Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Combat in Charcoal

August 11th, 2011 · 5 Comments

Along with the transmission methods for mass psychological illness, one of the main themes I’ll be exploring in my next book is how traumatized Vietnam veterans coped with their homecomings. As such, I’ve been digging into the history of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly the ways in which the condition was glossed over by the medical establishment after World War II. Though there’s a good argument to be made that certain aspects of the Vietnam conflict made PTSD unusually pervasive—the evidence for which I’ll be exploring in future posts—it’s folly to assume that hundreds of thousands of World War II vets were never able to reintegrate into American society because of what they’d endured.

One of the threads I’m following is how the media representations of combat affected those depicted, not just the non-fighting folks on the homefront. We all know that the televised images of Vietnam’s carnage helped fuel the American protest movement, but how did this new form of documentation change how vets perceived themselves? That line of inquiry has naturally led me to examine the popular images from World War II, many of which were created by artists’ hands rather than photographers or filmmakers. I’ve previously covered various pen-and-paper chroniclers of era’s military exploits, such as the cartoonist behind Corporal Gee Eye and illustrators who chronicled America’s H-bomb tests. Now I’ve gotten turned onto the haunting work of Kerr Eby, who accompanied the Marines to Bougainville and drew some of the war’s most lasting images of human suffering. The one above has stuck with me for days now: it’s entitled “War is Hell (Shell Shock),” which really tells you all you need to know.

Third-party images play such a fundmental role in shaping our memories, especially as we age. I have to think that World War II vets remembered things different than their counterparts in Vietnam, solely because of the aesthetics of the conflict’s artifacts.

Even if you don’t agree with that assessment, I highly recommend that you check out Eby’s work. And peruse a couple of Robert Benny naval paintings while you’re over there.


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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Two different pieces from Radiolab seem relevant here. First, the episode about placebos talked about how the stories we tell ourselves have a direct effect on how we experience pain. If you think you’re going to be taken care of, you experience less pain than someone who thinks their life will be ruined.


    Second, that memories are malleable and under constant revision. We rebuild them every time we remember. So the social environment surrounding those memories will have a pretty significant impact both on how they are remembered and how they are experienced (an re-experienced).


    Though it’s slow in coming, I feel like there’s also a growing understanding on what PTSD is. You build up reactions and habits in combat that are useful, perhaps even necessary, for your survival. The expression in charcoal #38 expresses that to a T. After returning home, those same reactions become not just useless, but often counterproductive. But because memories that are attached to strong emotions (like, say, being in combat) tend to last much longer, they’re going to be hard to wear down in the comparatively hum-drum civilian world.

    One of my friends got back from Iraq a little over a year ago. While it wasn’t so clear to him, it was to almost everyone else around that he had at least a degree of PTSD (I don’t know how anyone could avoid it). And yet because he was returning to a job that he loathed and a life without other significant sources of purpose, he very nearly signed up for a tour of Afghanistan.

    It bugs me that I can’t remember where I heard it, but years ago an American general was interviewed on NPR and he described a Roman tradition. Whenever a legion would return, a large chunk of the civilian populace would line the road into Rome to symbolically accept the responsibility for the actions of the soldiers. The general was arguing that we have need for something similar today, especially given the narrow segment of the population that the armed forces tend to be drawn from today. I don’t know how much it would really help, but I feel like we need some mechanism to tell soldiers that they shouldn’t be forced to carry the responsibility for their actions alone. All that they do is in our name.

    That’s kind of a jumble of thoughts, but it’s something that’s concerned me for a while. Thanks for posting these drawings.

  • Captured Shadow

    Looking forward to more PTSD related stories. Have you looked into any of the rapid eye movement treatments? Hard to understand how they work (if they work)

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Thank you so much for the comment. Lots to chew over here, and I’ll def. go back and listen to those Radiolab segments. You make a great point re: how our memories are constantly changing, even though those changes probably aren’t perceptible to the memory holders.

    @Captured Shadow: To be honest, I haven’t really looked at contemporary treatments. My book is set in the early ’70s, so I’ve been much more interested in how military doctors handled cases back then. They obviously used a different sort of language–lots of references to soldiers suffering from “nervous crises” in the literature. And the standard treatment seemed to have been a prescription for benzodiazepines.

  • Sara Mayeux

    Do you know this book? I haven’t read it but have been meaning to give it a look.

    Jeremy Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Sara Mayeux: Interesting, thanks for the recommendation. I’ve previously posted about Lee N. Robins famous work, which questioned the conventional wisdom that soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam continued to be addicts when they returned to the U.S.:


    The catch there is that Robins seemed to accept the data regarding the high number of heroin users and addicts in the U.S. military. I’m very curious to know the methodology that Kuzmarov used to take issue with that data.