The Same Old Story by Aly Renwick

15chapt10 (1)VFP member Aly Renwick was invited to attend the launch of the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice’s Inquiry into Veterans within the Criminal Justice System, which will be conducted by Rory Stewart MP. This is Aly’s report of the meeting.

For 24 years now I have been campaigning, with others, to get the MoD and various Governments to recognise that if they send young soldiers into wars and conflicts, then some veterans will come back with psychological conditions like combat related PTSD – and in extreme cases this might even lead to them bringing the war home, by committing acts of violence in Civvy Street. And time after time we have come up against establishment hired and paid experts, who dismiss the hidden wounds of combat related PTSD as a trigger for such violence. In its place, the experts produce stereotypes of veterans – who’s ‘individual weaknesses’ can then be blamed instead.

The veterans’ problems and violence can then be explained away by saying they come from ‘broken homes’ and/or other ‘disadvantaged backgrounds,’ with low ‘educational levels.’ And when they abuse drugs and/or alcohol – it’s because they have ‘addictive personalities.’ Of course, like any good lie, there are some bits of reality in the typecasts outlined – with a few veterans conforming in one-way, or another, to the stereotypes constructed. This, however, only serves to further hide the real truth. We need to ask the question: Is the common denominator, amongst veterans who have ended up in the criminal justice system for violent acts, the fact that they have taken part in wars/conflicts? – Or is it that some have come from deprived backgrounds and others haven’t any GCEs?

This year we will commemorate the fallen of the First World War and among our casualties we must include over 300 British soldiers who were shot at dawn – charged with cowardice and desertion – by their own side. Most, however, due to the horrific nature of the warfare, were suffering from shellshock. Given the numbers of physically injured, perhaps it is not surprising that little sympathy would be spared for those suffering from hidden wounds. This harsh view was alleviated, to some extent, by the realisation that the officers appeared to be more susceptible to shellshock than ordinary soldiers. By the end of the first year of the war reports from the Army Medical Corps revealed that 7 – 10% of all officer patients and 3 – 4% of ordinary soldiers undergoing treatment were suffering from mental problems. Special shellshock treatment hospitals, like Craiglockhart in Edinburgh, were opened for officers. But in fact, the percentages mentioned are very low estimates – and anyhow suggest that more sympathy was shown to officer’s suffering, than that of the rank and file soldiers.

Through the realisation of what conditions at the front were really like and the evident effects this had on their returning men, the British public gradually came to accept shellshock as a condition, which could affect any soldier. In Europe, people like Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, took up this issue:

The war, as Freud noted in the introduction to a psychoanalytic study of shellshock, ‘was not without an important influence on the spread of psychoanalysis,’ because medical men ‘who had hitherto held back from any approach to psychoanalytic theory were brought into close contact with them when in the course of their duty as army doctors they were obliged to deal with war neuroses.’ The book had arisen from contributions to the fifth International Psychoanalytical Congress held in Budapest in late September 1918. A symposium had been held on ‘The Psychoanalysis of War Neuroses.’

… official observers from the highest quarters of the Central European Powers were present as observers at the Budapest Congress. In Freud’s words, ‘The hopeful result of this contact was that the establishment of psychoanalytic Centres was promised, at which analytically trained physicians would have leisure and opportunity for studying the nature of these puzzling disorders [the war neuroses] and the therapeutic effect exercised on them by psychoanalysis.’

Before these proposals could be put into effect, however, ‘the war came to an end, the state organisations collapsed and interest in the war neuroses gave place to other concerns’

[From War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press 1993].

In the ten years after the ending of the war, pension boards examined over 100,000 cases of former front-line troops suffering from mental disorders. At the start of the Second World War the British Government was still paying £2 million pounds a year to shell-shocked veterans of the First World War.

Shellshock was the name then in vogue for a condition that has affected some soldiers since time immemorial. Shakespeare even wrote about it in his description of the warrior, Hotspur, in Henry IV, Part One. The condition has also been called ‘nostalgia’ or ‘camp disease’ in the US Civil War; ‘combat fatigue’ in the Second World War. In 1980, five years after the ending of the Vietnam War, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was officially recognised as the modern name for this condition, when it was included in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual III (DSM III) of the American Psychiatric Association. Many veterans were plagued by war-related readjustment problems, such as flashbacks to combat, feelings of alienation and/or anger, depression, loneliness, nightmares, an inability to get close to others and using drugs or alcohol to mask and soothe their problems. Sometimes, this was leading to suicidal feelings or periods in jail and psychologists working with Vietnam veterans in outreach programs emphasised that these disorders were not mental illnesses, but rather delayed reactions to the stress these veterans underwent during the war in Southeast Asia.

