Military Wire: ‘Shell Shock’ — A ‘faction’ novel that will make you think

Michael Schindler
Michael Schindler

It’s summer time. And while I could certainly report on the failed efforts and initiatives of Congress or which presidential hopefuls really have veterans’ initiatives at heart, I’m pausing that drama to bring you information on something far more intriguing to me at the moment — Dr. Steve Stahl’s “Shell Shock.”

His debut novel, Shell Shock (Harley House Press, May 2015) is a superb blend of fact and fiction (faction) that examines the effects of war’s destruction on both the battlefield and in the soldier’s mind. The fast-paced novel is based on real events dating from WWI to the present — and the fiction parts of the novel are cleverly interwoven into the factual parts of the story, creating what some could argue are conspiracy theories…that actually seem plausible.

The novel introduces the reader to the famous Stanford psychiatrist, Dr. Gus Conrad, (who seems quite similar to the author Dr. Stahl). Conrad uncovers a secret military group formed during WWI to celebrate heroism and eliminate cowardice through unspeakable means — execution.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term shell shock, this is the historical term for what is today known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Back in WWI, shell shock was viewed as a mental weakness and a form of cowardice. The treatment for such weakness ranged from aggressive mental therapy, to shock therapy, to execution. Today, some argue that this view has yet to change (the methods have…or have they?), especially since the Army invests most of its efforts on “resiliency” training, suggesting that one can become mentally tough and avoid PTSD altogether.

Shell Shock sheds light on the true story of Private Harry Farr, a real character who served in the British Army during WWI and was executed after being treated for shell shock. Subsequently, his daughter uncovered the treatment of her father by the British Army once records from WWI were made public, 75 years following the end of the war. She tirelessly lobbied for his pardon well into her 90s and ultimately achieved this for him and 305 others who suffered from shell shock and were ultimately executed for cowardice. A memorial has been erected in Great Britain in their honor.

The historical parts of the novel are absolutely fascinating — and intrigue mounts when the story suggests that the “secret military group” was reinstated and responsible for the increase in today’s veteran and military suicides. The uncovering of the secret group causes the main character, Dr. Gus Conrad, to run for his life while he works aggressively to change the course of modern military psychiatry.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Steve Stahl, and he is far from a conspiracy theorist. Aside from being truly committed to the betterment of our troops, he is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and has written 43 books on the subject of PTSD. His textbooks have sold well over 1 million copies internationally. As an expert on PTSD, Dr. Stahl is in demand to speak on the subject at venues all over the world and he recently appeared on NBC speaking on PTSD in soldiers returning to Fort Hood, another locale of his debut novel.

Our interview covered not only his book but his suggestions on how to combat the psychiatric war wounds of the war fighter — a number he suggests are 10 times greater than battle casualties. His suggestions are compelling — and you’ll need to read the book to discover what those are.

Bottom line:  Shell Shock is definitely worth the read. It is entertaining, educational…and thought-provoking. War is a last-resort effort to deal with evil that knows no other means but that of the sword — men and women in this country will answer that call. It is the responsibility of this country and its government to deal with the outcomes of this commitment in a way that is honorable and seamless. Something that Dr. Stahl suggests has room for improvement.

— By Michael Schinder

Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.” He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.

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