obstacle.”

“Such an outlook will make it difficult for Americans to endure over long periods over conditions which are beyond their control.”

We have to remember, of course, that Gabriel wrote these words in the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, I think many of his observations still ring true today. For example, Gabriel points out that American society is quite different than other societies in that American society is largely comprised of isolated individuals who are largely intolerable of that isolation:

  • American society is comprised of a number of subgroups, resulting in a highly fragmented society where people pride themselves on being individuals with few attachments to others. “The society,” according to Gabriel, “is based on the premise that the highest social good results from the pursuit of individual self-interest with few concerns about the common good levied upon individual behavior.”
  • In addition, the new American “family” has morphed into something largely unrecognizable to the rest of the world. Indeed, in the United States, we witnessed the extinction of the extended family, disintegration of the nuclear family, and the surge of single-parent families. “Whole generations of children have,” Gabriel argues, “been raised with few strong attachments to others and have learned time and again the lesson that commitments to others can lead to betrayal and disappointment.”

The despair associated with this isolation, according to Gabriel, manifests itself in high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and addition to television and other forms of entertainment.

“All of this,” according to Gabriel, “tends to make American society a fragile one and leaves its members unaccustomed to dealing with even everyday stress.”

What do you think? Is there any validity to what Gabriel Argues?

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