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Reporting or Promoting PTSD?

War Trauma and the New York Times

by JERRY LEMBCKE

In Phil Klay’s acclaimed book Redeployment, the author creates the character Jenks for a chapter entitled “War Stories.” Jenks is a badly wounded Iraq War veteran who is introduced to Sarah, an actress working with a veterans writing project. Sarah wants to hear Jenk’s story.  Seemingly to prompt him, she says that IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) cause TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), the signature wounds of the war. “I don’t have a TBI,” Jenks replies. “There’s PTSD, too,” the narrator adds, “if you believe The New York Times.”

The narrator’s qualifying “if” caught my eye. The link between PTSD’s validity and the visibility given it by The Times read as if to say the very existence of PTSD might be more dependent on a news organization than medical science. That was not a new idea to me. In fact, I made the same connection in my 1998 book The Spitting Image. I recalled for readers that in 1972 there had been no psychiatric nomenclature covering war trauma, and clinicians were frustrated by the reluctance of professional organizations to recognize post-war maladies presented by veterans. One of those frustrated psychiatrists was Chaim Shatan who later said the breakthrough to new language came in 1972 when The New York Times ran his op-ed column advocating for attention to the unsettledness of Vietnam veterans as a mental health issue. That decision by the Times, Shatan said years later, began the path leading to the inclusion of PTSD as a diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel (DSM III) in 1980.

The New York Times also led the way to new discourse that pathologized veterans’ activism against the war. When members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) rallied to Miami Beach, Florida in 1972 to protest the Republican Party’s renomination of Richard Nixon as its candidate for President, the Times filled its front-page coverage with mental-health terms such as “psychiatric casualty,” “emotional illness,” and “mental breakdown.” Thenceforth, veterans’ protest would be understood as a form of catharsis, a kind of acting-out to relieve the stress of their war trauma.  It was a text-book example of “psychologizing the political” or what sociologists Peter Conrad and Joseph Schneider referred to as “medicalizing dissent.”

With the “damaged goods” imagery dominating the representation of war veterans in the news and forms of popular culture like film, it was no surprise that the next generation of veterans, those home from the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, returned with symptoms soon packaged as Gulf War Syndrome. Men complained of mysterious ailments like fluorescent vomit and blistering semen. U.S. ground troops had been involved in virtually no combat in the Gulf, however, making the psychosomatic nature of the...

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