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Invisible scars: what it’s like to survive a war

Too many outsiders to the world of war leap to make generalisations over those afflicted by PTSD.

Shot six times, blinded in one eye, his comrades lying dead around him, Lance Corporal Liam Culverhouse first gained a brief, unwitting fame in 2009 as the most badly wounded survivor of an attack by a rogue Afghan policeman who murdered five other British soldiers, shooting them repeatedly as they relaxed after a patrol in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand. Given cursory treatment for mental health issues following the incident, the Grenadier Guardsman returned to the British public’s consciousness last year, this time under even more tragic circumstances, when he was jailed for causing the death of his 19-month-old daughter, Khloe, who died with brain damage and fractures to her skull, ribs and limbs after he assaulted her.

Both victim and perpetrator, Culverhouse epitomises the appalling potential consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which the sentencing judge acknowledged as having contributed to his crime. Imprisoned, the war veteran now appears once more, this time as one of the principal case studies in Aftershock, Matthew Green’s outstanding study of the psychological wounds affecting British military personnel adapting to life at home after serving in the country’s most recent wars.

Green’s credibility in this field is hugely advantaged by his experience as a reporter for the Financial Times in Afghanistan, which bestowed him with both the cool, analytical eye of a field journalist and an instinctive, first-hand sympathy for his subjects. These skills are prerequisites for any navigator attempting to traverse a subject as complex as PTSD.

Riven with contradiction and paradox, the condition – its definition, prognosis and reaction to treatment – remains almost as contentious today as when “Case One”, an anonymous 20-year-old British private, was brought to the attention of Dr Charles Myers in 1914. The young soldier, who had endured a prolonged German artillery barrage, suffered trembling fits, sweats, nightmares and repeated intrusive thoughts – usually of shellfire – but was otherwise uninjured. The soldier was dubbed Case One in an article published in the Lancet the following year by Myers, a brilliant Cambridge psychologist and the man who first brought the phrase “shell shock” to public consciousness.

Back then, it was suspected that Case One suffered from a form of physical shock. By the time the condition was renamed PTSD in 1980, it was thought to be a mental reaction to the trauma of combat. Today, the circle of definition is turning once again, with various treatment therapies regarding the condition more in terms of an injurious trauma stored by the body rather than the mind. Small wonder, given the variations of PTSD’s definition, that among the myriad organisations offering treatment for the condition there is now suspicion that the two main methods currently used to counter it – eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – may be of limited effectiveness in many cases and, perhaps, even damaging.

The ongoing confusion around PTSD makes Green’s work all the more timely. He launches into his subject, its history and modern evolution, with confident elan, maintaining the attention of lay readers and specialists alike by illustrating his work with a series of poignant case studies, while engaging with the more complex evaluations of the affliction and the emerging therapies used to treat it. Throughout his pages, like a dark arterial chord, lurks “the Spiral”, down which the afflicted slide, usually accompanied by compounding conditions such as alcohol and drug abuse.

I confess to reading the book in bad company. After two decades spent reporting conflicts, a variety of shadows clustered over my shoulders as I turned the pages. Into my study walked a woman, quite unhinged by shellfire, who accosted me using her husband’s shrapnel-severed leg as a club in Grozny, back in 1995; a small choir of dead children I knew gathered around my desk; the walking corpse of a dead friend shot and left under the African sun lurched up to stare, beside a man who died bloodily as I tried to breathe life into him; while in the back of the room stood another who once shot me while my hands were tied. “Thanks a fucking bunch, Matthew,” I thought, as I read on. “You’ve just raised the whole ensemble at once.”

It is as well, then, that I am a journalist rather than a soldier and work in a profession in which individuality and expression protect practitioners from the worst depredations of war trauma far better than service personnel are guarded by the group-oriented dictates of theirs. I have “normalised” my visitors. They come but seldom stay.

Green never surrenders to cliché. Too many outsiders to the world of war leap to make generalisations over those afflicted by PTSD, an instinctive but naive sympathy for victims leading them to attribute every ill to the experience of conflict. Real life is never that simple and the erosions of war often magnify existing psychological traits rather than producing entirely new conditions. Green manages to describe the plight of Culverhouse, with whom he corresponded in prison, with gentle respect, while noting that his anger issues existed before the wounded man’s trauma in Afghanistan.

Likewise, rather than simplify his portrayal of Aaron Black – a traumatised 22-year-old Afghanistan veteran from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, whose experience in war and later suicide are central to the book’s narrative – Green admits that it is impossible to identify a single cause for his death. Confused by the sense of futureless isolation that accompanied his departure from the army, his depression compounded by alcohol abuse, Black could have been “equally a casualty of peace” as of war.

What is absolutely clear in the cases of Culverhouse, Black and every other traumatised veteran appearing in Aftershock is the systematic failure of the services to embrace the issue of PTSD, ensure effective treatment and hand treatment over to the civilian health sector once their time in the army was over. Culverhouse, for example, had explicitly warned that he could not handle crying children, yet despite his extreme trauma his chain of command had not been informed that he had missed appointments with mental health staff and, after leaving the army, he was not offered any follow-up care.

There is certainly no shortage of money available for the treatment of PTSD among today’s veterans. Combat Stress, Britain’s biggest mental health charity for former service personnel, received an income of £17.4m in 2014 – a combination of government funds and those provided by public and corporate donors. A horde of other smaller mental health charities have sprung up around the well of public sympathy shown to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commensurate to the growth in this niche sector, however, is a lack of accreditation, registration and independent oversight. In 2012, a government study into veterans’ transition focused on 350 mental health organisations in the military charity sector with a combined annual income of £400m. The subsequent report highlighted a maze of competing organisations, the collective ill-use of funds and the ineffectiveness of many involved.

This overall muddle, extending from the definition of PTSD across its spectrum of treatment, ensures that the silent majority of unknown sufferers may never access help at all. As of 2014, there was neither a centralised 24-hour contact point for veterans in need of mental assistance, nor a register of accredited organisations to aid those in need.

Clearly the individual cost to anyone participating in war and killing – the most negative and damaging experiences of all – can never be fully erased. What Green describes equally well, however, is how the current standard of care for service personnel and veterans suffering from PTSD falls far short of what it should be at the precise moment when they are most in need.

Aftershock: The Untold Story of Surviving Peace by Matthew Green is published by Portobello (336pp, £20)

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times. His book My War Gone By, I Miss It So has been republished (September Publishing, £9.99) with a new introduction

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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