Their war ended 70 years ago. Their trauma didn’t.
There were also guys named Otis Mackey and George Swinney, and a half-dozen other vets who inspired my novel of the Greatest Generation that was published this spring. Each had survived Omaha Beach, the Ardennes Forest or the Pacific Islands, only to have the psychic residue of combat shatter their golden years.
They talked of night terrors, heavy drinking, survivor’s guilt, depression, exaggerated startle responses, profound and lingering sadness. The symptoms were familiar to the world by then, but post-traumatic stress disorder, the diagnosis that came into being in 1980, was widely assumed to be unique to veterans of Vietnam. “Bad war, bad outcome, bad aftereffects,” is the way historian Thomas Childers put it.
Those of age in the late 1940s would have known differently. Though it was referred to by other names (shell shock, combat fatigue, neuropsychiatric disorders) the emotional toll of World War II was hard to miss in the immediate postwar years; military psychiatric hospitals across the nation were full of afflicted soldiers, and the press was full of woeful tales. But with the passage of time and the prevailing male ethos — the strong, silent type — World War II was soon overshadowed by the Cold War and eventually Vietnam. By the 1990s, amid the mythology of the Greatest Generation, the psychological costs of the last “good war” had been forgotten.
Yet those costs, as hard as the nation tried to ignore them, did not go away. The soldiers I interviewed nearly two decades ago, and tens of thousands of others like them, were painful and often poignant proof of that. Though the reverential books of Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose glossed over it, the hidden anguish of the Greatest Generation has always been there. “Our conceptualization of the Greatest Generation is that [the soldiers] came home and got to work,” said Paula Schnurr, executive director of the National Center for PTSD, who has worked with World War II veterans since the 1990s. “Many of them looked okay because they went to work, got married, they raised families — but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have PTSD.”
Of all the men and women who served in the armed forces during World War II, less than 6 percent, about 850,000, are still alive, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. World War II vets die at the rate of 492 a day. Before it’s too late, we ought to reach beyond the nostalgia and myth and embrace the truth of war and the Greatest Generation. Bad war, good war — for those who fight, it’s all the same — means death, disfigurement and horrors no human heart is equipped to bear.
Mackey drank heavily when he returned to Texas and worked three jobs as a machinist so he was too tired to remember his dreams at night. “I don’t know why my wife even stayed with me,” he said.
By the time we talked, Mackey had been in group therapy for several months with Earl Crumby and a few other World War II vets at the Dallas VA hospital. By that time in the 1990s, thousands of old soldiers had been finding their way to PTSD treatment.
“Most of the World War II men that I worked with came to me in their 70s or 80s, after retirement or the death of a spouse,” said Joan Cook, a professor of psychiatry at Yale and a PTSD researcher for Veterans Affairs. “Their symptoms seemed to be increasing, and those events seemed to act as a floodgate.”
For so many veterans, that was when they finally learned they were not crazy or weak. “Pretty much to a person, for them, learning about PTSD and understanding that people were researching it in World War II veterans was a real relief,” Schnurr said. “Many people felt isolated and crazy, and they thought it was just them. And they didn’t talk about it.”
Mackey told me that he generally felt better after VA therapy sessions with other haunted World War II vets. But there were still days when “I get that empty feeling, just deep down, and I don’t care whether I live or die.”
Seated on a sofa a few feet away, Mackey’s wife, Helen, began to cry. “He has not told me this,” she said, “that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.”
Similar dramas have played out across the centuries, of course, a part of the literature of war going back to the Iliad. The psychic toll of war has been variously described as nostalgia, soldier’s heart, shell shock, war neuroses or simply exhaustion, and there have always been skeptics. Among them was Gen. George Patton, who in 1943 famously slapped two soldiers being treated for combat-related neuroses, calling one a “yellow bastard.” Patton was sternly reprimanded by Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
The reality was that of the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II, fewer than half saw combat. Of those who did, more than 1 million were discharged for combat-related neuroses, according to military statistics. In the summer of 1945, Newsweek reported that “10,000 returning veterans per month . . . develop some kind of psychoneurotic disorder. Last year there were more than 300,000 of them — and with fewer than 3,000 American psychiatrists and only 30 VA neuropsychiatric hospitals to attend to their painful needs.”
One of those hospitals was the subject of John Huston’s 1946 documentary, “Let There Be Light,” which said that “20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” The film followed the treatment, mostly with talk therapy, drugs and hypnosis, of “men who tremble, men who cannot sleep, men with pains that are no less real because they are of a mental origin.” Huston’s movie was confiscated by the Army just minutes before its premiere in 1946 and was not allowed to be shown in public until 1981. The government rationale at the time was protecting the privacy of the soldiers depicted, though Huston maintained all had signed waivers..
It’s true that millions of servicemen returned home and did exactly what Tom Brokaw described in his seminal 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation.” Through hard work and force of will, they created modern America. But in 1947, nearly half of the beds in every VA hospital in the nation were still occupied by soldiers with no visible wounds. While there were no reliable statistics on the topic, the epidemic of alcohol abuse was widely known. The country was also experiencing a divorce boom: In 1941, 293,000 American couples divorced, a rate of 2.2 per 1,000 people. That number doubled to 610,000 in 1946, 4.3 divorces per 1,000. It was the highest divorce rate in U.S. history until 1972, according to government statistics.
There was ubiquitous public discussion and concern for the complex issues facing the returning soldiers. Popular magazines such as Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal and Life were full of articles about how to find a job, use the GI bill, or deal with a vet who suffered from nightmares, sudden rages and debilitating sadness. The film “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the story of the troubled homecoming of three World War II vets, won the 1947 Academy Award for best picture.
Yet that discussion was short-lived, and cultural amnesia set in. The economy recovered, and jobs were suddenly plentiful. The Cold War began. Through the 1950s, the troubled vet routinely surfaced as a character in film noir, often as the villain. But the lingering horrors of war otherwise retreated from the public conversation, often overshadowed by communism.
Yet as they went on with their lives, many struggling soldiers would not have recognized themselves in Brokaw’s eventual rendering: “Mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices. . . . They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.”
The Greatest Generation certainly deserved every accolade bestowed on them, Childers says, “but there is nothing to suggest how complicated those years were.”Or how difficult they continued to be. A 2010 California study showed that aging World War II veterans were four times more likely to commit suicide than those their age who had not served in the military.
She and so many others of her generation also suffered quietly, not understanding the tension in their households, because the ghosts of the war rarely revealed themselves. This year, I published a novel that featured a struggling World War II hero as the main character. I wondered about the book’s relevance today, until I started hearing from readers across the nation who described the night terrors, depression, heavy drinking and silent pain of their fathers. A story about the hidden toll of the war helped them make sense of their childhoods. But those stories of the Greatest Generation remain mostly untold.
Earl Crumby and his fellow soldiers knew too well that when it comes to the human toll, war does not discriminate. A piece of a German shell tore through his shoulder, “but the deepest wound was right here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Lord, some nights I have nightmares, and I can still hear that shell going off in my head. There are just so many of us out there. I know they’ve got to be having the same problems I have.”
“If you get to digging,” he told me, “you’ll find that soldiers of all wars, they’re bothered with it, too.”