Wednesday, July 2, 2014

All Our Yesterdays by Manes Sperber

It is astonishing how little has been written about the 15th of July 1927*, and how few eyewitness reports have recorded it for future generations, for there were thousands of us who directly experienced it and have preserved it in our memory like a frequently recurring nightmare. People shrink from the difficultly of describing events that became intimate, confusing experiences and took a course that was as simple as a scenario by an untalented, unimaginative author who seeks his effects only in an incessant repetition of the same dramatic incidents. This event which was at once absurd and monotonous, led everyone to surmise that it might have a hidden meaning and carelessly ignored causes. It was a a symbol-laden injustice, as inflammatory as the judicial murder of Sacco and Vanzetti that had been prepared for years and was actually carried out but thirty-eight days after the fifteenth of July. It has not been forgotten that the fate of these Italian-American anarchists had stirred millions of people throughout the world to action –not for political reasons, though the organizers of the countless marches in the big cities had a political agendas, but out of uncontrollable anger at an injustice that convulsed everyone as if he were, or could be a victim of it.

I am surely not the only person whom this experience has never ceased to affect. In vital situations it has shaped my conduct almost as strongly as the happenings at the Zablotow cemetery in the winter of 1915. Of both events I have retained something that only appears to be harmless: a negative astonishment at events and at those who were involved in them as actors, victims, and witnesses – including myself. This astonishment is unending. And it diminishes my ability to cope with the natural things and situations without which everyday life would be inconceivable.

In all essential points I agreed with Marxism, which I studied seriously; I embraced historical materialism and the necessity to create a classless society in our lifetime – that is, without delay. Yes all this seemed demonstrable to me and yet not self-evident. The negative astonishment that had awakened my doubts about God’s power and justice and finally his very existence later fed my doubts about the rationality of human beings as shapers of their own history, their collective and individual fate. The rationality of the irrational, the methodical nature of madness, the conclusiveness of a chain of errors that remains unassailable as long as the initial error is allowed to stand as an unimpeachable truth –all this I encountered in my psychological work every day, disappointed but also ironically amused as I critically examined my own actions.

When I was asked to review Emil Ludwig’s once widely read biography of Wilhelm II, I began an in-depth study of the history of the world war, its premises, indirect and direct causes, and finally its course. Countless memoirs had already appeared in which statesmen, generals, politicians, diplomats, and agents of every kind “told all”. There, too, I never ceased to be astonished, for those sensible presentations left the young reader who spent whole nights reading them with only one certainty: never before had such murderous madness been prepared so logically and so calculatingly to the misfortune of all mankind and kept going so methodically day in and day out for four-and-a-half years. Reasonable errors reveal themselves like barking dogs, and a forgery betrays itself by being so much more genuine than the original, which is allowed to be flawed.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Christmas at the Gandersheim Kommando by Robert Antelme

“The naked humanity that marks a famished face can appear in only a few, barely differentiated forms.”- Manes Sperber

In our little room there’s a crowd around the stove. Those who got there first sat themselves right down on the benches. Everyone holds his bread in his hand. Somebody says, “With this we are in great shape. One hell of a Christmas dinner, right?”

They were glancing intermittently at the bread, and appeared to be thinking. The benches were all taken, and I wasn’t able to sit down. I crowded in close up behind a bench and got the stove’s heat directly in the face. I cut a slice of bread, spread some ground meat on top of it, and reached my arm out over the shoulder of the guy in front of me, who leaned forward without complaining. I set the slice on the stove; others were doing the same thing. The stove was very hot. The fat from the meat melted quickly, and the red meat turned brown. The stove was covered with slices, and some guys had to scrap to find a little room for theirs. If he allowed it they would move a guy’s bread aside; but as soon as they pushed his slice a little too far and made it hang over the edge, he would complain, turn around and look at whoever it was, who would seem to apologize, although would leave their slices where they were. Then the guy who was complaining would push somebody else’s slice, in order to get his back on the stove, and so there would be complaints from another guy too, and voices would rise.

“You’re a pain in the ass. You ought to have gotten here sooner. The same ones always drag their ass and then want to be first.”

“All right, all right, don’t get excited. Hey, we aren’t going to yell at each other tonight.”
“I’m not yelling at you. Just don’t go too far.”

