The Great War, Library of Congress

Revisiting the Mental Health Fallout from the Unprecedented Horror of the First World War

All the armies in the Great War had a word for it: the Germans called it “Kriegsneurose”; the French “la confusion mentale de la guerre”; the British “neurasthenia” and, when Dr. Charles Samuel Myers introduced the soldiers’ slang into medical discourse in 1915, “shell shock.” Twenty-five years later, it was “battle fatigue.” By the end of the twentieth century, it became post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In December 1914, a mere five months into “the war to end war,” Britain’s armed forces lost 10 percent of all frontline officers and 4 percent of enlisted men, the “other ranks,” to “nervous and mental shock.” An editorial that month in the British medical journal The Lancet lamented “the frequency with which hysteria, traumatic and otherwise, is showing itself.”

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"The 2000 Yard Stare", by Thomas Lea, 1944, WWII. The Army Art Collection, U.S. Army Center for Military History

From “Shell Shock” to PTSD, Veterans Have a Long Walk to Health

Will Robinson, an American Iraq war veteran, languished for months with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all alone at home in Louisiana. One day in March 2016, he watched the movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. Strayed’s book of the same title told of her redemption from despair by hiking 2,650 miles of wilderness on the Pacific Coast Trail, from Mexico to Canada. Robinson decided to follow Strayed’s example, packing up a tent and supplies a month later to duplicate her journey and, he hoped, its hopeful outcome.

He had nothing to lose. Forced into the army at the age of eighteen by a judge who promised to erase his conviction for petty theft if he served, he was deployed to South Korea in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Six months in Iraq left him with injuries to his wrist, his knee and, more significantly, his mind. The army gave him a medical discharge for PTSD, but it offered little in the way of medical treatment. He attempted suicide with drugs the Veterans Administration issued him, surviving only because the pills made him vomit. Other vets of the war on terror were not so lucky; every day, an average of twenty-two take their lives rather than endure another moment of living hell. Robinson promised his mother he would not try again. Then she died, and he retreated into loneliness and depression.

It was during that dark time that Robinson saw “Wild” and took his first, literal, step towards recovery. He may not have known that he was following the advice of a British psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur J. Brock, who had prescribed similar solutions to soldiers traumatized in the First World War. The battles between 1914 and 1918 subjected young men to the unprecedented terrors of high explosive artillery shells, poison gas, flamethrowers, rapid machine-gun fire and claustrophobia in rat-infested trenches. Growing numbers of casualties carried to field hospitals had no physical wounds. At least, not wounds the doctors could see.

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Soldiers Dont Go Mad

Poet by Day, Sick by Night

Every summer before the war, Siegfried Sassoon had gloried in playing cricket. Yet, at Craiglockhart, he shunned team sports and clubs. His only athletic pursuits were golf and leaping alone “like a young ram” over the Pentland ridges. At the end of his first week, he wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate looking.” One had committed suicide. Estranged from the other inmates, Sassoon cherished his time with [Dr. William Halse Rivers] Rivers, “a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly.” Rivers assured him he was sane, albeit with one abnormality: opposition to the war. Yet, Sassoon wrote to Ottoline, the doctor’s pro-war arguments “don’t make any impression on me.”

He used the evening sessions with Rivers “to give my anti-war complex an airing.” Doctor and patient debated the war’s rights and wrongs, neither making headway with the other. Among discussion topics were European politicians’ declarations as translated in The Cambridge Magazine. Sassoon maintained the statesmen, far from waging defensive war, sought to annex territory from Germany and its allies. France wanted Alsace and the portions of Lorraine that Germany had seized in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The Kingdom of Italy had joined the war in April 1915 to acquire chunks of Austria-Hungary. Britain coveted German colonies in Africa. The May 1916 Sykes-Picot accord dividing the Ottoman Empire among France, Britain, and Russia would have bolstered Sassoon’s case had it not been an official secret. Rivers argued that Germany would not negotiate. Its military and political leaders were as determined as Britain’s to fight until victory, despite the stasis of the trenches, the daily death toll, and the calamitous offensives. Like the belligerent nations, Rivers and Sassoon stuck to their positions without breakthrough or compromise.

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Confronting Saddam Hussein by Melvyn P. Leffler review

An apologist seeks to justify an ‘abomination of a war’

In 1899 President William McKinley explained to a delegation of Methodist clergymen why he had decided to occupy the Philippine Islands. Conscience prevented him from returning the archipelago to Spain following the Spanish–American war, turning it over to another colonial power or granting the Filipinos independence, because “they were unfit for self-government”. A long night of prayer had convinced him “that there was nothing for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them”. The churchmen accepted McKinley’s rationale. The Filipinos, about 90 per cent of whom were Christian already, did not. Nor did Mark Twain, who condemned the military onslaught that would go on to kill 20,000 rebels and up to 200,000 civilians. History has judged McKinley harshly, despite the domestic popularity that won him a second election to the White House in 1900.

