Review: Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis by Anthony Babington

Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis [1997] – ★★★★

“…They broke his body and his mind/And yet They made him live,/And They asked more of My Mother’s Son/Than any man could give...” (from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Mother’s Son).

“…Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;/ Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad…” (Siegfried Sassoon, October 1917).

This is an insightful book about the history of “shell-shock”, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by soldiers after a prolonged combat. Anthony Babington is neither a medical professional nor strictly a trained historian, but his book still provides a thought-provoking overview of a very misunderstood illness. From wars described by Herodotus (484-425 BC) to the Gulf War of 1990/91, the account touches on every major war conflict to explain how “shell-shock” and combat stress were perceived and treated through history.

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Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō

The Sea and Poison [1958/92] – ★★★★

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Albert Einstein).

Go where the pain is” (Anne Rice).

Japan, the last months of the World War II. The city of Fukuoka, nestling in the Hakata Bay, has been experiencing air raids for quite some time, and its hospital finds itself stretched to the limits as its never-ending line of mostly dying patients is always at the door, riddled with many diseases, worsened by hunger and despair. But one day is no ordinary day for this hospital. Unbeknown to many, the Second Surgery is preparing for a secret vivisection operation on American soldiers taken prisoners by the Japanese, and the goal is to test the limits of air and saline that can be injected into humans before they die. Those who are involved in the operation are not some evil monsters or serial killers on the loose, though. They are some of the most respected people in the institution, as well as their dedicated supporting medical personnel. Through the perspectives of two interns – sensitive Suguro and cynical Toda, as well as haunted-by-traumatic-past Nurse Ueda, Endō shows us how easily the unimaginable can unfold when conditions are led by war-time nihilism and actions are prompted by apathy, despair, helplessness and self-interest. Based on a true story (see this article), Shūsaku Endō’s book is as intense as it is disturbing, but at its core is still a touching message to always preserve the spirit of humanity and compassion even in the most highly-pressured and hopeless environments.

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