Psychological Effects of War

In the anticipation of conflict, as well as during the fighting itself and afterward, there have long been known to be psychological effects on the people–both combatants and noncombatants–affected by conflict.


In the anticipation of conflict, as well as during the fighting itself and afterward, there have long been known to be psychological effects on the people–both combatants and noncombatants–affected by conflict. In the ancient and medieval world, this was little understood, because there was not much understanding of the workings of the mind or of mental illnesses, although the effect of the nature of the cruelty in war would have led to Traumatrauma that would have been noticed by all. Much of the work on the psychological effects of warfare started with World War I (1914-1918), when, for the first time outside a siege situation, people were involved in fighting over many weeks or months.Psychological effects of warPsychological effects of war


The topic of war’s pscyhological impact took on significance gradually over the course of the twentieth century. During World Wars I and II, many instances of Combat fatigueShell shock“shell shock” (combat fatigue) were reported, but not seriously addressed, by the psychological establishment. However, with the return to the United States of large numbers of American veterans after the Vietnam War (1961-1975);psychological impactVietnam War (1961-1975), the massive number reporting psychological problems caused the issue to receive more of a focus. Diagnoses of Post-traumatic stress disorder[Posttraumatic stress disorder]post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) skyrocketed, and both practicing and academic psychologists began to address the needs of returning soldiers (though the effects of warfare on civilian groups, who are often just as seriously damaged as soldiers, received far less attention).

History of the Psychological Effects of War

Ancient World

In the ancient world–although little was known about the workings of the mind–enthusiasms, shock, and Traumatrauma would have been noticeable. Many of the writings of the Greeks and the Romans pay great respect and honor to those who fought for their city or country. Nevertheless, many people clearly did whatever they could to avoid conflict, and most, such as the ancient historian writer Josephus, FlaviusJosephus, FlaviusFlavius Josephus, rejected the idea of “honorable” wartime service or suicide in favor of living, albeit in a Roman-dominated world.

Even though there are many examples of wanton cruelty, such as the brutal Rome;Colosseum gamesColosseum (Rome)“games” in the Colosseum in Rome and other arenas where people fought each other or wild animals, there were still many Romans who shunned these events. Most Romans, moreover, if we are to believe the writings that survive, were far from the fighting, while some who wrote of war, like Julius Caesar, could reflect on the events from the relative safety of battlefield command. Being so far from the scenes of cruelty and killing, and aware that these battles served to build the empire, the citizens of Rome certainly entertained great war fever and rejoiced in their triumphs; those involved in the fighting themselves, however, often felt very differently. One early recorded example of obvious trauma was during Caesar’s siege of Alesia, Siege of (52 b.c.e.)Alesia in 52 b.c.e. The Gauls, holding out but running short of food and desperate, forced their women and children out into the No-man’s-land[No mans land]no-man’s-land between the Gallic fortifications and those of the Romans, leaving them to die.

Certainly Caesar and the Romans also understood the need to terrify people who opposed the Romans, and they did this by their triumphal marches through Rome, after which large numbers of captives were murdered in public, while some of their number were allowed to return home to tell people of the horrors they had seen and the mighty power of the Romans. Similar tactics would be followed by countless armies throughout history.

Medieval World

In Europe during the “Dark Ages” and the later medieval period, there are many examples of wanton cruelty to terrorize people. During the Viking raidsViking raids on England in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, the tactic of desecrating the bodies of the dead served to frighten their opponents; likewise, the Mongols, Saracens, and Crusaders sacked whole cities in the expectation that other cities would quickly surrender.

Since ancient times, people had lived in Fortifications;medievalfortified settlements throughout the world, and this continued into the Middle Ages as a defensive measure against both invasions and civil wars. CastlesCastles were built to provide protection, and hence were regarded as comforting symbols of safety, but also to intimidate, and thus could also be seen as signs of oppression. The motte-and-bailey castles in Norman England and the great castles built by Edward I in Wales were intended to overawe the population and show them who ruled the regions where they were built.

Hatred of people from rival kingdoms was combined with the concept of Treasontreason: the support of war against one’s own rulers. In many cases, wars clearly wreaked havoc on the ordinary people, especially those in unprotected villages. Attacks by English raiders traumatized Joan of Arc during her childhood, and the earlier persecution of the Cathars in southern France was conducted with such ferocity that its aim was clearly to create trauma in those who harbored “heretical” or unpopular beliefs, or who supported those who did.

