Hornstein: Pardoning WWI's "Shell-shock" Sufferers

This piece ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday, November 10, 2006.

By Gail A. Hornstein

Are soldiers with psychological injuries cowards? Or are their symptoms--uncontrollable shaking, nightmares, emotional outbursts, flashbacks, intense startle reactions--the result of trauma? What kind of support do people who repeatedly witness atrocities and commit violent acts need?

These are the questions with which Des Browne, the British defense minister, has been struggling. After years of debate within his government, Browne has recommended that Parliament grant posthumous pardons this fall to the 306 soldiers shot as cowards by military firing squads during World War I.

Browne says that executing these men in 1916 and 1917 was "unjust" because they were suffering from shell shock and should have received treatment, not a bullet through the heart.

The larger question he's raising: Is it cowardice to reach your limit and start to suffer or break down?

Consider Harry Farr, the best-known of the British "shot-at-dawn" soldiers, as they have become known. Farr enlisted in the army and fought in some of the most vicious battles of the war's first year. By May 1915, however, his hands shook so violently, he couldn't hold his weapon. Farr was evacuated to a hospital with symptoms of shell shock (now called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD).

He was not alone. Ten percent of British officers and 4 percent of enlisted men had already been removed from battle because of shell shock. Farr's case was severe enough to warrant five months in a hospital, far longer than typical.

He returned to the trenches and, over the next year, was treated twice more for "nervous symptoms," but he was never granted a leave.

On Sept. 16, 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme--a four-month bloodbath along the River Somme in northern France that killed 125,000 British soldiers, close to 20,000 on the first day alone--his battalion was ordered "over the top." Farr said he couldn't do it. He was dragged back toward his post by two burly guards, but he screamed and struggled so frantically, they couldn't go on.

His court-martial took just 20 minutes. No medical evidence was considered. Pronouncing the verdict, the commander said: "The charge of cowardice seems to be clearly proved... . The man is no good."

At 6 a.m. Oct. 18, 1916, Farr was brought before a firing squad composed of members of his own regiment. He was tied to a stake, a piece of flannel pinned to his heart. He refused the blindfold. His grave is unmarked, its location unknown.

Families of these soldiers have been fighting for posthumous pardons for many years, but Browne is the first defense minister to back them.

His support comes at a key moment. Veterans returning from Iraq--in Britain and in the United States--are raising difficult questions about the toll of war on today's soldiers. We no longer shoot PTSD sufferers, but military physicians still claim that most psychological injuries are the result of "preexisting psychiatric conditions," not the trauma of war itself.

Iraq veterans increasingly challenge this view, describing conditions far more ambiguous than what Harry Farr faced. Horrific as trench warfare was, it did involve fighting other soldiers, on a clearly demarcated battlefield. Today's war takes place in residential neighborhoods; many of those killed are civilians, often women and children. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 18 percent of those who fought in Iraq are returning with psychological injuries.

Harry Farr left no diary, only the message of his final act--looking his executioners straight in the face. Whether that was courage or cowardice remains a subject of debate. But if we want to honor those who have fought for our own country this Veterans Day, we could start by acknowledging the agonizing choices they were often forced to make and the suffering that lingers long after they've left the combat zone.

Gail Hornstein is professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College and author of To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: The Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.