The Beast on My Back

Gerald Weissmann

  • The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Allan Young
    Princeton, 327 pp, £28.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 691 03352 8

‘Bête Noire’ is set in Piccadilly during the long winter between the Battle of Alamein and the Normandy invasion. At the time, the 24-year-old Douglas had pretty much recovered from wounds inflicted by German 88s in the Western Desert and by spring he was back in action. On 9 June, three days after landing in France, he was killed behind enemy lines. We can trace the beast to a passage in From Alamein to Zem Zem, in which he describes his escape from a blasted tank over a minefield of wrecked armour and oil-stained corpses:

Presently I saw two men crawling on the ground … I recognised one as Robin. His left foot was smashed to pulp, mingled with the remainder of a boot. But as I spoke to Robin saying, ‘Have you got a tourniquet, Robin?’ and he answered apologetically, ‘I’m afraid I haven’t, Peter,’ I looked at the second man. Only his clothes distinguished him as a human being, and they were badly charred. His face was gone: in place of it was a huge yellow vegetable. The eyes blinked in it, eyes without lashes, and a grotesque huge mouth dribbled and moaned like a child exhausted with crying.

For most combatants, the numbing effects of such battlefield nightmares are relatively short-lived; for some they last a lifetime. The more permanently affected were said in the past to have been ‘touched with fire’ (the American Civil War), suffering from ‘shell-shock’ (World War One) or afflicted by ‘traumatic neurosis’ (World War Two). In each instance the symptoms that patients displayed seemed to split along class lines. ‘Officers complain of nightmares and bellyaches, enlisted men think they’ve been paralysed,’ our psychiatry instructors told us at Fort Sam Houston after the Korean War.

The syndrome was codified after Vietnam. The beast on the back – and a grab-bag of other distressing symptoms – came to be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the official definition of this condition requires a traumatic event ‘outside the range of usual human experience … one that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone’, followed by such symptoms as repetitive recall of the trauma, psychological numbing, amnesia, insomnia or other forms of automatic arousal. Readers of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon or Pat Barker should not be surprised that this description of PTSD turns out to have a strong resemblance to the description of shell-shock that has become part of the modern literary tradition: the psychiatrists are, after all, simply describing the same beast on different backs.

It might be argued that the beast has been there since records were kept; nightmares have been with us always. Among physicians, Hippocrates had the first look: ‘but the worst of all is to get no sleep either night or day; for it follows from this symptom that the insomnolency is connected with sorrow and pain.’ Two better-known passages suggest something resembling PTSD: Hotspur, with beads of sweat on his brow, rolls in sleep restlessly to mutter ‘Of prisoners ransomed and of soldiers slain/And all the currents of a heady fight’. Guilt after mischief leads the Macbeths to

                eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace.

Kipling joined military to civilian motifs and added the element of class in ‘Gentlemen Rankers’:

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