Shell Shock, My Uncle John, and Dogs with PTSD

My first exposure to the concept of “battle fatigue” was a TV viewing of Captain Newman, MD sometime in the late 60s when I was 11 or 12.  To a kid who had grown up with John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day (three school nights in a row allowed to stay up for the CBS movie event of my lifetime to really learn what happened at DDay.  Thirty years later, Saving Private Ryan finally corrected that farce) and was just starting to realize the evening news  with Walter Cronkite was nightly covering something really lousy happening in Southeast Asia, the movie was a quick and startling wake up call that combat was probably not all that much fun.

Further proof of that could be found in my grandparents’ living room every other month or so in the person of my Uncle John.  Uncle John was my grandmother’s brother.  Uncle John was Irish and had fought in the trenches in France in WWI.  Uncle John in the 60s was an always smiling, quiet, suit and tie clad, tall, big shouldered, handsome man who would shuffle into their house, sit in a high backed red chair and stare into space a thousand yards away for the entire visit even when spoken too, even while he meekly replied.  Even to an 11 year old it was clear Uncle John’s body was in the room while his head was fifty years in the past and filled with unquenchable demons.

A nice man ruined in France a half century earlier who’s epitaph was rendered by my grandma, “he never bothered anyone”.  This was echoed several times at his funeral (my first and only real Irish wake, it happened before my 12th birthday and there’s no repeating it) where it was remarked that he even had the good grace to die during a school holiday so as to not inconvenience anyone.

Uncle John was a product of his time – he was born in 1888 -and  volunteered for the British army (two of his brothers died fighting the British in the Irish Rebellion, nothing is simple in many parts of the world), he got far more than he bargained for, but, in the end, at least he had some measure of cogent choice.

Unlike the dogs in the NY Times article: After Duty, Dogs Suffer Like Soldiers.  It seems Afghanistan is creating a generation of canine Uncle Johns out of the bomb sniffing, Taliban hunting dogs our troops have come to rely on.

I have spent some time since this blog started discussing animal emotions, as in ‘do dogs exhibit what we recognize as emotion?’  Those discussions were centered around emotions like joy, satisfaction, guilt (as when my dog raids the kitchen garbage and hides when I get home), and a host of others, grief included.

Dog ’emotion’ has been and remains a subject of debate, scientific and otherwise.  That it may decisively be settled by the sad spectacle of more and more dogs being treated for post traumatic stress disorder by Twenty-first century veterinarian Captain Newmans is a sad commentary indeed on any number of levels, none of which reflect well on our species.


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