Thursday, 2 November 2017

PTSD Conspicuous By Absence

Carry On . . . We're British

We have become much more conscious these days of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Occasionally we find ourselves wondering how previous generations of human beings, many suffering the depredations and privations of war, coped.  

It would appear that when a society as a whole suffers, the ability to cope through the immediate trauma, and survive the subsequent PTSD is enhanced considerably.

The impact upon people in England during the Blitz and subsequent war privation is instructive in this regard.  It would appear that very few suffered PTSD--yet by modern reckoning they should have.  Consider the account by Robert Tombs of the actual experience of the general populace in Britain during WWII.
. . . for most people the reality [of the Blitz] was less than the expectation: "One is relieved to find how little bombs can do as compared with the mental picture one had"; "If anyone had told me I could have felt so unconcerned when an alert--or guns--sounded, I would not have believed it."  Some people felt bravado, even exhilaration, at surviving and keeping their nerve: "Feeling indescribably happy and triumphant . . . 'I've been bombed--me!' "  A Southampton librarian "enjoyed the raid . . . I felt keyed up and kind of happy like when you're pretty drunk.  I met some pals after the raid . . . and made a party of it it."  . . . .

Most people, despite repeated disruption and accumulating tiredness, stubbornly carried on.  In early raids, the sirens sent everyone to shelters, sometimes for hours, including factory and office workers.  Some civil service departments prided themselves on the speed and universality with which their staff went to ground at the first alert.  Many hours of working time were thus lost.  "You can waste a lot of time on this air raid lark if you want to," commented one working woman.  Gradually it became a matter of pride to work "after the siren," and spotters, often young, went up to the rooftops to look out for the actual arrival of bombers before giving the final warning to shelter.   In private life it was a similar story.  "I'd just got into bed and I heard [the siren], but I thought to myself, Well, I want to get the house tidy tomorrow and you can't keep going properly can you with all this popping up and down," wrote a London housewife. . . .

A sense of personal achievement was strong, especially in London, and perhaps especially  among ordinary people, who "felt a great sense of pride, achievement and importance that was unrelated to the yardsticks of wealth, family relationships and a successful career . . . people felt that they were playing a part in their nation's history."

Popular memory, today fostered by "The Blitz Experience" at the Imperial War Museum, is of sheltering in the Tube.  There was reckoned to be enough shelter of some sort for 20 million people.  But most even in London did not use shelters, and only 4 percent used the Tube--which still meant over 100,000 people.  For various reasons . . . more than 90 percent slept at home: in "Anderson shelters" in the garden (essentially a hole with a corrugated iron roof, under the stairs or just in a downstairs room.

Bureaucracy was  badgered, sanitary conditions improved, order created.  Soon, Tube trains circulated with food and drink. Medical services appeared.  Some people actually came to like shelters, some of which acquired reputations for gentility or conviviality: the lonely went for company, the young for fun.

ARP wardens, policemen and firemen, often out in the bombing, coped well with repeated danger, trauma and fatigue.  Contrary to prewar expectations, very few people suffered psychological breakdown.  On the contrary, being involved in important work was therapeutic.  Suicides fell by nearly a third.  The birth rate (both inside and outside marriage) rose.  There is no evidence of class or gender differences in the ability to cope with stress, but the young, including children, were the most resilient.  Least resilient seem to have been those who, whether due to education or lack of it, did not share the sense of national purpose or trust the government, or who for other reasons felt helpless and passive--reports often mentioned elderly women.  Being with others was important.  It was not fear but bravery that proved contagious.  [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p.714ff.]
What are the salient differences here?  We suggest the following may be significant:

  • A defensive war, where people believe they are suffering to defend kith and kin, rather than fighting for some abstract principle (freedom? justice?) on the other side of the globe.
  • A common camaraderie in suffering, danger and threat.  All alike were suffering.
  • The example of leaders (Churchill, who did not shrink back from exposing himself to danger; the King who declined to move his Queen and daughters out of London) being willing to stand and suffer in the common cause.
  • A cause where everyone was encouraged to do "their bit" and where effort and sacrifices were publicly acknowledged.  It was truly a "people's war".  

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