And it didn’t go any farther than that. An odor arose, the odor of bakeries and grilled meat and rich people’s breakfasts. But those back home, if they were eating bacon, if they were eating toast, they weren’t aware of how it had transformed, how it had started to change color, to roast, above all to smell, to give off this powerful odor; but we’d been given gray bread and we’d cut our slices and we’d put them on the stove ourselves, And now we were watching the bread turn into cake. Nothing escaped us. The meat was oozing, glowing, giving off the terrific odor of something to eat. For us, bread or potatoes that you bite into still had taste; but the something to eat that from a far fills mouth and throat and stomach with its odor –what that could be like, that odor, that was something we had forgotten.

I retrieved my slice. It was burning hot, it was like brioche; it was more than a jewel, it was something alive, a source of joy. It was slightly puffy, and the fat had permeated the soft part of the bread and made it glow. I bit off the first mouthful; as they sank into the bread, my teeth made a noise that filled my ears. It was a paradise of perfume, of juice and food. Everything was to eat. My tongue, my palate were overcome; I was afraid of losing some of it. I chewed it, and it was everywhere, on my lips, on my tongue, between my teeth; the inside of my mouth was a cave, and the food was parading around insider. Finally I swallowed it; it was gone. Once I had nothing more in my mouth the emptiness was intolerable. More. More. The word had been devised for tongue and palate. One more mouthful. One more mouthful. It mustn’t end. The crunching and tasting and licking machine was turned on. Never, as it did then, had my mouth felt itself to be something that couldn’t be fulfilled, that nothing could satisfy once and for all, that would be forever in need of something more.

Everyone ate solemnly. Some wanted to take no chances and were eating the bread cold, the way it had been given to them. They didn’t want to try a different world, they didn’t want to tempt themselves. Around here you mustn’t play about awakening too many demands, resurrecting too many buried tastes; eating something like that – something that couldn’t be any better- was dangerous.  Those guys seemed more detached. Instead of cutting their bread carefully into slices, they tore it into pieces, haphazardly; and they kept the pieces in their hands, as they would have done at home; their elbows on their knees, looking grave and austere.

I finished up the last mouthfuls. I’d found a seat on the bench.  Now the only thing to do was to warm myself, my head leaning forward, my hands stretched out towards the stove.  .  .


It’s an SS fantasy to believe that we have an historical mission to change species, and as this mutation is occurring too slowly, they kill. No, this extraordinary sickness is nothing other than a culminating moment in man’s history. And that means two things. First, that the solidity and stability of the species is being put to the test. Next, that the variety of relationships between men, their color, their customs, the classes they form into mask the truth that here, at the boundary of nature, at the point where we approach our limits, appears with absolute clarity: namely, that there are not several human races, there is only one human race. It’s because we’re men like them that the SS will finally prove powerless before us, It’s because they shall have sought to call the unity of this human race into question that they’ll finally be crushed.

Yet their behavior, and our situation, are only a magnification, an extreme caricature – in which nobody wants or is perhaps able to recognize himself – of forms of behavior and of situations that exist in the world, that even make up the existence of that older “real world” we dream about. For in fact everything happens in the world as though there were a number of human species, or, rather, as though belonging to a single human species wasn’t certain, as though you could join the species or leave it, could be halfway in it or belong to it fully, or never belong to it, try though you might for generations, division into races or classes being the canon of the species and sustaining the axiom we’re always prepared to use, the ultimate line of defense: “They aren’t people like us.”

And so, seen from here, luxuriousness is the property of the animal, and divineness is the property of trees, and we are unable to become either animals or trees. We are not able to, and the SS cannot make us succeed in it. And it is just when it has taken on the most hideous shape, it is just when it is about to become our own face- that is when the mask falls. And if, at that moment, we believe what, here, is certainly that which requires the most considerable effort to believe, that “The SS are only men like ourselves”; if, at that moment when the distance between beings is at its greatest, at the moment when the subjugation of some and the power of others have attained its limits as to seem frozen into some supernatural distinction; if, facing nature, or facing death, we an perceive no substantial difference between the SS and ourselves, then we have to say there is only one human race.

And we have to say that everything which masks this unity, everything that places beings in situations of exploitation and subjugation and thereby implies the existence of various species of mankind, is false and mad; and we have the proof of this here, the most irrefutable proof, since the worst of victims cannot do otherwise than establish that, in its worst exercise, the executioner’s power cannot be other than one of the powers that men have, the power to murder. He can kill a man but he can’t change him into something else.

