Book review: Evil Hours - a compassionate history of PTSD from Odysseus to Iraq

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm


The Evil Hours
by David J. Morris
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Humans have always been transformed by rape, warfare and other traumatic events, but the ways they respond - and to what degree they recover - is a highly individual matter. How to live through trauma's aftermath remains, in many ways, still as much a mystery as the mind itself.

David Morris, a war journalist and former US Marines officer, delivers a compassionate examination of post-traumatic stress in The Evil Hours, whose title is derived from the writings of first world war poet and author Siegfried Sassoon. The book has already cut a wide swathe in the world of war veterans and others.

Even readers knowledgeable about the wave of PTSD diagnoses and treatments among Iraq and Afghanistan war vets will find rich historical and cultural context in Morris' work. Understanding of the affliction has evolved considerably since the days of Trojan war veteran Odysseus, whose post-war odyssey Morris calls "history's greatest road trip". And yet, it seems, we are no closer to certainty about how healing occurs.

Post-traumatic stress may be broadly defined as a kind of homelessness, suggests a first world war historian cited by Morris. In military terms, it is a kind of fighter's limbo between the battlefield and the society left behind. It is also "a disease of time", according to anthropologist Allan Young, another of Morris' many sources. This was the central theme in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim becomes "unstuck in time".

People damaged by trauma may revisit the events, block them out for years, or see them infiltrate the present. These effects mark a voyage through a kind of valley of death towards the sunlight.

Morris was a correspondent in Baghdad in 2007 and was a passenger in a military Humvee that was blown up by a hidden bomb - an event he remembers viewing in a disassociated state. It was the beginning of a journey that led to the writing of The Evil Hours.