"Shook over Hell": Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War

By Knox, Sara L. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

"Shook over Hell": Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War


Knox, Sara L., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


"Shook over Hell": Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Eric T. Dean, Jr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

At a time when political, public, and popular debate have become preoccupied with trauma and, particularly, with the intersection of public events and private experience, a revisionist historical work like Eric Dean's Shook over Hell is more than timely. With meticulous attention to his primary sources (which include the committal records of a sample of sorely tried Indiana Civil War veterans), Dean tests popular wisdom about the figure of the traumatized Vietnam "vet."

Dean's argument is challenging in a whole set of ways. Some of these challenges are overt, and some understated. By refuting the popular notion that the conflict in Vietnam was distinctive in both the numbers of traumatized veterans it produced and the quality and depth (the complex etiology) of their symptoms, Dean-almost despite himself-is putting a spotlight on what Mark Seltzer has called the "Wound Culture" of the contemporary United States. And not just a spotlight on the rightly much criticized "therapy" culture in which confession increasingly becomes either a pay-by-the-half-hour private affair, or the 3 to 15 minutes of fame in talk-show ritual release. Dean's critique of the privileged status of the Vietnam veteran asks particularly pointed questions about the inequitable distribution of welfare and medical services in a time of increasingly complex demographics of poverty.

Dean also puts some hard methodological questions to military historians who, in line with the lively resurgence of various forms of revisionist social history, have turned from the study of great strategists and warriors, and the dissection of military campaigns, to a careful examination of the lived experience of both combatants and implicated non-combatants. This concentration on the stories of soldiers has produced, post-Vietnam, an unprecedented popular awareness of the personal, social, and, of course, political penalties of that war (and, perhaps, of war in general). Dean concludes, in fact, that the figure of the "betrayed" Vietnam veteran has become so persuasive, so heroically pitiful, that the public (and, indeed, the Pentagon) will no longer tolerate "excessive (defined as anything over several hundred) American casualties in any future war" (216).

Dean's work, however, is designed to excavate the historical forms of a concept of "casualty" that embraces not just the dead but also those psychically and physically demolished by war. Of course, the century separating the Civil War and Vietnam produced profoundly different cultural contexts and psychological models within which the various traumatic ailments of veterans would be weighed. Colloquial and therapeutic languages both changed, as did the cultures that produced them. The traumatized Civil War veteran was described by fellows and family as "played out," "homesick," "rattled," "much depressed," having "the blues," "half crazy," "mean," or having "spells"; by those in the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, these words bubbled descriptively beneath the popular diagnostic typologies for nineteenth-century mental disorders: "mania," "melancholia," and "dementia. …

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