Thursday, October 9, 2008

Cindy McCain on PTSD

Cindy McCain, from an interview with Marie Claire:

MC: You met your husband after his POW days. To what extent is that still with you — or is it a part of history?

CMcC: My husband will be the first one to tell you that that's in the past. Certainly it's a part of who he is, but he doesn't dwell on it. It's not part of a daily experience that we experience or anything like that. But it has shaped him. It has made him the leader that he is.

MC: But no cold sweats in the middle of the night?

CMcC: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. My husband, he'd be the first one to tell you that he was trained to do what he was doing. The guys who had the trouble were the 18-year-olds who were drafted. He was trained, he went to the Naval Academy, he was a trained United States naval officer, and so he knew what he was doing.
If what Mrs. McCain says is true, she has inadvertently raised the question of what responsibility the United States government bears for the damage to those draftees who weren't "trained" and thus immunized against post-traumatic stress disorder. But her breezy theorizing about PTSD is of course contradicted by reality. As psychiatrist Jonathan Shay suggests in Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994), anyone can incur the bad moral luck (as Shay calls it) that culminates in PTSD. To say, as Mrs. McCain does, that PTSD comes only to those who don't know what they're doing, is callous (or feigned?) ignorance. Shay knows better:
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. . . . We have powerful motives not to listen to the veteran's story, or to deny its truth.
As Achilles in Vietnam shows us, in Homer's Iliad and in the narratives of the veterans with whom Shay works, good character can be undone by the traumas of war.

Related posts
Gilgamesh travesty (the DoVA, Gilgamesh, and PTSD)
Jonathan Shay wins MacArthur grant

comments: 5

JuliaR said...

I'm not defending Cindy but she might not have been generalizing. It's possible she meant just that John didn't have PTSD because of his training - not that everybody who was trained didn't get PTSD.

Michael Leddy said...

Hi Julia,

I think she is generalizing about veterans with PTSD — "The guys who had the trouble were the 18-year-olds who were drafted" — which seems to mean that going to a service academy somehow prepares a person to resist PTSD. What Jonathan Shay's work shows is that the circumstances of war can destroy anyone's character. It's not the veteran's fault for not being "tougher" or wiser; it's the reality of war.

Cindy McCain's account is also puzzling given that John McCain twice attempted suicide while a POW. He's said that he reached his "breaking point" as a POW.

JuliaR said...

Well, I didn't go read the whole interview, so I believe you. To generalize, you really can't generalize about PTSD. Some people get it and some don't and it's nothing to do with training or character or any one thing. Every single case has to be examined on its own facts. And it's not some character flaw either. My great uncle won the Victoria cross in WWI but spent the rest of his life a miserable wreck because of, what they called in those days, "shell shock". There's a fireman here in Ottawa who has finally "come out" about his PTSD and he's been on the job for 20 years and had all sorts of training. And even getting over PTSD varies from person to person. Some want to minimize it and not talk about it and other want it to define them. Same with many other so-called "mental illnesses" or anything pathological. For some people, having it and dealing with it becomes their raison d'etre and for others, they just move on. It is very interesting.

Michael Leddy said...

I've heard and read about the difficulties that some U.S. veterans of our most recent wars have had in attempting to get a diagnosis of PTSD (and appropriate medical benefits). It's apparently common for VA people to attribute veterans' symptoms to some pre-existing cause. In other words, the veteran, not combat, is judged responsible for his or her condition.

Anonymous said...

Apparenntly she has never seen her friend that she trained with get blown up by an IED in Iraq. SHe has never had to pick the body parts up of Service Members that have died. It is not in the past, it is current with what is going on now.