Modern World

During the Renaissance, there were efforts on the part of theorists and philosophers to rationalize and advocate this use of terror in war. Machiavelli, NiccolòMachiavelli, NiccolòNiccolò Machiavelli wrote about this, and Borgia, CesareBorgia, CesareCesare Borgia practiced it. There were also clear campaigns of hatred against individual groups of people, especially ScapegoatingJews;scapegoatedJews, who were blamed for many conflicts and other troubles during early modern Europe. In other cases the scapegoats were Protestants;scapegoatedProtestants (as in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572) or Catholics (as in the English Civil War of the 1640’s). Oliver Cromwell’s destruction of Drogheda and Wexford also served to traumatize the people in Ireland into submission. Moreover, one should not exclude the actions of the Spanish in the Americas or the many European countries involved in the slave trade.

Throughout western Russia, in Flanders, and in many other parts of the world, fortified homesteads and farms were the norm until the early twentieth century. This sense of being potentially under attack at any time did much to affect the lives and lifestyles of these populations, who spent much of their lives worrying about when the next war might erupt. The French writer Guy de Maupassant’s short story about the elderly lady trapping a Prussian soldier in her cellar reflects the effects such wars had on ordinary people.

If the Traumatrauma from war became well known in modern times, so also were modern governments able to harness the will of their own people in wartime by demonizing their opponents. Hearst, William RandolphHearst, William RandolphWilliam Randolph Hearst was able to use his newspapers to whip up a frenzy over war between the United States and Spain, and Goebbels, JosephGoebbels, JosephJoseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany ran the propaganda ministry, dedicated to getting people to follow the dictates of a government leading its people into war. Hatred of the enemy–whether blamed on the alleged behavior of the German soldiers in Belgium in 1914 or the anti-Semitism that was to lead to the Holocaust–must be counted among the psychological effects of war.

As for the soldiers themselves, until World War I little was known about what became called Combat fatigueShell shock“shell shock,” now known as combat fatigue. Much of this ignorance was because knowledge of the workings of the human mind was in its infancy, not really identified as an area of study until the early twentieth century. Also, until World War I, many modern military campaigns (excluding sieges) sustained only short periods of fighting. A study was made of two British soldiers who served in Spain in the Peninsular War (1808-1815)Peninsular War (1808-1815) against Napoleon. Both qualified for fifteen clasps–the maximum awarded to any individual–since both had served in fifteen battles. In the case of one of them, Talbot, JamesTalbot, JamesJames Talbot, although he had survived fifteen battles, researchers found that he probably had been under fire for as much as twenty-four hours in his eight years of service. His regiment also suffered 123 killed in action. By contrast, the trench warfare of World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];psychological impactWorld War I saw men under fire for more than a week at a time, and as many men were killed each week in a regiment as were killed in the entire the Peninsular War some one hundred years earlier.

Lebanese-born James Thaber listens to President Dwight D. Eisenhower announce that he is sending U.S. troops to Lebanon in July, 1958; atop Thaber’s radio is a picture of his son, a recent recruit into the U.S. Army.

(National Archives)

The idea of Stress of warfarestress on soldiers in war–not just Traumatrauma in seeing their friends and other people being killed–was first recognized during theAmerican Civil War (1861-1865);psychological impactAmerican Civil War (1861-1865); certainly Civil wars;psychological impactcivil wars have tended to be particularly traumatic, since they divide families and test friendships. In the Second Boer Wars (1880-1902);psychological impactBoer War (1899-1902), the judicial case of the Australian soldier Morant, BreakerMorant, BreakerBreaker Morant made mention of the psychological stress he and his co-accused suffered after they found the butchered body of a colleague. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905);psychological impactRusso-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Russians started to view war stress as a mental disease.

In World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];psychological impact1915 in France, it was quite clear that many British (as well as French and German) soldiers were suffering from Combat fatigueShell shockshell shock and other disorders related to combat stress. Although the British first used the term “Not yet diagnosed (nervous)”[Not yet diagnosed]“not yet diagnosed (nervous)” (NYDN), and they set up centers several miles behind the battle lines to treat the mounting number of soldiers suffering from trauma and mental disorders, at the same time the British army was involved in executing some three hundred of their own soldiers for cowardice, many of them clearly victims of shell shock. There were also mutinies in the British and French armies, as well as the French navy–many of these becoming the subject of antiwar films.