Like McKinley, George W. Bush professed a moral imperative for invading and occupying Iraq in 2003. He too won re-election. Yet by the time he left office he was a laughing stock. Even his most ardent cheerleaders had distanced themselves from a military adventure that was nothing short of disastrous for Iraq, the US military and America’s global reputation. A rare exception is Melvyn P. Leffler, whose Confronting Saddam Hussein exonerates Bush and goes so far as to praise his “energy, discipline, self-confidence and good humor”. Can this be the same president who gave his name to the word “Bushism”, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “a verbal error made by and considered characteristic of former US president George W. Bush”, eg “They misunderestimated me” or, on the Taliban, “They have no disregard for human life”?

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Damascus Qanawat market street byDosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Disenchantment and Devastation in Syria

For the first time in sixteen years Damascus has inaugurated a new five-star luxury hotel. The Golden Mazzeh is a ten-story reminder that some Syrians are surviving America’s economic sanctions better than others. Its 111 suites and rooms, ten restaurants and bars, two outdoor swimming pools, ballroom, meeting rooms, theater, gym, and conference center make it a formidable competitor to the older Sheraton and Four Seasons. Guests can sip martinis in its two rooftop bars while contemplating a 360-degree panorama of the sprawling Syrian capital: suburban apartment complexes and parks to the west, Mount Qasioun to the north, and to the east the ancient walled city where Saint Paul eluded his persecutors and which tradition says the Prophet Muhammad bypassed in the belief that man could enter paradise only once. An Italian architect, Massimo Rodighiero, designed the hotel, whose manager, Patrick Prudhomme, is French. In the eucalyptus-shaded public garden across from the entrance, mothers watch their children as traffic rumbles along the nearby Mazzeh Highway toward Beirut.

This is the road that first delivered me to Damascus at Easter 1973, before high-rise government offices, embassies, and apartments for a new class of military officers, civil servants, and merchants absorbed semirural, suburban Mazzeh into the metropolis. I was a tourist then, an ignorant American graduate student on his way by land from Lebanon to Aqaba in Jordan, pausing long enough for lunch and a little sightseeing. When I returned the following October to cover the war with Israel, it was as a journalist on a visa approved by the Ministry of Information’s obstructive, sluggish bureaucracy. Since then I’ve had to apply to the ministry whenever I sought to return.

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Beirut city by Yoniw

Diary: In Beirut

‘I found it dirty and coarse,’ the Lebanese scholar Edward Atiyah wrote of Beirut at the end of the First World War. ‘Rubbish heaps stank in the streets; the gutters looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned since my childhood … Dead rats!’ Nearly a century later, in 2004, the journalist Hazim Saghie would say of Beirut in the 1980s: ‘I only recall darkness … the roar of electricity generators … while the garbage was mounting everywhere, spreading its putrid smell day after day after day.’

Both Atiyah and Saghie were remembering a dark past at a moment when prospects looked brighter. Atiyah was writing in 1946, as the French army was departing from newly independent Lebanon; Saghie in the early 2000s when Beirut was being rebuilt after fifteen years of civil war. Both imagined the worst was over, when it wasn’t, when it wasn’t likely to be. Now, in 2023, the rubbish is back and has been for several years. Political stasis and corruption have consigned Beirut to another dark age. A future in which any Lebanese can reflect on bad memories from a time of safety seems unimaginable.

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Master of the Game by Martin Indyk

He’ll have ye smilin’

Time​ magazine called him ‘Henry of Arabia’ and featured him on a cover in 1974. The headline read ‘Mideast Miracle’. Newsweek depicted him that same day as ‘Super K’ in a fluttering blue cape. The New York Times, Washington Post and the television networks piled on their own encomia. Henry Kissinger, already a media darling, had become the Middle East’s saviour, whose ‘shuttle diplomacy’, then a neologism, had ended the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973.

Nixon had appointed him secretary of state a month before the war broke out. Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger, the German-Jewish Harvard professor didn’t fit the State Department stereotype: all 55 of his predecessors were native-born WASPs. His Dr Strangelove accent remained a lifelong reminder of his émigré status. (Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, told him that her foreign minister spoke better English than he did.) Yet after becoming a naturalised American at the age of twenty he liked to describe himself in terms of his adopted country’s folklore. He told a reporter that he was ‘a cowboy who rides alone into town with his horse and nothing else’. He also resembled another American frontier archetype: the pedlar whose wagonload of patent medicines promised to cure every ailment. By the time the rubes realised that his bottles contained snake oil, he had left town. ‘He’ll have ye smilin’,’ an old Irish saying goes, ‘while he takes the gold out of your teeth.’

