At some point in a war, they'll need a futile gesture . . .

6th November 1998 at 00:00
EVERY so often students ask advice on joining up, and one never really knows quite what to say. It's all those recruiting ads, those that show chaps tumbling from choppers, faces blacked and weapons glinting in the moonlight. Never mind that the enemy probably looks just as fierce and capable; it isn't shown, which means it doesn't really exist. Or so youngsters seem to think. Fine, you observe, the bullets might miss - but what about the mental impact? "Nah," they laugh: "I'd manage." Which is where you might give them Shell Shock.

A series of three programmes that examine the incidence, nature and changing treatment of the psychological effects of battle, Shell Shock grimly chronicles the mental torment that long outlasts actual military conflict.

Minds the Dead have Ravished, the first programme, traces the condition to its source. It was on the mechanised battlefields of World War I that young, confident men first were transformed into the trembling, twitching wrecks seen in archive film. Some were even less lucky. Men temporarily deranged were shot for cowardice, while others were prematurely returned to battle. Many were driven near to madness as much by fear of being thought to have funked it as by the dread of enemy guns. The pressure to stick it out applied even to such as the 17-year-old platoon commander who, as an old man, recalls the numbing terror of the front.

In the desert campaign of World War II, it was the sight of British troops looting their dead countrymen that finally broke the poet Vernon Scannell, then 18: "I just couldn't take any more," he remembers in programme 2, Battle for the Mind. After walking 100 miles to Tripoli he was arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to three years' hard labour.

Another veteran, a bomb-aimer at 18, tells of being classified as LMF, "Lacking Moral Fibre", when he froze on a mission. Preferring the one-in-four chance of survival to obloquy and ostracism, he forced himself back into the war. The top brass would have approved. Concerned by the high rate of mental breakdown, some generals asked for their right to execute "deserters" to be restored.

Are we more tolerant today? Hardly: programme 3, Aftermath, shows that the macho culture of the armed forces still sees sensibility as cissiness. You don't talk about problems in the Army, says one hard nut, long haunted by a messy bayoneting in the Gulf War. After unsuccessfully attempting suicide he was charged with "conduct unbecoming a Guardsman".

"All the consequence of an enduring truth," sighs a professor of military psychology: "At the end of the day a soldier's business is killing, and the closer you are the more unpleasant it is."

Exactly: it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it - coincidentally (or maybe not), the attitude of careless youth. So pass the series to these innocents, along with a request to re-think. And remind them that impetuosity always comes at a price, but some mistakes are paid for in perpetuity.

Channel 4, November 8, "Minds the Dead Have Ravished"; November 15, "Battle for the Mind"; November 22, "Aftermath". All at 8 pm.

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