Declassified – a review

What’s the purpose of a war story? To entertain? Inspire? Instruct? Shock? Warn? What effect does a war story have on those who listen to and consume it? How should we respond to a war story? These are questions I’ve written about recently, and ones I come back to with renewed energy when listening to Michael Coates’ thought-provoking new podcast ‘Declassified’. A former firefighter and former soldier, Coates began documenting stories from the military and veteran community as a means to ‘provide hope, guidance, support and help for individuals who are suffering from both mental and physical illness or injury.’

The effect war has on veterans’ mental health is a major feature of the series, which so far includes ten interviews with individuals featuring a variety of pre, during, and post-military experiences. The series also includes one important and upsetting conversation with a wife (herself a former soldier) discussing the intensely stressful impact of deployment for families and children, and one particularly haunting interview with the parents of a soldier who died by suicide.

The podcast creates a great opportunity to improve the social conversation about veterans and ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, which is by far the dominant means of interpreting veterans’ mental health experiences. If there’s one clear message from the podcast overall, it’s about legitimising the psychological and emotional suffering caused by war and combat trauma. As a technique for legitimisation, the podcast seems to emphasise strongly the toughness and respectability of veterans featured discussing mental health. For example, when the message “Its O.K. to say” comes from ex-SAS soldier and all-round tough guy ‘Big’ Phil Campion, the message is amplified by the rogue-ish, rugged masculinity of the storyteller. By focusing on the intense, shocking, and extreme details of combat which provoked veterans’ psychological turmoil, the podcast also aims to establish the normality of being adversely affected by trauma. But it’s worth considering whether an unintended consequence of this may be that veterans perceiving themselves to have had ‘lesser’ experiences of combat fail to recognise the legitimacy of their own experiences through a process of social comparison (“my ‘trauma’ wasn’t as bad as that, maybe I’m weak”?)?

Declassified reinforces and reflects some of the key research findings that have emerged in relation to veterans’ mental health in recent years. For example, the interview with Terry Brazier is a personal validation of the role of sport in helping veterans deal with the turmoil of life after war. His story also illustrates recent findings that veterans experiencing initially poor encounters with the NHS and mental health services can easily be put off from seeking further help. More broadly, several interviews implicitly highlight the influence of betrayal in driving psychological distress. Examples include the betrayal that can result when senior officers based in a unit’s headquarters send orders that seem bizarre or immoral to soldiers in the field (Brazier), or when the military establishment refuses to support soldiers caught up in legal battles surrounding their actions in combat (Brian Wood; whose forthcoming book ‘Double Crossed’ tells this story in full). Such examples illustrate Jonathan Shay’s argument concerning a ‘betrayal of what’s right’ as a central feature of combat trauma and psychological injury.

The podcast presenter, Coates, deals carefully and sensitively with veterans’ stories of trauma and distress. This I found to be a real strength of the podcast. And nowhere is this more evident or more necessary than the interview with Derek and Maria Hunt, whose son Nathan took his own life at the end of 2017. Knowing how this story ends, I listened with a chill as Nathan’s parents talked movingly about their son’s life and (largely hidden) struggles with mental health. Their story speaks powerfully about the potential consequences of failing to seek help in times of need, of bitterness over the coroner’s refusal to attribute the cause of death to suicide, and about the permanent, incomprehensible grief of losing one’s child to suicide.

As a narrative researcher, I’m interested in what the stories in Declassified are doing – the effects they are having as part of society’s conversation about veterans and war. For instance, I find it useful to consider how these stories play into wider narratives about ‘PTSD’. The close focus in Declassified on the psychological damage of war serves to undermine the institutional narrative about PTSD; that is, PTSD is a condition experienced by a marginal, problematic few and that there are already too many stories about it in the public domain. True, there are too many stories that make veterans into victims, and the media is quick to respond with sensationalising claims. But one danger of the institutional narrative its effect in obscuring the realities of psychological harm from public view. Declassified makes this harm strikingly evident. It also balances the experience of harm with an emphasis on the resilience and resourcefulness of veterans dealing with the psychological and emotional pain of post-war living. It illustrates how mental strength can coincide with mental ‘weakness’, and how trauma can sometimes lead to new ‘perspective’ that was formally absent. In doing so, it shuns the victim narrative of the popular press and exhibits different responses to living with chronic adversity.

Other effects of the Declassified stories can be read from social media responses to the podcast, which frequently revolve around the ‘humbling’ and ‘inspiring’ qualities of the veterans featured. Without wishing to denigrate these qualities or undermine the authenticity of those responding to the stories, it does seem possible that the podcast is feeding an appetite for stories of military heroism among the British public that shows little sign of abating in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan era. This is potentially quite problematic given that the pervasive narrative of heroism is one means through which militarism thrives. The central issue here – and this has been robustly critiqued by analysts of ‘support the troops’ rhetoric – is that the reasons veterans encounter harm in the first place (i.e., the recent wars now widely perceived as ‘unwinnable’ and potentially illegal) are obscured from view and hence become more acceptable.

That said, the ‘bravery’ for which the veterans on Declassified are frequently commended by Coates is mostly linked to their choice to speak out about mental health issues. To the extent that speaking out entails making oneself vulnerable within a military culture still dogged by mental health stigma, bravery does feel like an appropriate description. It would also be hard to argue that in telling their stories, these veterans are seeking sympathy or wearing the ‘PTSD’ label as a badge of honour, for as indicated above, the victim narrative is refused, and the veterans are honest about their own failings too.

The stories on Declassified are not uplifting; they are a hard and challenging listen. But they are a necessary part of social conversation about veterans and war. In the final episode of the series (a summary of the previous ten), Coates begins to challenge the medicalised notion of distress as ‘disorder’, by building on the conversation with Walter Busuttil of Combat Stress in which PTSD is described as a ‘memory problem’ rather than an illness. More could be done to push this theme in future episodes, for instance by devoting time to discussion of moral injury as a framework for understanding distress and what Shay described as the ‘undoing of character’; a non-medicalised way of understanding war’s impact.

Declassified portrays veterans as complex, conflicted, and human. If one effect of these stories can be to promote a better understanding of mental health whilst also breaking down the familiar, worn-out trope of veterans as tragic ‘hero-victims’, it will be a welcome and worthwhile contribution indeed.

Author: Dr Nick Caddick

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