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17 June 1999 Edition

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New in print: Hidden Wounds

Hidden Wounds: The problems of Northern Ireland veterans in Civvy Street
By Aly Renwick
Published by Barbed Wire, Price £4.99

This slender volume feels like an introduction to a more substantial piece of work. Renwick sets out to explore the reasons why so many former British army soldiers, particularly those who have served in Ireland, end up serving prison sentences, often for crimes of quite astonishing brutality. However, the work he has done raises more questions about the topic than it manages to answer.

The central premise of the text is that many of these former soldiers are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brought about by their experience of the conflict in the Six Counties. Their brutalization in the `morally corrupting' atmosphere of colonial warfare creates, Renwick argues, a trauma which is directly played out both in psychological breakdown and psychotic behaviour after their return to civilian life.

Although Renwick has done some good research - the book is crammed with instances of former soldiers indulging in violently criminal activities - what it lacks is a sufficiently coherent and systematic analysis of PTSD and its external effects. Merely describing the symptoms and providing anecdotal evidence of their effects is not enough, and several promising avenues of investigation are left unexplored.

For example, one question which arises is this: Is there a difference in the type of PTSD experienced by those who have witnessed atrocity during conflict and those who have indulged in it? Much of what Renwick has discovered suggests strongly that there is a qualitative difference in the behavioural patterns of men who have been traumatised by what they have seen and those who are traumatised by what they have done. What, if any, relationship is there between indulging in random violence or atrocity whilst in military service and subsequent violence in civilian life?

It is interesting in this respect that Renwick uses Shakespeare's description of the heroic soldier of Henry IV Part I, Hotspur, to illustrate the effects of PTSD; sleeplessness, loss of appetite and libido and the onset of depression. No accusations of atrocity can be levelled against Hotspur and a useful Shakespearean comparison of his symptoms might be made with those experienced by Macbeth, who descends from being a fearsome soldier who has ``supp'd full with horrors'' of battle into a calculating criminal who indulges in a murderous rampage of unparalleled ferocity, including the slaughter of women and children.

Furthermore, it can be argued that Macbeth's brutality is latent in his psychological makeup and is merely triggered by his encounter with the witches. In Renwick's account, what is also left unexplored is whether those with previously undiscovered violent or socially deviant tendencies are drawn towards the armed forces where those tendencies are often given full rein. To understand why one soldier commits atrocities it is surely necessary to understand why another, in the same situation, does not, and understanding this may also illuminate the variations in the effects of PTSD on different individuals.

But perhaps in arguing this I am letting the army off the hook, because illustrated very well by Renwick in his use of soldiers' accounts is its absolute ability to churn out amoral killers. One former soldier explains that, ``...The circumstances of our training, coupled with our peculiar existence in Northern Ireland ... turned us into savages. We begged and prayed for a chance to fight, to smash, to kill, to destroy...''.

And although this book is superficially about soldiers, those who were fought, smashed, killed and destroyed haunt its pages like Banquo's ghost.

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