Blurring the Boundaries of War: PTSD in American Foreign Policy Discourse

Adam B. Lerner

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Though psychic trauma may be an essential part of the human condition, in recent decades its interpretation as PTSD has had important political consequences. This article examines both the political roots of the PTSD diagnosis and the disorder’s subsequent impacts on American foreign policy discourse. It draws on a mixed-methods approach, including historical analysis of PTSD’s development and quantitative and qualitative analysis of presidential papers, presidential debates and the congressional record from the last fifty years. Its chief findings are twofold. First, even though PTSD was added to the DSM in 1980, American leaders only began commonly referencing the disorder during the 2008 presidential cycle, more than half a decade into the War on Terror. Second, critical discourse analysis reveals that increased attention to PTSD has contributed to a blurring of important spatiotemporal lines around the concept of war, extending its consequences into an unknown future
and outside the warzone. This erosion has profound normative consequences,
considering how it similarly blurs the pivotal ethical distinction between victim and perpetrator. These findings not only elucidate an evolution that has taken place in American foreign policy, but also speak to the more general theoretical challenges of war trauma.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPerspectives on Politics
Early online date22 Dec 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Dec 2020

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