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Response to Review of Psychological Trauma and the Legacies of the First World War

Our thanks to Ryan Ross for his thoughtful engagement with various of the essays in our two edited volumes, and for his stimulating comments on historical ethics, methodology as well as future directions in research. Readers should judge for themselves the extent to which they accept the reviewer’s opinions, not least by reference to our introductory essays in both collections. Here we can briefly address a few of the wider issues raised.

First, as stated in our introduction to Psychological Trauma and the Legacies of the First World War, one purpose in developing these two collections was to highlight the work of a diverse group of scholars building in different ways on Micale and Lerner’s Traumatic Pasts, and to move the conversation forward with analysis of new sites and more intimate perspectives. We also wanted to synthesize some of the exciting new research that has moved beyond medical constructs of trauma (Micale and Lerner’s original focus) and into subjective, diverse individual understandings and memories. The studies we present recognise, often in very different ways, that medical and military diagnoses focused narrowly on clinical, political and economic categorizations. The next step, it seems to us, is a reconstruction of the more elusive, nuanced personal understandings and recollections of trauma that have until now evaded historical inquiry. On the evidence of the work we have collected it is clear that historians and scholars from diverse fields have already set about this this task in resourceful, sometimes surprising ways. The purpose of our collections is not, then, a definitive view, but an interim analysis of current progress. Clearly we should also reflect on these innovations to test the limits of trauma as an historical concept.

Second, yes, of course, highlighting subjectivities and identifying agency poses unique challenges. The question arises as to whether ‘the tools of social history (with its emphasis on identity, experience and agency) can create sufficient critical distance between academic history and medical science’. There are no simple answers here, but in our opinion empirical social history has already well proven its ability to illuminate the personal lives of women and men, in this case traumatized citizens and soldiers attempting to shape their own medical and social narratives and to critique categorizations imposed by institutionally entrenched medics. Indeed, one of the great achievements of social and cultural history (both matter to our approach) is their increasing sharpened focus on the small scale, the intimate and the everyday. Certainly there are limits, certainly caution serves its purpose, but following Jay Winter’s Remembering War we believe greater attention to subjective traumatic memories, especially as revealed in ego-documents, offers a glimpse into how individuals and groups perceived trauma.

Third, on difficulties trying to ‘navigate the political and ethical considerations’ that stem from historical trauma studies, in particular the dangers of generating a ‘hierarchy of trauma’: we note in our introduction to Psychological Trauma that this is certainly not our goal. Instead of categorizing traumatic experiences of men/women, the physically/psychologically damaged, combat/home fronts, our intention is to explore particularities in trauma representation and memory. Hence the attention, for example, to recent research on the children of traumatized veterans, on doctors as products of trauma and dehumanization, and on civilians (in particular women) who institutionally and clinically were often marginalized. These new focal points illuminate a diversity and subjectivity of traumatic experiences, not a hierarchy of victimhood.

One final point. Yes, PTSD (in particular) is potentially a colonizing concept. Yes, there are historical, geographical and cultural variations in the conceptualisation (and non-conceptualisation) of trauma. It is exactly for these reasons, as in our two collections, that we need to investigate particular traumatic pasts. It is exactly for these reasons that we need much more empirical, comparative, broad scale research. Without such research, and without the clarification of accompanying methodological debates, we can never map the historical varieties or boundaries of trauma.