The Way We War Part II

An ex-soldier friend of mine once told me that modern warfare includes little to no psychotherapy; only drugs. “They pretty much just give out pills like candy and expect you to be fine.” In light of Robert Bales’ mass shooting of Afghan women and civilians, which many have attributed to untreated PTSD symptoms, it’s worth questioning the military’s medial care system.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in particular is something that soldiers have suffered from and continue to face, drawing on decades of the government’s historically frustrating tendency to limited action when particularly severe cases arise and even less to prevent these cases in the first place.  US wars in Irag and Afghanistan have faced a drastic increase in the number of PTSD cases since 2002, where rates jumped from 0.2% to 22% in the span of only six years. Psychiatrists like Richard Friedman have written (see today’s issue of the New York Times) on the possible causes of these increased rates, and have concluded that while prescription drugs are not wholly responsible they are an important part of the recovery process (or lack thereof) for active and inactive soldiers.

Ritalin and Adderall are two of the military’s most widely distributed prescription drugs because they “keep soldiers awake, focused, alert… and strengthen learning skills.” But norepinephrine, the active ingredient in both drugs, also stimulates memory formation especially in instances of heightened anxiety, fear, anger, and other emotions that are no so easily controlled. The more these drugs are taken, the more accessible the triggers of seemingly dormant PTSD symptoms are. Soldiers (and for that matter, any human being who takes these drugs and experiences some sort of trauma) therefore have those memories engrained in their subconscious and can easily recall them in situations that are seemingly unrelated to the original moment of trauma. This prevents traumatic ‘unlearning’ and can reverse the psychological ability to come to terms with past trauma and indeed make it impossible to recover.

Friedman asks an important question: why are we drugging our soldiers? The truth is, because it’s easier and probably cheaper for the government to hand out drugs than do the necessary research on what the effects are for long-time users of prescription stimulants. But at what cost? The way the military operates seems to hinge on quite a bit of secrecy and silence, and as long as war hangs around, it’s worth probing the ‘powers that be’ for some answers.