“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat, they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over. And you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it,” the Republican presidential nominee told an audience of military veterans at an event in Northern Virginia on Monday morning.But character, or what Trump calls being “strong,” is no protection against PTSD. Jonathan Shay makes that point in Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994). Shay, a psychiatrist who has spent much of his career working with veterans who live with PTSD, says that anyone can incur the bad moral luck (as Shay calls it) that culminates in PTSD:
The most ancient traditions of Western culture instruct us to base our self-respect on firmness of character. Many popular melodramas of moral courage provide satisfaction through the comforting fantasy that our own character would hold steady under the most extreme pressure of dreadful events. A permanent challenge of working with those injured by combat trauma is facing the painful awareness that in all likelihood one’s own character would not have stood firm.It’s true that Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Robichaux, the veteran who asked Trump about programs for veterans with PTSD, said that his answer was “thoughtful and understanding.” But on Trump’s terms, Sgt. Robichaux himself must be one of those who are not “strong” and cannot “handle it.”
Robichaux lives with PTSD.
One lesson of Homer’s Iliad , captured in the subtitle of Shay’s book, is that the trauma of war can destroy character. Achilles is the best of the Achaeans, concerned about the well-being of his community, singularly honorable in his treatment of the enemy. Yet his character is undone by the circumstances of war. On the subject of PTSD, as on so many other subjects, Donald Trump is a know-nothing. To tell an audience of veterans that they’re “strong” and “can handle it” denies the realities of war — as does joking about having always wanted a Purple Heart.
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