In Master of the Game, Martin Indyk shows Kissinger at work before, during and after the October War, and highlights his most acclaimed achievements in its aftermath: persuading Israel to cede small patches of occupied territory and convincing Egypt and Syria to recognise the ‘Zionist entity’, at least de facto, by negotiating with it through him. Indyk’s account, while adding little to the historical record, makes exciting reading. And despite his veneration for Kissinger, Indyk acknowledges that the elaborate diplomatic manoeuvring was an exercise in damage control. After all, if it hadn’t been for Kissinger, there would have been no October War…

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Imran Khan

On the comeback trail with Imran Khan

At 11am on May 25th, Imran Khan boards a helicopter in Peshawar, a city near the border with Afghanistan. Less than two months earlier, the Pakistani parliament had dismissed Khan as prime minister in a vote of no confidence. In the aftermath, he had rallied supporters across the country. (Recently the police began investigating him for terrorism offences for saying, at one of these demonstrations, that he would “not spare” a police chief and judges who had ordered the arrest and alleged torture of his chief of staff.)

Now his helicopter glides over thousands of his adherents in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the road to Islamabad, the capital, where he plans to hold yet another rally. A campaign bus is waiting for Khan halfway to the city: a converted shipping container mounted on a truck bed, with a speaker’s platform on top and a seating area in a kind of capsule below. The container has been painted green, red and white, the colours of his political party, Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), known as the PTI. This is the mobile-command centre of Khan’s “long march”, a motorised cavalcade he has organised in his populist bid to force the government to hold fresh parliamentary elections, which he believes he will win.

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The Fate of Abraham by Peter Oborne

The West’s scapegoats: the long history of Islamophobia

The journalist Peter Oborne once cherished a faith in British rectitude. His columns for publications including the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator marked him out as one of conservatism’s more erudite spokesmen. Then came Britain’s complicity in the invasion of Iraq – broadly supported by both Labour and the Conservatives – and the Labour government’s mendacity over the death in suspicious circumstances of its scientific adviser David Kelly. The double deception prompted him to renounce his beliefs: “I went mentally into opposition to the British state”.

In The Fate of Abraham he turns his attention to some victims of the system he has rejected: Muslims in Britain and abroad. Western civilization’s apologists divided Muslims into the “good”, who collaborated with the imperial project, and the “bad”, who resisted. As a religion with adherents spanning the globe, Islam could be targeted as a disruptive force in the Philippines in the same terms used to deride Muslims opposed to the royal family in Saudi Arabia or military regimes in Egypt. In this sense Muslims assume the role of communists during the Cold War: the enemy without and within. Oborne argues that the Cold War model is both wrong-headed and harmful.

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Review of Sensing Injustice Michael E. Tigar

Prestige and honor: the legal life of Michael Tigar

In 1920, Clarence Darrow, America’s great “defender of the damned”, told a Chicago jury, in defence of freedom of speech: “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free”. Michael Tigar, in this account of his fifty years of legal practice, does not quote Darrow’s famous maxim, but he has surely lived by it.

After graduating first in his class at the University of California Berkeley School of Law in 1966, he embarked on a legal odyssey to defend victims of state persecution, from the free speech activists at Berkeley to the Chagos islanders displaced to make way for the American naval base on Diego Garcia. On the way, he represented nearly every American dissident whose name appeared on the FBI and CIA wanted lists. Despite the injustices Tigar witnessed, he retains his faith in American jurisprudence.

This memoir is also a modern history of American legal practice. In Tigar’s world there is no substitute for hard work, lengthy research of law and precedent, understanding the psychology of judges and juries, and putting the client first in all cases. For most of his career this has worked, though one of his regrets is that the government continues to use illegal electronic surveillance, despite statutes and judicial prohibitions against the practice. He has argued seven cases before the Supreme Court, and the reasoning in his briefs made their way into judicial history. He has taught law in California, Texas and elsewhere, assisted on cases in Africa and Israel, and written plays, including one about Clarence Darrow. Tigar is not self-effacing, admitting that one of his students wrote in an assessment that his ego was “as big as the Asian continent”.

Sensing Injustice is an adventure tale that makes the law seem as fascinating as any saga. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that Clarence Darrow, “working through the law, brought prestige and honor to it during a long era of intolerance”. The same can be said of Michael Tigar…

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