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Book Review of "Lethal Warriors"

written by Lewis Manalo
on October 27, 2010

lethal warriors book.jpgOn December 1, 2007 in Colorado Springs, a delivery man found the body of Kevin Shields lying face up at the side of road. A soldier in the 2nd Infantry Division, Shields had been shot three times. A police investigation soon discovered that the men responsible for Kevin Shields' murder were three men from his own 2nd Brigade Combat Team, a unit dubbed the Lethal Warriors.

In his new book, Lethal Warriors, journalist David Philipps examines the negative effects of combat stress on veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Examining the issue through the murder of Kevin Shields and other crimes committed by veterans, Philipps uncovers an Army and a VA medical system that was unprepared to deal with the thousands of soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who have come home in recent years. If you are a leader of soldiers or if you have a soldier in your life, Lethal Warriors is an essential first step in your education on the effects of combat stress. But as with any education, don't blindly accept everything your teacher says.

Philipps' research into the lives of these veterans turned criminals is phenomenal. From interviews with these men and the people in their lives, he depicts them with great sympathy, evoking their frustrations overseas and their lack of direction upon returning home. One of the most compelling stories is that of Kenneth Eastridge, one of the men involved in Kevin Shields' murder. Philipps traces Eastridge's life from his tragic childhood to his incarceration for his part in Shields' murder. Through it all, Eastridge seems to be as much a victim as Shields; he wasn't trained to deal with the carnage of war, and he fell through the cracks in the Army's psychiatric care.

But Philipps' look at the overall issue of combat stress, though equally compassionate, is troubling. Philipps advocates the use of the term "Combat Stress Injuries," (CSI) as used by Dr. William Nash, a senior Navy psychiatrist who worked in the Sunni Triangle. Similar to sports injuries, Combat Stress Injuries "vary widely in type and severity." Classifying the results of combat stress as an injury instead of a disorder is supposedly "an important first step to healing because it lets soldiers know that there is a path to recovery."

Though PTSD has been in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, since 1980, "Combat Stress Injury" is not in the DSM. As such, it does not have the same type of guidelines for diagnosis that a mental disorder has. Dr. Nash's definition of CSI is much broader than PTSD, making CSI easier to diagnose and a broader problem.

This type of "conceptual redefinition" happened before with bipolar disorder as outlined in Mania: A Short History of Bipolar Disorder by David Healy. There's no reason to believe that the same profit drive that Healy sees as behind the expanding diagnosis of bipolar disorder is fueling the expanded definition of combat stress-related disorders, but when medications used to treat Combat Stress Injuries produce side effects such as paranoia, psychosis and depression, diagnosis needs strict guidelines.

Though Philipps tells us that many of the veterans he met in his research were "kind, law-abiding, and selfless," there are parts of Lethal Warriors where Philipps seems to indicate that, unlike PTSD, Combat Stress Injuries affect every veteran. When describing how long veterans with CSI can go without showing symptoms, he says that the "wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have hidden dangerously unstable vets all over the country, like 155 shells, just waiting to go off."

If opinions like that get around, all veterans will be considered ticking time bombs who might explode in a murderous rage at any given moment. Needless to say, this kind of stereotyping won't make the lives of veterans any easier. Thanks to the good intentions of a few psychiatrists, whatever a veteran can offer society has now been invalidated by a new term that defines every man or woman who faced combat as psychologically "injured."

Philipps' depictions of the toll the war takes on these suffering soldiers are often moving, and his prose is strong. If only he'd taken the same care in his analysis, readers might have been left with a true portrait of combat stress disorders. Instead, we're left with an anti-war polemic about the "true cost of war."

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Lewis Manalo

Freelance writer, book buyer, and former combat engineer in the 82nd Airborne

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