The Guilt-Free Soldier

New Science Raises the Specter of a World Without Regret

Romo and veterans like him have taken it upon themselves to use their experiences to teach peace. But veterans torn apart by PTSD don't have a choice about being Exhibit A in the case against war. "When you see what can happen to a young person, it passes on in a very real way, not in a history-class sense, that reality of what war and blood really is," he says. Who are we to impose this emotionalalbatross on soldiers? As a nation, we elect our leaders. It seems unjust to make veterans a special class to suffer for our sins in wrongheaded wars, or pay a continuing price for victory in the "good" ones.

"That's a heavy burden to put on people to preserve the morality you're talking about," says Dr. Roger K. Pitman of Harvard University, who's leading the propranolol study in people fresh from car accidents. "By that same logic, if you could make a lightweight bulletproof garment for soldiers we still shouldn't do it. For moral reasons we ought to make them able to be shot, to preserve the cost of war, the deterrent to war. But we work to prevent our soldiers from being shot, and I say there are mental bullets flying around there, too."

There's another context to be considered as well, McGaugh notes, one that was made clear by the recent demand from representatives Charles B. Rangel of New York and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan that we reinstate the draft to address racial and economic inequities. "Who are our soldiers?" McGaugh asks. "They are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Very few of their daddies go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton."

But PTSD doesn't result solely from war. When Kass first heard of McGaugh's research, at a presentation in October, he had a far more intimate horror in mind: rape. "At fraternity parties they'll be popping Ecstasy at night and forgetfulness in the morning," he growls.

The victim would be an obvious candidate for an anti-trauma drug. Would dulling her emotional memories of the event help her to endure the lengthy, perhaps humiliating, pursuit of justice through the courts, or would it rob her of the righteous anger she'll need to persevere and perhaps the empathy to later help other victims? The rapist is part of the equation too. If his victim stabbed him in her own defense, no doubt he would be bodily healed. No physician could refuse to treat him. "If such a person had PTSD stemming from the circumstances of the act, he could be a candidate [for therapy]," Pitman says.

How much of our remorse do we have a right to dispense with, and how much exists in service to others, a check on our worst impulses? "Each experience we have changes our brain and in some sense alters who we are," says Dr. Joseph E. LeDoux of NYU, who studies emotional memory. "The more significant the experience, the more the alteration. We have to decide as a society how far we want to go in changing the self. Science will surely give us new and powerful ways of doing this. Individuals may want more change than society wants to permit."

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