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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 December 2020

Abstract

Though psychic trauma may be an essential part of the human condition, in recent decades its interpretation as PTSD has had important political consequences. I examine both the political roots of the PTSD diagnosis and the disorder’s subsequent impacts on American foreign policy discourse. I draw 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. My chief findings are twofold. First, even though PTSD was added to the DSM in 1980, American leaders only began commonly referencing the disorder around 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 war zone. 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 conceptual challenges posed by war trauma.

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© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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Footnotes

*

Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/0CFNE7

I would like to thank Sean Fleming, Thomas Stubbs, Michelle Bentley, Laura Sjoberg, Lucas de Oliveira Paes, Tarak Barkawi, Yale Ferguson, two anonymous reviewers and the Editors at Perspectives on Politics for their insightful comments on drafts of this manuscript.

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