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PTSD and Literature Review of Books that Aid in Coping

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/29/2011

A PTSD and literature review of useful and insightful books that can help you understand, manage, and recover from the disorder. It is beneficial to sufferers and the people who care about them.

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    Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    Bombing in Dresden In this PTSD and literature review of works related to it, we'd be remiss not to mention fiction which can be a lot easier for combat veterans to identify with and thus find the vehicle of understanding and healing they need to deal with if effectively. All of the literature we recommend here was created by authors who experienced the full weight of war and its aftermath. Therefore, it is often easier to find the truth speaking in these stories even though paradoxically, we find it in fiction.

    Fiction can be a cathartic balm for healing wounds and putting things in perspective to help deal with psychological demons, especially when the works have been created by combat veterans who experienced the nature of war in all its violence, contradictions, and suppressed grief.

    Learning that you are not alone and finding a way to laugh at yourself and the unbalanced world at large is a positive step in the right direction. Kurt Vonnegut was a World War II veteran, captured at the Battle of the Bulge and sent to a POW camp in Dresden when the allies bombed the area which created fires that killed an estimated 10,000 people. The graphic images (like the one shown to the right of the bombing of Dresden) that soldiers see leave indelible marks. His satirical novel Slaughterhouse Five was named after the meat locker he and other POWs huddled in while the bombing of Dresden took place. The method that the main character uses to try and reintegrate provides a cautionary tale but combat vets with PTSD can easily identify with the dark satire.

    Image courtesy of

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    Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

    The seminal novel capturing the absurdity inherent in war, Catch 22, was written by Joseph Heller. Heller had been a World War II fighter pilot and flew 60 combat missions. In some ways, when you enter the military, you say good bye to all vestiges of logic and reasoning. Paradoxical rules and constant, senseless scenarios are part of the job. For instance, in one of the Forward Operating Bases (FOB) that we were stationed at in Bagdad, fires were constantly burning plastics and everything else close to our living area which undoubtedly put all sorts of toxins in the air we breathed. Smokers had a little alcove outside the door that was nowhere near where anyone lived in the modified chicken shack that was our FOB. The open-air-alcove had a ceiling that was reinforced with sandbags since we were mortared every single day.

    Yet the brass came down with a rule that smokers had to move out 50 feet from the building under the desert sky that was filled with toxins far more deadly than second hand smoke, not to mention the mortars that would drop down on easy targets. Yet Phillip Morris never recognized us for our dedication to their cigarettes which put us in double jeopardy. Heller’s novel points out that things like that are par for the course and captures the damned if you do and damned if you don't predicaments you often find serving in war.

    For folks with PTSD, trying to regain a sense of humor despite all the blackness and grief is an important undertaking and a step toward healing as there is a lot of truth to the old adage that laughter is the best medicine. If we can rekindle our sense of humor, we can find the light again.

    Catch 22 provides a vehicle to see that we really were exposed to insane situations, and in seeing that we realize we need to find a pathway back to mental wellness, and realize it will take some time. Dark humor is a treasured favorite of war veterans because it helps cope with the reality of ruminating about the endless tragedy, rage, and sorrow which are all common signs of PTSD.

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    Our PTSD and literature review continues with more good books on post traumatic stress disorder in novel form such as The Things They Carried by Joseph Heller, a former World War II fighter pilot. Employing dark humor that most combat veterans come to appreciate and identify with, this novel clearly demonstrates the extreme difficulties some combat veterans experience upon coming home after they've witnessed the horrific nature of war. Finally, our list would not be complete without mentioning books on spirituality. They too, might never mention PTSD, yet the healing process requires an element of spirituality, no matter where you find it.
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    All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

    All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, is also a poignant account of war and homecoming by a German soldier in World War I. This is an important addition to our PTSD and literature review because the main character's sadness and the social distance he experiences after returning home are clearly signs of PTSD long before it was ever even called that. And this helps shatter the stigma in much the same way that Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (highlighted in the first article in this series) helped do.

    Remarque's account of the abysmal fighting in the trenches portrays the realities that the combatants and the innocents caught up in it truly know. Modern day Basic Training in the U.S. Army, at least for the infantry, entails marching to and from everywhere chanting “trained to kill, kill I will." That phrasing was designed specifically to instill a belief that it’s almost a foregone conclusion, a prophecy of sorts. Experts in psychology were consulted in the last few decades to make it easier for soldiers to pull the trigger and studies have shown that these training and indoctrination methods are successful. So it is difficult for soldiers to look upon our enemies as humans with mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, hopes, dreams, and feelings just like us. It would have been very hard for us to do what we had to do if such thoughts were at the forefront of our consciousness when engaged in mortal combat.

    This is one of those thinly veiled books on post traumatic stress disorder that paints a clear picture that this is, in fact, the case while pointing out the sometimes futile and insanely violent nature of war, and the difficulty for the combatants in contending with all that happened once they return from it.

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    The Things They Carried

    The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is also an excellent collection of stories written by an infantry grunt in the Vietnam War with first-hand combat knowledge of PTSD. From these stories, we can see the tragedy on the home front, as one is about a veteran who takes his life because the weight of PTSD is too great. Unfortunately he never had exposure to the benefits of PTSD support groups. O’Brien’s brilliantly written efforts have gone a long way toward enlightening the public about all these issues and the need for us as a society to make sure vets get the assistance they need for coping.

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    Books and Literature on Spirituality

    C8 (2) Finally, there is the need for restoring the soul and spiritual element in a person endeavoring to overcome PTSD. Our PTSD and literature review roundup would not be complete without mentioning works in this category. In our clinical society this is often overlooked, yet is a critical component in restoring peace in the ones who experience the darkest depths of humanity.

    In war, the value of life is often diminished, and things like survival guilt lead some to thinking they should have been the ones who didn’t get to come back. There are far too many tragic and avoidable suicides as a result of PTSD. I won’t recommend specific books here, as there is a wide spectrum of beliefs and a great many paths to proverbial salvation. But it’s important to grab on to something to believe in, to make use of a power greater than ourselves that can succeed in restoring equanimity, when all other human efforts seem to fail. Even if it's just finding the tranquility in nature, where the splendor of this world has been left unharmed by some of the darker aspects of mankind. I wish you or your loved ones all the best in achieving recovery and peace. I hope some of these books will help in that effort, and please drop us a line in the comment box if you know of any books to recommend yourself.

    Image courtesy of the author

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    Mental Health Bookstore:

    Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming by Jonathan Shay, M.D, PH.D.

    Top Ten Books on PTSD @