Trench poetry, a movement founded by the soldiers who survived the Great War, revolutionized the post war period of 1915-1918. The former soldiers-turned-writers took inspiration from their experiences in the lonely, terrifying battlefields, and created the genre as a way to both come to terms with their own actions and to educate the masses infatuated by the honor, glory, and pride of fighting for one’s nation. By intertwining the concept of poetry, a form of prose widely regarded for its beautiful, lyrical rhymes and images with the harrowing truth of warfare, they were collectively able to create a narrative that progressed truth above nationalism and patriotism.
Wilfred Owen, a known trench poet, expressed that truth in his Dulce et Decorum Est by ending his “beautiful” poem with a sobering thought:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The final lines translate to, “ The old lie: It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” While trench poetry became a widely accepted phenomenon, it represented at its core something far greater than just the war-provoked need for the truth; it brought the public’s attention to the severe outcomes of war on soldiers.
The basic, neutral definition of war is, “a condition in which a State is prosecuting its rights by military force, usually against another State.” By its nature, it required men and women to act, to fight. The problem with this notion is that it requires ethically driven human beings to set aside their morals and potentially commit acts that, in the lens of life, are irreprehensible. Due to the fact that state officials would be hard pressed to find enough people lacking that ethical drive, war had to become just, and for that to be a possibility, society, over time, artificially constructed a purpose to guide the moral compasses of its soldiers. It made the pride of national service and the accolades that came with it socially more powerful than the idea of war and its consequences, in effect outweighing the bad by creating an artificial source for the good.
Over time, however, the bad began to subordinate the good and, eventually, war became and remains to be a shallow scheme that subjects innocent people to potentially life-altering events. The pride of national service abandons soldiers on the battlefields, leaving them to both witness the brutal truth of war absent pride’s goggles and contend with its implications on their perceived honorary acts.
The significance of the merger of trauma and recognition is that it became the precursor to the eventual, science-driven study of posttraumatic stress, which according to the American Psychiatric Association is, “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”
The formal concept of PTSD is rather new, as the American Psychiatric Association only added it into the DSM-III in 1980; but the notion of “the risk of exposure to trauma has been a part of the human condition since we evolved as a species.” During WWI, it was referred to as “shell shock,” and after WWII, “combat fatigue,” but regardless of the terminology, the effects were in large the same.
For example, the veterans of the Great War likely felt the shell shock at home, which prompted them to write poetry, just as veterans and military personnel today feel its effects and are prompted to react in their own way. The only true difference, in relation to combat that is, is the level of PTSD rates and how those rates impact soldiers.
PTSD rates have escalated as time has progressed and wars have become more violent. According to the Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs, approximately 30% of men and women who have been in war zones experience PTSD. An additional 20 to 25% have gone through partial PTSD in their lifetimes. In Vietnam War veterans, over half of the males and roughly half of the females went through what was deemed “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms,” and during the 1980s, 15% were diagnosed with PTSD, while 30% are currently believed to have had it at some point in their lifetimes. PTSD was similarly present for veterans of the Gulf War, approximated at 12% per year. Rates escalated over time as the chaos of warfare escalated. Veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have higher rates of PTSD per year, about 11-20%.
As these rates rise with the violence, the effects follow suite. The illness becomes more debilitating in victims over prolonged periods of time, and eventually is capable of taking life well. Statistics from the Pentagon, according to U.S.A Today showed that, “265 active-duty servicemembers killed themselves last year, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates that have plagued the U.S. military for at least seven years.”
PTSD in soldiers is an unfortunate product of war, born out of an archaic, yet perpetual intention to justify war in order to settle international state conflicts. The problem with that misguided intention is that by its nature, it was set to fail from the beginning.
Even though it was based on a clear definition (the law of war) that outlined an orderly settlement, the matter in and of itself concerned an act characterized by its violence, and suffering. That was then used to instill pride, which under the circumstances could only be artificial.
The idea of a heightened conflict was created as an attempt to settle other conflicts, and to make matters worse, a façade was the only avenue to making this a reality. The spillover caused an ever-escalating conflict wrought with false hope and distress, which will not cease until the structure of warfare is fundamentally altered.
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