This Book by Werner Sollors

It is the task of this book to retrace stories and reexamine images of the end of the war and early years of military occupation in Germany, stories that were then believed to be plausible  attempts at capturing a strange and unfamiliar reality, but that have meanwhile been largely replaced by the mythic success story that seems to have swallowed up most others in public memory. These stories can be found in letters, often written in very small handwriting and up to the edge of each page so as to get the most words onto the precious sheets of paper, and at times marked by censors’ deletions; in diaries that may include strange pieces of evidence collected in apparent disbelief – diaries that were also at times altered and adjusted in later years; in official, mimeographed communications, reports, studies, and orders; in newsreel footage accompanied by blaring marchlike musical introductions and the then-so-popular agitated shouting voices of announcers; in “unabridged” or “uncensored abridged” mass media paperbacks with lurid covers and improbably exaggerated blurbs; in newspapers and illustrated magazines; and in many of the other media that were then available.

In many cases, these tales point to shared themes and experiences, to moments that seemed particularly noteworthy, aspects that were so haunting or enticing or amusing as to be present in many sources, even if viewed from rather different angles. I have made an effort to hover over such moments, describing the different reactions they provoked and the dialogues some of them inspired, or could have inspired. Some of the stories are fully told, others are often only implied; they may be verbal or visual; they may be romances or gothic horror tales, elegiac or defiant, sentimental plots or tough stories of revenge; they may be religious or secular in orientation, reactionary, conservative, liberal, or left-wing dramas. Yet they would seem to add up to a chorus of voices that articulated tales of the postwar 1940s in which people then recognized themselves.

This book does not aim for a comprehensive account of the period but for an inward understanding of a cultural moment through a close focus on a few particularly striking examples. When I use the term inward, I did not mean to refer to an inner private sphere, as distinguished from the public realm of politics, something that the German word Innerlichkeit has suggested at times. I also did not mean to imply that a Swedish report on post-war Germany or a British photograph taken there were somehow “outward”. Instead, what I was after in the works I studied was what might get lost in quick generalizations, bullet-point summaries, or abstract debates. In all parts of this book I have therefore attempted to stay close to the sources, quote extensively from texts, and examine exemplary photographs and films at very close range, not as thematic exhibits and illustrations of conclusions I arrived at earlier, but as aesthetic objects that make a moment or an issue come to life in such a way that it stays with the reader and viewer beyond any single maxim or conclusion that could be drawn from them.

This meant engaging with the writers and artists together with their metaphors and images, with the contemporary reception, and sometimes even with plot-lines that seemed implied but were aborted in a given work. I can only hope that showing the struggles and hesitations at the a stages of composition of a film script, the cropping and captioning of a photograph, or the revisions of the text of a diary   come across to the reader as an effort  to respect the dynamic quality of the forms I examined and to understand aesthetic modes of expression themselves as an active part in the historical process and not just a reflection of it. A famous quip has it that poetry is what gets lost in translation. My attempt in this book has been to hover on what would get lost in summary.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Combat Psychiatry by Eric Jaffe

The first lesson that should have been learned from the Great War was that many men would break.  America’s armed forces suffered one psychiatric casualty for every four physical wounds over the course of the conflict. The ‘fifth man,” some called him. The military had tapped Thomas W. Salmon, the same physician who’d created psychiatric services for immigrants at Ellis Island years earlier, to establish a mental health program for American soldiers heading overseas. “The extent of these casualties is almost beyond belief,” Salmon wrote in June 1917, upon reaching Europe in advance of U.S. troops. “I have not yet had access to the official records but apparently the neuroses constitute one of the most formidable problems of modern war.”

In a typical case of “ shell shock,” the term of choice during the Great War, a parade of stressors chipped away at a soldier’s stability. Days under fire, nights in a foxhole, little food and water, very little sleep. Then an artillery shell would explode nearby, maybe tossing him to the ground or killing a buddy, and something inside snapped.  By the close of the conflict a clear relationship had been established between the intensity of combat and the rate of mental breakdowns.* In early 1918 a military psychiatrist saw eighteen cases of shell shock during a full six weeks of low battlefield activity. Then he saw fifty-two cases during a harsh four-day attack, and forty-three more during a rough two-day raid.

Shell-shocked soldiers became noticeably delusional and confused. Some presented uncontrollable twitches. Some stiffened into fearful statues. Some had haunting visions of carnage. Some lost memories, or control of their emotions, or motor skills. Some showed a severe startle reflex whenever a door slammed shut, or a plate hit the floor, or a chair toppled over. Often these wounds followed a soldier home from war. One anonymous soldier, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1921, wished he could convey to the public “how dreadfully alone a shell-shocked man can be, even though surrounded by those who love him most.”