It took a lengthy campaign by the Vietnam veterans and their friends to force the US Government to admit that some returning soldiers were suffering from combat related PTSD and other rehabilitation problems. The war had caused deep divisions within America and even 15 years after its ending many Vietnam veterans, and consequently those who came into contact with them, were still suffering from that conflict:

During the last decade of the twentieth century, America is still haunted by Vietnam. In 1990, a definitive study of the Vietnam generation revealed astonishing psychological costs of the war, still affecting veterans themselves and reverberating throughout much of American society 15 years after the last American combatant had left Vietnam. The study found that 15.2 percent of all male Vietnam theatre veterans, 497,000 of the 3.14 million men who served there, currently suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

… those with posttraumatic stress disorder are prone to other profound affects: they frequently experience various psychiatric illnesses; they are five times more likely than those without the disorder to be unemployed; 70 percent have been divorced; almost half have been arrested or in jail at least once; and they are two to six times as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.

[From Home From the War – Vietnam Veterans neither Victims or Executioners, by Robert Jay Lifton, Beacon Press Boston 1992].

In America, after years of campaigning, the Vietnam veterans began to win over public support. The veterans had to show courage and tenacity in taking their message to the American people, because there were many who were hostile, or who did not want to hear:

There is … considerable rage, much of it beneath the surface, towards Vietnam veterans. They are resented both for not winning the war and thereby being agents of humiliation, and also for the “dirty” things they have done. Moreover, they are deeply feared by a society that sense their potential violence and is all too quick to label them as “drug addicts” or “killers” – and this kind of fear can be quickly converted into rage.

Finally, there are large elements of American society enraged at – because deeply threatened by – the antiwar veterans’ transformation. For that transformation depends directly upon exposing the filth beneath the warrior’s claim to purity of mission, upon subverting much that is fundamental to American warrior mythology. Americans profoundly involved with that mythology may experience considerable rage towards these bearers of bad news, whom they may then blame for the news itself – for the decline of the old virtues. Underneath that rage are the profound doubts of everyone, even those who would most like to remain true believers in all aspects of American glory.

[From Home From the War – Vietnam Veterans neither Victims or Executioners, by Robert Jay Lifton, Beacon Press Boston 1992].

Nevertheless, the Vietnam veterans pressed on and won some concessions to help with their problems. Back in Britain in 1997, Roderick Ørner, the District Clinical Psychologist for Lincoln, contrasted the treatment of Vietnam veterans with British Falklands, Northern Ireland and Gulf War veterans. In an article in The Psychologist, he told how, less than five years after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, a conference was convened to ‘review the status and predicament of the veterans of United States military engagement in South East Asia’:

Speakers from the fields of law, political science, philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology and psychiatry lent credibility to the campaigns of veterans’ groups. Thirteen years after the Falklands War it is doubtful if enough data have been gathered about our veterans group to even consider arranging a similar conference in the United Kingdom. Even less so for Northern Ireland veterans or veterans of the Gulf War.

All of this is entirely consistent with the impression left by recent commemorations of the end of World War Two. The welfare and welfare rights of British war veterans have so far not attained high public priority. At this moment of reckoning, it is clear that those who should have represented the interests of British ex-service personnel returning from war and their families, leave a shameful record. This may be a consequence of a conspiracy of silence and sanitation in relation to truths about wars and their aftermath…

[The Psychologist, August 1997].

In Britain, it was during the conflict in Northern Ireland that British prisons began to fill up with returning veterans. At the same time, anyone raising the issue of Northern Ireland veterans who were suffering from psychological problems after their tours of duty, could expect to face hostility from the military establishment. In 1992, Lynda La Plante’s TV drama, Civvies, was broadcast. La Plante had written Civvies after some ex-paras had done some building work in her home and told her about themselves. The series was about the violent lives of ex-paras:

Karl Francis, the director, believes that it reflects a much bigger real life story which has yet to be told.

As a self-styled radical film maker, Francis admits to finding the theme of Civvies a challenge: ‘Instead of looking at the hearts and minds of the communities the soldiers have tried to conquer, it looked at the minds of the soldiers themselves – trying to conquer their own demons and live with them afterwards.’

‘I’ve got cousins and friends who’ve been in the army’, he says. ‘I’ve heard how they try and deal with the stress – their wives have told me. I’ve met the soldiers who ended up pill-poppers and drug addicts. I’ve listened to the awful stories of their dreams.’

‘People respond to soldiering in different ways. Being a soldier doesn’t make you a good or a bad person. The lads in Civvies came out of the army still fighting, they were all wounded emotionally, they wanted healing…’

[Guardian, Nov.4th 1992, The mind as combat zone, by Martin Collins].

