RADIO / After battle, a blitzkrieg in their heads

Click to follow
'THE MAN who has killed too much, the officer who has lost his men through error, the only survivor of a burning tank - they all present states of guilt and depression which can be psychotic in depth. Schizophrenic screens can be drawn over anguish too gross to be borne.' A solo violin mused to itself in an introspective, Elgarish way as the careful, compassionate voice talked on. He was describing the veterans of War in the Head (R4), those soldiers whose experience of battle had become too terrible to live with.

Many of them were sent to a converted asylum in the Midlands, a hospital where the treatment of shell-shocked and damaged men was pushing forward the front line of medicine towards the end of the Second World War. The Northfield Experiments aimed to 'recondition' them as quickly as possible in the hope of returning them to their units. Their methods were unconventional. At first, soldiers were offered two treatments. Some were injected with a 'truth drug' which rendered them unconscious but able to talk and, it was hoped, to unlock their memories of the appalling - one old boy recalled it affectionately as 'pardon my French, a cheap piss-up'. Others were given an early form of electro- convulsive therapy, brutal and extreme, from which they would return twitching, leaping and bucking, sometimes in a straitjacket: there were no affectionate memories of that.

Later, as the poor survivors of Burma came in, an even more controversial system was devised. On the principle that these people could not recover from their frozen isolation without expressing rage and grief, they were put into 'compulsory mourning'. They were deprived of light and company, fed on bread and water and encouraged to loose their pent-up anger and fury on the doctors imposing this new torture. Millicent Dewar, one of the psychiatrists at the hospital, still rages at the unfairness of this treatment. Her strong, slow voice faltered and then broke into sobs as she recalled one of these men, a boy of 27 or 28 who had arrived on her ward one night, toothless, tortured and dreadfully disturbed, looking as if he could have been 80. She still mourns for his lost youth all these years later, without compulsion.

Alastair Wilson wove twisted, broken and intertwined voices into a programme of great poignancy and reflectiveness, as patients and therapists talked about their days in this strange, 'non-fun Butlins'. Punctuated by echoing footsteps down long, empty corridors, they remembered the good, the bad and the terrifying. One old man talked gratefully of the woman who taught him to meditate his way out of trauma; another chuckled as he described the chap who thought he was Eisenhower and insisted that all his generals join him in the ward for nightly conferences; a third remembered the Art Hut, that 'muckheap of anarchy' where patients could paint, or sulk, or fight, or tear up each other's pictures - or whatever helped expiate the guilt of killing, or of not having been killed.

These eye-witnesses spoke reflectively, without interruption, until the end, when the psychiatrist was defending his work at Northfield. How much better and more creative we were, he said, than the Germans. 'What did the Germans do?' asked Wilson. The laconic reply brought the whole thing into focus. 'Shot 'em,' he said.