PTSD in Ancient History … or, How to Disagree Amicably

Book being read: None at the moment, unless Thucydides counts, but I am always dipping into that so probably not!

As regular readers and poor survivors of my obsessive monologues well know, I do a lot of work and research into the methodological quandary of using Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a universal element in the study of military history. I have written a few popular history articles to bring these ideas to the public sphere, something I consider my role to be as a ‘popular historian’ – two that spring to mind were looking at the Medieval Scandinavian concept of Berserkers, and the Ancient Greek soldier Epizelus who went blind at the battle of Marathon but received no cut or wound.

What you may not necessarily know is that I am a firm believer in engaging with the scholastic world – so for all of the popularising that I try and achieve, I am also working on academic papers, I give presentations of my research findings at conferences, and I help some scholars with their idea (usually surrounding the neurobiology of PTSD). To that end I have been working on trying to put together a paper that approaches the issue of PTSD in Ancient History – can it be used? is it just a modern concept being projected back? is there any element of universalism to the diagnosis? is this even a useful paradigm from which to analyse other cultures so far removed from our own? that sort of thing.

Next month, an interesting book – Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks –  is about to be released on this topic of PTSD, featuring papers from a multitude of academics on the issue of combat stress in Greece. For those who may not know, there is a large fissure between Universalists who think that, basically, war is war and trauma is trauma: we know that people today suffer with trauma as a result of war, therefore people always have, and that trauma must be the same. Against this are a small group of Relativists who argue that cultures and individuals are ultimately unique and reject any sense of universalism.*

This is all well and good, there is nothing wrong with disagreement. The problem arises when academic discourse on a very emotive topic descends into a vitriolic diatribe which oversteps the line of cordial debate.

Within this new book is a paper by a Dr Jason Crowley, of Manchester Metropolitan University, who is growing a strong reputation for being the voice of Relativism on this topic. Full credit to the editors of the book who have placed his paper straight after one supplied by the great voice of the Universalists: Prof. Lawrence Tritle. They contrast nicely, disagreeing as much as would be expected, making the book a must read for anyone wanting to understand the polar views that are beginning to dominate the debate.

That gives you the basic background: two opposing views, a new book that is not yet out (although both Tritle and Crowley have very kindly allowed me to read proofs of their work, whilst also giving helpful feedback on my own article draft which critiques them both), and a general level of amicability.

Enter into the fray a bizarre blog which comes as a reaction to the press release/interview surrounding this book – specifically regarding Crowley’s chapter (here). In this blog the author had a choice to either cut up and analyse Crowley’s (heavily summarised) arguments, showing them to be, in her opinion, flawed and misguided on certain areas – possibly utilising the work Crowley has already set down in his own book The Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite as proof for these misgivings if she so wished (see my own review here). Or, there was the other option which was to not pay attention to his argument because you had already decided what he must be saying, and obviously don’t need to read it, choosing to attack the character of a perfect stranger instead … can you guess which avenue was chosen?

The language used in her blog is concerning to say the least, and like I have already said – she cannot have already read the chapter … or if she has somehow, I am shocked at what she thinks was said.

Example of Rude Quotes:

“I think he is talking out of his arse.”

“it takes a prize twat”

These are just unecessary, but I suppose it is a blog so this sort of vulgarity is normal enough. What this does mean is that your accusations are liable to some accountability –  to that end, why is he talking out of his arse? You don’t say, other than to say there is another writer, Jonathan Shay, who wrote some books which disagree with Crowley’s sentiment … I think Crowley already knew this, but if you had read his chapter you would already know this.

Concerning Quotes to Read from an Historian:

“Having looked at Crowley’s bio (here), he’s obviously a very young academic”

Ummm, no. I am a very young historian at 27, I do not know how old Crowley is having never met him, but he is not 27 (no offence is meant here!).

“PTSD may be a ‘new’ label, but shell shock is pretty well documented during the first World War and there are plenty of descriptions of the symptoms from Antiquity that are clearly PTSD, so no, it wasn’t ‘invented’ after Vietnam.” 

Hmmm, I can’t seem to find where Crowley made this stupid and ridiculous claim, let me see … now I do not have the right to quote from the chapter itself as it is NOT YET PUBLISHED (just in case you forgot), but from the press release/interview alone we have:

“I modelled the cause of PTSD and what I noticed was that all the causes of PTSD are cultural”/ “One of the causes of PTSD is when you have no ability to take direct action” / “PTSD is not universal – it’s historically and culturally specific and when we treat soldiers we should do so on that basis, not that everyone is the same”.