After World War I, many of the soldiers returned to their homes shattered by what they had seen. With shell shock and trauma, many returned to Families, psychological impact of war onfamilies who had been largely untouched by the fighting, and few talked about their role in the war except to other soldiers. Many became Mental illnessmentally ill, and there were asylums throughout the world to treat people for shell shock and other psychological problems in the war. Substance abuseSome soldiers also turned to alcohol. There were large numbers of Suicide;World War Isuicides of former soldiers during the 1920’s and 1930’s, as well as violence against family members, especially wives and children. Some murders were clearly also related to the traumatic scenes many soldiers had encountered during the war.

World War II (1939-1945) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];psychological impactwas generally supported by the American and Allied populations, but, like the soldiers of World War I, many veterans of the later war returned to a world in which the social codes of the time discouraged sharing and verbal processing of their experiences, and like their earlier counterparts, many men elected to bury the horrors they had witnessed and move on with their lives–often finding, however, that the experiences of an entire, formative chapter of their youth were impossible to suppress and inevitably emerged through coping behaviors that led to alcoholism and emotional problems. In one sense, however, these veterans held an advantage: The nation was grateful, as evidenced by passage of the G.I. Bill and clear public support not only of the war effort but also of returning veterans.

After World War II, there were wars throughout the world that proved unpopular in their home countries. Some veterans from the Vietnam War (1961-1975);psychological impactVietnam War found themselves ostracized when they returned home to the United States or to Australia. After Vietnam, soldiers often turned not only to alcohol but also to drugs (to which in many cases they had been introduced during the war). Likewise, veterans of the Iraq War–another war far less popular at home than World War II–became morose over their rejection by the same society that had sent them to war. In the case of Vietnam, and perhaps also in the case of Iraq, the society’s lack of support for war veterans relative to their counterparts in World War II may also have occurred because these wars generally were considered lost, inadvisable, or at least not won in a clear victory.

However, what distinguishes more recent conflicts is that there have been many attempts to deal with the traumas experienced by their veterans. Not only has individual treatment become available to many soldiers, but there are also attempts to establish a “fair” end to any conflict. From ancient times, the end of a conflict meant that the victors were allowed to exert vengeance on the losers, in any way they wanted. In 1975, for example, when the Khmer RougeKhmer Rouge communists captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, they evacuated the city of its two million inhabitants and turned the country into, essentially, a labor camp for their class enemies. By contrast, the Nuremberg war crimes trials (1945-1946)Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials (1946-1948)Tokyo trials at the end of World War II were designed to demonstrate a victory of justice over vengeance, when those deemed to be war criminals were arraigned in open court and, if found guilty, were jailed and in some cases executed. For many people these trials provided some form of closure based in law, in the same way that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)Truth and Reconciliation Commission did in South Africa at the end of the war and civil insurrection there.

For Mental illness;treatmentthe veterans themselves, recognition of post-traumatic stress and other mental and emotional disorders, not only after the conflict but also during combat, has increasingly led enlightened militaries to acknowledge and treat such cases while they are occurring. Identifying and counseling cases of PTSD is seen as not only important for the individual soldier but also essential for the military effort as a whole. The home society and family are also becoming increasingly aware of such psychological issues as veterans return to civilian life. Although no amount of counseling and treatment can address some of the psychological effects that will stay with veterans for their lifetimes, the recognition that such issues exist has served to bring them into the open and encourage both the society to offer help and veterans to seek it out.Psychological effects of war

Books and Articles

  • Allison, William, and John Fairley. The Monocled Mutineer. London: Quartet Books, 1978. Explores the life of Percy Toplis, a World War I deserter from the British army.
  • Cosmopoulos, Michael B., ed. Experiencing War: Trauma and Society from Ancient Greece to the Iraq War. Chicago: Ares, 2007. Presents ten academic papers from a 2004 conference, with the goal of raising awareness of the catastrophic impact of war and violence on individuals and society as a whole.
  • Egendorf, Arthur. Healing from the War: Trauma and Transformation After Vietnam. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Written by a psychologist and Vietnam veteran. Egendorf explores what is necessary for healing to take place for Vietnam vets to overcome their memories of the war.
  • Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War I Source Book. London: Arms and Armour, 1992. A good general coverage of World War I, looking at the impact that weapons and conditions on the front had on soldiers.
  • Krippner, Stanley, and Teresa M. McIntyre. The Psychological Impact of War Trauma on Civilians: An International Perspective. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. As the evolution of warfare in the twentieth century increasingly impacted civilian populations, questions began to arise as to how best to treat their illnesses, which can be very different from those experienced by soldiers.

Biology, Chemistry, and War

Medicine on the Battlefield