One glimmer of hope during the Great War was the realization that mental casualties who received urgent treatment near the front lines had a good chance of recovering. At first, American soldiers were evacuated hundreds of miles to the U.S. General Hospitals positioned far behind the front lines. In severe cases they returned stateside on a hospital ship. This delayed treatment gave the disabilities time to set in and enabled patients to embrace the ailment as a ticket home. On the contrary, the soldiers who received hot food, rest reassurance close to the lines often made quick and complete recoveries. The best care occurred within a few hours of onset and “within the sound of artillery,” wrote Salmon.

The combat psychiatrists deployed in 1918 used simple and effective methods. They were stationed in frontline triage areas, as opposed to traditional hospitals. They emphasized the honor of battle and reminded patients that their buddies were still out there fighting. Thy showed pictures of German prisoners to evoke patriotic responses. Soldiers suspected of malingering were given awful jobs, like digging latrines, to discourage any trickery. The numbers testified to their success: anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of soldiers treated within days of their breakdown returned to combat.

“In hospitals close behind the lines there is still the atmosphere of the front and a mental tone which comes from mass suggestion of men striving shoulder to shoulder,” wrote one psychiatrist at the time. “Out of danger, far from the front, perhaps among hero-worshiping friends, the invalid is unavoidably conscious of himself more as an individual and less a link in the battle line.”

After the war, however, many military psychiatrists suggested that only mental weaklings with underlying emotional instabilities had broken down in combat. This thinking held that any neurotic tendencies concealed in the comforts of civilian life would be exposed under the peculiar stresses of the military. “The neurotic is so intensely individualistic that under the new and rigid conditions of service he finds impossible to adapt and so breaks down.”  Officials thought that they had discovered a basic law of military psychiatry: stop individuals with mental instabilities from entering the service, and you’d stop soldiers from suffering mental wounds on the battlefield.

At any rate, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, military leaders paid little attention to any of its mental health lessons. A military medical manual published in 1937 devoted just one of its 685 pages to mental health. Toward the late 1930s, as the prospect of another global war became distinct, military consultants made a critical mistake: they ignored what they’d learned about treatment on the front lines and instead pushed an aggressive stance toward screening-out the so-called weaklings. If civilian psychiatrists could eliminate psychoneurotic individuals during enlistment, then division psychiatrists would no longer be necessary during combat.

So it happened that the American military entered the Second World War having forgotten a key lesson from the first one. In late September of 1940, Winfred Overholser, the head of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, sent a memo to President Franklin Roosevelt describing the potential advantages of establishing a screening system at induction centers. Money as much as medicine, encouraged this approach. Overholser estimated that neuropsychiatric casualties from the Great War had cost the country close to a billion dollars. In November the Selective Service System adopted an intense screening program  for new soldiers, and in 1941 the position of division neuropsychiatrist was dropped from personnel rosters.. By the time soldiers shipped out for World War II, the closest a military psychiatrist could get to the action was the general hospital.

Despite the heavy screening process, mental casualties piled into military hospital beds. By the middle of 1943 neuropsychiatric cases made up 15 to 25 percent of all battle casualties in many campaigns. An annual summary of the problem reported a hospital admission  rate of 60 neuropsychiatric cases per 1,000 men in overseas battles, compared to a rate of roughly 17 per 1,000 in the Great War. The disparity was startling. In the earlier conflict screenors removed just 2 percent of enlistees. This meant that even with an examination process at least four times more rigorous in World War II, the U.S. military had a psychiatric incident rate nearly four times as high as that in World War I.

As of August 1943, the Army was discharging 115,000 men a year for neuropsychiatric reasons – by far the most of any category. It was an unprecedented pace. From a perspective of military manpower, it was also an unsustainable one.

By Fall the entire approach to American psychiatry was being questioned. The underlying principle of the screening program was that everyone who broke down in war had entered the service with an identifiable mental weakness, but reports from the field told a very different story. During the rough Sicilian campaign, a veteran division produced more psychiatric casualties than a group of fresh troops.  That didn’t mean veterans weren’t tough – but rather that the rigors of war could break even strong minds… If screening were to weed out everybody who might develop a psychiatric disorder, it would be necessary to weed out everybody.