These are not the words of a PTSD denier, these are the words of an historian analysing the usefulness of projecting modern diagnoses into the distant past. And with my own correspondence with neuroscientists about the historical projection of PTSD, I can say their most common comment is exactly what Crowley is saying about cultural factors, they also mention upbringing as another vital variable.

“When everyone else is campaigning for better treatment for veterans, one has to wonder what kind of narcissist insists on pushing this kind of crappy pseudo-scientific nonsense – and why”

Narcissism, really? Pseudo-science, maybe but I think they prefer to be called sociologists. And as for his supposed attack on these veterans, umm I suppose I should quote again: “PTSD is not universal – it’s historically and culturally specific and when we treat soldiers we should do so on that basis, not that everyone is the same

Now, I am not saying you have to agree with him, indeed when I emailed him about my own paper I made it clear that we will clash on quite a few points (I am a Universalist of sorts), but what I am saying is that attacking an idea is fine – as long as you have actually read the argument first and use those arguments as the basis of your rebuttal [in the historical community we call this using ‘evidence’]. If you think there are flaws in the argument then challenge them, but why does it need to get so personal?

This is not the only example I have been told in the last 6 months, I spoke with another lecturer who told me he had to remove his own blog page because of hate mail he received after posting an “interesting article” which challenged the idea of PTSD in medieval Europe – it was not even his own work, he just thought it was interesting! And another writer who still gets hate mail for his blog which critiqued the venerable work of V.D. Hanson, I mean come on!

I do not agree with many of Crowley’s ideas but that does not mean we have to be rude about it, on the same token he disagrees with many of mine – this is normal, and this is ok, we are allowed to disagree! Any disagreement can be voiced in a respectful and amicable form. By using our disagreements as a sounding board for each other, it can only make our ideas better which in turn allows the debate to evolve.

* I was told to call them this: I preferred the descriptions of ‘believers’ (Universalists) and ‘non-believers’ (Relativists), but a ‘believer’ told me he found this annoying – so fair enough.

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4 Responses to PTSD in Ancient History … or, How to Disagree Amicably

  1. Pingback: PTSD (again!): Nothing New Under the Sun? | Owen Rees

  2. Veteran says:

    Disclaimer: I live with combat trauma. So it seems sensible to me, after much time and treatment, that it falls fairly within a broader spectrum of PTSD-type diagnoses, in which severe emotional trauma of ANY origin can invoke significant biochemical changes in the brain – a resetting of the amygdala’s ‘thermostat’ to be more reactive, more quickly. It’s hard to live with, as I’m sure you can imagine. People being different, one expects widely-varying expressions of trauma from similar events.

    As to the number of angels fitting on the heads of PTSD pins, it seems to me that if human biology is generally consistent over the last several thousand years, the incidence of PTSD ‘rewiring’ should be similarly expressed, physiologically.

    We might even call it an adaptive behavior, this post-traumatic ‘amping up’ of one’s vigilance at a lower threshold of threat – perhaps useful in a violent world, but far less so in today’s lawful uber-regulated society, where threats are much less prevalent than in previous eras.

    I suppose I’m a universalist as far as PTSD goes – but when it comes to treatment of the various causes of PTSD, one can only be a relativist. I can tell you that you do not send a combat vet to, say, a rape counselor and expect an optimal outcome. The vet will likely not engage, because there is no intersectionality of experience, nor will the counselor have a useful frame of reference for combat trauma. (Very similar to academics…)

    While the biomechanics of PTSD may be similar, the human experience is unique. This is probably where the offended relativists are coming from, gathering umbrage from the idea of treating combat trauma as nothing special, which conflates cultural issues inherent in the societal valuation of veterans more generally. One could say that the biology of PTSD is universal, but its treatment should be relative to its proximate cause.

    • owen says:

      Thanks for the response Veteran, and I completely agree with you. I have always argued that the biology is, by and large, a historical constant (through fear-processing, and the adaptive behaviour you are talking about – I dub it the ‘warrior brain’, that is the changes within the brain that occur to allow for the change in necessary processing inherent for the experience of combat) and that it is the effects and repercussions which are more socially dictated. Whilst the trauma of events and actions will always be present, even a psychosomatic injury can create varying long term results depending on the audience – I am thinking of the Greek soldier Epizelos who went blind in battle (without being struck or shot), who is normally titled the first case of ‘shell-shock’/PTSD. The interesting thing for Epizelos is that his trauma made him a hero, almost like he was touched by the hands of the gods, in the same way as prophets/seers and poets who were often blind.

      I have written more on a recent blog that you may find interesting which I think echoes some of your points. Thanks again for getting in touch.

  3. Pingback: Ancient PTSD Again, and again and again. | Owen Rees

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