From the Napoleonic Wars to Vietnam and Iraq: a history of war trauma

From the mental anguish of survivors of the Napoleonic Wars to Vietnam veterans' 'PTSD blues', historians Emma Butcher and Hannah Partis-Jennings explore humanity's evolving attitudes to war trauma

US soldiers in Vietnam

Writers have recorded the traumatic effects of war for thousands of years. Nearly three millennia ago, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles describes how the death in battle of his friend Patroclus caused him to have nightmares, and to isolate himself. Around 1200 BC, in Mesopotamia, soldiers wrote of being visited by the “ghosts they faced in battle”. In his account of the battle of Marathon (490 BC), the historian Herodotus recorded that, in the midst of fighting, the warrior Epizelus “suddenly lost sight in both eyes, though nothing had touched him”.

Fast-forward to Tudor England, and allusions to war trauma appear in the works of Shakespeare. In Henry IV, Part I, Lady Percy frets at her husband Hotspur’s sorrowful state after he returns from war:

“Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee / Thy stomach, pleasure and golden sleep? / Why dost though bend thine eyes upon the earth / And start so often when thou sit’st alone? / Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks / And given me treasures and me rights of thee / To thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy?”

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