A comprehensive military psychiatric program would not only keep abnormal minds out of the Army, it would treat the normal ones in it. This shift in strategy was reinforced through a series of official directives issued between September and November of 1943. The surgeon general circulated a letter to every medical officer summarizing the new stance. Mental casualties would be considered urgent cases, and treated urgently. They should be labeled “exhaustion”- not “war neurosis” or “shell shock” or the like – to soften the stigma of the problem, to underscore its universality, and to suggest imminent recovery. The psychological and physical factors that led to a breakdown should be detected early and, whenever possible, prevented from escalating. General policy was moving away from the elimination of manpower and towards its conservation.

Executing this initiative meant moving psychiatrists up near the action, but high military officials ignored several calls to re-institute the division neuropsychiatrist. One early request, made back in April of 1942, had been rejected on the grounds that psychiatrists couldn’t perform their job “under the present type of mobile warfare.” Anther request, made the following March, had been rebuffed by an officer who didn’t believe “anything of real value can be accomplished by psychiatrists with the division in combat.”  Only after Surgeon General Norman T. Kirk took the matter to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall – a notorious skeptic of mental casualties – was the position approved.

In December 1943 the Army ordered all sixty of the newly appointed division neuropsychiatrists to Walter Reed Medical Center, for a three-day orientation, an intellectual boot camp in military psychiatry. The proceedings were led by Lieutenant Colonel William C. Menninger. He emphasized early detection, helping officers develop a keen eye for the personality changes, emotional outbursts, and general anxiety signaling mental casualties. The second pillar of his program for prevention was motivation. In 1943 too few American soldiers possessed sufficient morale – “a will to fight stronger than a will to live.” One out of every three soldiers felt their task in World War II was not worthwhile, according to a survey. And American troops hardly even knew anything about their enemy. Psychiatrists feared this low fighting interest made troops particularly susceptible to the stresses of war. In response five “Why We Fight” films were produced, directed by Frank Capra with the help of Ivy League psychology and sociology experts and a writer by the name of Theodor Geisel- better known as Dr. Seuss.

A strong preventive program might minimize mental casualties, but by 1943 no one suffered the illusion of eliminating them so treatment was the other main topic at the Washington conference. Each of the division got a copy of War Neurosis in North Africa by Roy Grinker and John Spiegal, considered ‘the Bible” of Combat Psychiatry at the time. But the entire morning session of December 15 was given over to Fredrick R. Hanson, described as clever, energetic, and possessing a “low and calm” voice, Hanson had been way in front of the division psychiatrist curve. He recommended the position be created all the way back in an August 1942 communication to the surgeon general. His work in the North African theater, in the spring of 1943, confirmed that fatigue played a leading role in mental casualties. Treat exhaustion, Hansen believed, and you’d improve psychological stability.

As a result, Hansen devised a fairly simple regime of rest and reassurance for psychiatric cases. He put them to sleep for long periods with barbiturates, awakened them only for meals, then after a day or so discussed the universality of fear and urged them to rejoin the fighting. It was very much in the style of combat psychiatry from World Wear I, and it was equally effective; Hansen returned 60 percent of his cases to combat within four days, and 89 percent of those remained in action month later. Hansen’s lessons, above all others, would guide the work of division psychiatrists on the battlefield.

As a general ruler, the sixty division psychiatrists were greeted  with suspicion and granted little in the way of authority. Their commanders expected them to make wholesale discharges. Some were called “nut-pickers” who belonged in lunatic asylums, not among units of good old “red-blooded” American soldiers. Many officials still felt psychiatric cases were simply weaklings or malingerers. At the most, they saw the new division neuro-psychiatrists as a tool for disposing of soldiers who didn’t meet their models of manhood. Even officers who acknowledged the existence of mental casualties were hesitant to put recovered cases back at the front for fear other troops would no longer respect them.

The topic didn’t really enter civilian discourse until the infamous “slapping” incidents involving General George S. Patton in late November 1943. . . “It has come to my attention that a very small number of soldiers are going to the hospital on the pretext that they are nervously incapable of combat. Such men are cowards, and bring discredit on the Army and disgrace to their comrades who they heartlessly leave to endure the field of battle which they themselves use the hospital as a means of escaping.” Patton’s own formal apology to Eisenhower revealed a belief that only tough love could treat “mental anguish.” It closed with the supercilious suggestion that by slapping each broken soldier, Patton had “saved an immortal soul.”

* [ however, the specific act of killing as an important cause ‘shell shock’ (PTSS) was not recognized until after WWII]