The History of Shell Shock and The Hurt Locker

Article topic: 
The Hurt Locker

In a review of the film, the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw explained that the “hurt locker” is a name for the physical trauma of repeatedly being in close proximity to the deafening blast of explosions – or, as Bradshaw put it, ‘basically Shell Shock 2.0’. The term “shell shock” was coined in the early months of the First World War. It originated among the troops as a way of describing the condition experienced by some soldiers caught up in blasts, who might be physically unharmed but suffered strange symptoms such as deafness, blindness, mutism, or amnesia.

As the war went on it was applied to any type of psychological disorder experienced by soldiers, whether this seemed to be a response to battle or simply to the exhaustion and grief of a long war. The term shell-shock has survived, with more or less this meaning, in the English language to the present day.Is the “hurt locker” really “Shell Shock 2.0”? Academic historians are, most of the time, concerned with particularity: consult any of the excellent academic books on trauma and modern war, and they will point out that the kinds of symptoms diagnosed (or experienced?) in the First World War were very different from those in the Second World War, for example – doctors in WW2 noted that hysterical symptoms were comparatively rare in soldiers, but anxiety states were much more common than they had been in WWI. Part of the work of medical historians is to point up this difference, and explain it – did soldiers genuinely experience different types of symptoms, and was this a response to different fighting conditions, or did doctors diagnose the same symptoms differently, according to different cultural expectations or beliefs?

There are then, obvious divergences between the conditions suffered by soldiers in WWI and in Iraq – they went into war with different expectations (not least important, some knowledge of the psychological conditions experienced by previous veterans), they experienced different types of combat, their trauma was handled differently by military psychiatrists, and they returned home to publics with very different attitudes towards war and heroism. In all these ways, the experiences of soldiers now and in past conflicts are very different.

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