Memory disturbances and dissociative amnesia in war veterans

March 13th, 2015

The following articles provide compelling scientific evidence in support of the phenomena of dissociation and recovered memory in war veterans. In addition to supporting the phenomenon in general, these articles also counter the argument that recovered memory is (a) no more than a recent cultural “fad” and (b) specific to false accusers of sexual abuse.

Elliott, D. M. (1997). Traumatic events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the general population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 811-820. (UCLA Medical Center, Child Abuse Crisis Center, Torrance, CA.)

Abstract: A random sample of 724 individuals from across the United States were mailed a questionnaire containing demographic information, an abridged version of the Traumatic Events Survey (DM Elliott, 1992), and questions regarding memory for traumatic events. Of these, 505 (70%) completed the survey. Among respondents who reported some form of trauma (72%), delayed recall of the event was reported by 32%. This phenomenon was most common among individuals who observed the murder or suicide of a family member, sexual abuse survivors, and combat veterans. The severity of the trauma was predictive of memory status, but demographic variables were not. The most commonly reported trigger to recall of the trauma was some form of media presentation (i.e., television show, movie), whereas psychotherapy was the least commonly reported trigger.

Sargant, W., & Slater, E. (1941, June). Amnesic Syndromes in War. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 34(12), 757-764.

Abstract: Loss of memory is much commoner in soldiers in wartime than in civilian practice in peace. From the previous records of our patients, it seems that the condition is often overlooked in civilian life; in the Army a stricter routine and discipline make this impossible. Attention in the past has been mainly directed to states of fugue, and civilian practice suggests that behind these there often lies a criminal act or a situation from which an immediate, even though an illusory, escape is desired. Cases occurring in war, however, indicate that other causes, such as terror, bomb blast and exhaustion, may produce not only fugues both at the time and subsequently, but also large gaps retrospectively in the patient’s memory of the past.

van der Hart, O., Brown, P., & Graafland, M. (1999, February). Trauma-induced dissociative amnesia in World War I combat soldiers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 33(1), 37-46. (Department of Clinical Psychology and Health Psychology, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.)

Abstract: OBJECTIVE: This study relates trauma-induced dissociative amnesia reported in World War I (WW I) studies of war trauma to contemporary findings of dissociative amnesia in victims of childhood sexual abuse. METHOD: Key diagnostic studies of post-traumatic amnesia in WW I combatants are surveyed. These cover phenomenology and the psychological dynamics of dissociation vis-à-vis repression. RESULTS: Descriptive evidence is cited for war trauma-induced dissociative amnesia. CONCLUSION: Posttraumatic amnesia extends beyond the experience of sexual and combat trauma and is a protean symptom, which reflects responses to the gamut of traumatic events.

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