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Feeding the myth: Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper” (©WARNER BROS PICTURES)

It’s no wonder that we think soldiers are damaged goods. Legions of them are said to return from deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We read about homeless veterans living on the streets of Britain, unable to cope after the trauma of combat, the walking wounded powerless to adapt to civilian life. The situation has become so distressing that senior military staff worry because more than 90 per cent of the public regards the armed forces as a charity. These “narratives of distress” are bought into by the public and the media alike, engaging popular interest and sympathy. Yet soldiers don’t want to be seen as victims and do not appreciate the stereotyping. They consider themselves professionals, not heroes, not villains, and not victims.

Professor Nicola Fear, Director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research at King’s College London, is concerned because so much focus is put on PTSD, which is not the most prevalent disorder among service personnel. She thinks it obscures the bigger picture, part of which is the high level of alcohol misuse. While young men drink, young men in the military drink more than their civilian counterparts, and that has nothing to do with combat. Most mental disorders have multiple causes and there is rarely a straightforward link. Fifty per cent of PTSD is not related to deployment but other experiences, factors associated with background and alcohol abuse as well. 

The vast majority of soldiers just get on with the job. We no longer have a conscript army, for which attrition rates were horrendous, but a volunteer force that is well-trained and well-maintained. “The reason the British military exists is to deliver fighting power,” says retired Major General Tim Cross, a veteran of three tours in the Balkans and two tours in Iraq, “not to be nice. There are no prizes for coming second on a battlefield. We need a tough military organisation able to operate in demanding, brutal environments like Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Men and women join to be part of a tough organisation.” They are trained to deal with difficulty, and there is a rigorous selection process. The statistics for PTSD seem to bear this out: 4 per cent of the army as a whole suffer from it, and 7 per cent of front-line units, compared to 3 per cent of the entire population.

As Fear points out, the media contributes to the problem by portraying soldiers as mad, sad or bad, concentrating on the ones who have fallen through the gaps. Last month, the Express ran a story claiming a 44-year-old “war hero” who served in the British Army from 1989-1993 and was a veteran of the Falklands and Cyprus campaigns, was forced to sleep in his car. Unfortunately, the Falklands War took place in 1982 and there was no conflict with Cyprus.

Over time the narrative in films, which frames these paradigms for each generation, has changed. In response to the genre of war movie in which everyone had a good time, “now movies portray soldiers as victims who return damaged, and no one comes back happy,” says Dr Lisa Kingstone (my cousin), also of King’s College London, who has written about trauma and war in literature and film.

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May 14th, 2016
7:05 PM
I think that a great deal of pacifist and anti-war mythology has built up around the idea of the traumatised veteran. This is particularly true of the Vietnam war where alternatives to the theme of America's soldiers "psychologically scarred by being conscripted to fight in a futile and unjust war" are rarely considered. To give just one example: of the personnel who fought in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973 the volunteers outnumbered the conscripts by 4 to 1 (8,720,000 to 2,215,000). There have been several studies which challenged the widespread perception of ex-soldiers as pschological wrecks but these get little attention. "Stolen Valour" by B. G. Burkett is worth a read. He is a genuine Vietnam veteran who used the Freedom of Information Act to investigate the backgrounds of criminals and derelicts claiming to be Vietnam veterans and found that most had never been to Vietnam and many had not even been in the armed services.

Heidi Kingstone
April 29th, 2016
12:04 PM
I am so glad you agree with the article. It's been on my mind for a very long time. Thanks for posting the comment!

April 29th, 2016
9:04 AM
At last an article that tells the truth about ex servicemen.As a former soldier who served in Ulster during the troubles and later in Bosnia I have never had any problems adjusting to civvy street.I know many other ex servicemen who are also doing just fine .I am now a Paramedic in the East End and I regularly see homeless people as patients,hardly any of them are ex forces.The ex forces people I have met with problems have all been alcoholics and alcohol is definitely a problem in the forces.As Kipling said "single men wot lives in barracks dont grow into plaster saints".

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