Lynda La Plante had made friends with the group of ex-paras she had met and based her drama Civvies on. She tried to help them settle back into civilian life: ‘But, by the time the show was broadcast, every single one of the soldiers she’d met and found jobs for was in prison. “It made me deeply angry, the betrayal these men had done to me”, she said. “The show was an angry plea to the Government to do something about PTSD”.’ [Mail on Sunday Magazine, 15th Jan. 1995, article on soldiers and PTSD by Jean Rafferty]. There was no doubt that Civvies was La Plante’s most difficult and controversial series. It was described as ‘offensive’ by the  Ministry of Defence, and as ‘inaccurate, belittling and will demoralise the troops’ by the Parachute Regiment.

Later Lynda La Plante commented:

‘Civvies is an open wound … Nothing in Civvies hadn’t happened. It wasn’t a fictional drama. It was fact, all of it. Yet I was vilified and abused by everybody. The shoals of letters I still get: “That was my brother, that was my father, that was my uncle, that was my husband”.’

[Observer Life, interview by Andrew Billen, 10th March 1996].

In Britain, at the end of the First World War, political battles had been fought in Parliament and in the medical establishment to prevent the practice of designating the worst cases of shellshocked soldiers insane and committing them to asylums. Many in the War Office were still refusing to accept shellshock as a diagnosis. They wanted the issue of the psychologically wounded to disappear and racism plus class prejudice was clearly evident when they were forced to look at the problem:

… the War Office Committee of Inquiry into Shellshock under the chairmanship of Lord Southborough in 1922 entertained but then rejected Freud’s therapy, or at least the ‘sanitised’ version they had been offered by Head and Rivers [British shellshock doctors]. The committee declared that Jews, the Irish and the working classes were more likely to break down, as were ‘artistic types’ and ‘imaginative city-dwellers’ and other such ‘highly strung’ people.

[From War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press 1993].

Rather that confront the reality of war, the War Office had shown that it would rather construct stereotypes of the soldiers that they had sent to fight in them. And this is still happening right up to the present day.

Recalling the many struggles over these issues, both in the far and near past, I therefore couldn’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu about the launch of this new Inquiry. However, unlike when I started campaigning – when the MoD and the Government denied that there was any problem and claimed they did not know about PTSD – it is has now been clear for some time that everyone now recognises that there are extensive numbers of veterans in the criminal justice system and that this is a big problem that something must be done about it. So far, so good, but now the argument has switched from if there is a problem, or not, to what is causing the problem. Does ex-services personnel’s criminal behaviour stem from incidents that occurred during the veterans’ tours of duty -which then develop into combat related PTSD? – Or does it come from veterans’ backgrounds and personalities? And would it ‘have happened anyway,’ even if the veterans had been in a cushy job in Civvy Street?

A little while ago the Howard League set up a Commission to look into Veterans in the Prison System. The group, Veterans In Prison, then sent the Commission a list of over 50 veterans – serving time in prison – who had worked out what had happened to themselves and what had caused them to commit a crime in the first place. Not one of the veterans named on that list were visited, although the Commission did visit some other veterans in prison. But these were ones who had not as yet worked out what had happened to them, which suited the purposes of the interviewees – who could then produce any stereotype they wanted from these veterans’ muddled statements, which were little more than cries for help. So the voices of the veterans in prison, who had worked out what had happened to themselves, were totally absent from the Howard League Commissions’ report – which as a result was a total sham. Will these veterans’ voices remain hidden and be absent from Rory Stewart’s Review? Will the hidden wounds of combat related PTSD, as a main cause of the problem, be absent also? Sadly, they were mainly absent from the launch of this inquiry. If that continues, then this Review is likely to be a sham like all the rest, the equivalent of placing a bandage on a cancer wound – while the real problem goes on and gets larger.

1 Comment

  1. Leonard Lawrence Pilot says:

    Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice’s Rt Hon. Chris Grayling MP Inquiry into Veterans within the Criminal Justice System.

    Could it be that many veterans are given a false diagnosis of mental illness ?
    Why are our veterans not given neuropsychological testing and functional fMRI scans ? See below:

    First Physical Evidence of Gulf War Illness Discovered in … › News › News Archive › Pursuing Excellence‎
    Brain scans of Gulf War veterans revealed anomalies in the nerve fibers that connect to … March 20, 2013– Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) … The GUMC research team used a form of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) called … Georgetown University37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. …
    Why has David Bennett, Trauma Centre UK Website been taken down ? David Bennett has treated veterans with PTSD for many years.
    VX and organophosphates, why are our troops not being tested and treated, if necessary, for exposure to these chemicals ?
    Mr Grayling, David Bennett and myself Leonard Lawrence are available to talk to both yourself and Rory Stewart MP.
    Much of the above has recently been discussed on The Earth Needs Rebels Show and the UK Column TV

    The UK GulfWeb: UK News, Soames …

    Nicholas Soames appearing before the Defence Select Committee yesterday … For more than two years, Parliament was informed that organophosphates

    Yours sincerely,

    Leonard Lawrence

    ex Royal Navy

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