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DateOriginal Topic
12th February 2005The 2,000 yard stare
By Coll
Several years ago on reading a book about the Vietnam War this subject was mentioned, about soldiers who were in combat for a long period of time developing a look which showed no expression or emotion, due to the stress of battle and sights that they probably witnessed.

Although I'm not sure about such matters as this, apparently it was unlike post-traumatic-stress-disorder, as the men who had the '2,000 yard stare' could still function well, if not better, as a soldier, because somehow they had become part of the battlefield environment and were no longer distracted by any disturbing images they saw, almost fearless as they became fully-concentrated on their duty during a battle.

However, it was the 'human' in them that became hard to find, as they could not really relate to their fellow combatants and ended up isolating themselves, due to not being able
to function in an inactive role.

I would imagine this sort of condition happened in many battles over the years, including during the AZW.

12th February 2005Invader
Affectionless psychopathy I belive is what you're talking about. It's been well documented and psychologists looking into atypical behaviour and social development have discussed it in length. I'm pretty sure a google search would reveal more.
12th February 2005Paul Cubbin
The part of the soldier that is not required on the battlefield is locked away deep inside and consciousness is reserved for combat procedures. Humans have very strong survival instincts. Irrelevant brain and reaction time that may endanger the individual is simply removed from play. The problems occur when return to civilian life (or peacetime soldiering) fails to reverse the psychotic states and they jostle in an unbalanced state of mind. Professional soldiers tend to cope better with this than conscripts and reservists as the difference between the two lifestyles is not so extreme and the soldier is more prepared for the changes in state, although individual cases will obviously vary.
13th February 2005Michael Boyle

The term '2,000 (or 'thousand') yard stare' was first popularized during during WW II (by a Time/Life correspondent if I'm not mistaken) although it may originally have been used during the Great War (if not earlier). It referred to the un-focused aspect of the eyes and extreme inertia and was attributed to those kept too long on the line or who had recently experienced particularly brutal combat. Photographs of soldiers from both world wars as well as Viet Nam captured the effect hauntingly.

Due to the long exposures requiring posed photographs in early photography and the fact that early photographers were rarely present until well after battles, I've been unable to recognize 'The Stare' in Victorian era photographs. None the less I feel confident that it existed, though rarely commented upon due to the different more's of the time.

Although the term 'post-traumatic stress syndrome (or disorder)' technically refers to an inability of a soldier (Marine,airman,sailor) to readjust to non-combat situations the term does aptly describe the post-combat pyschological state for some. 'The Stare' can in fact be a precursor for PTSD.

Thankfully 'The Stare' is by no means universal and those afflicted are frequently brought back round by their mates (it's part of the post-combat drill of platoon officers and non-coms) by forcing them to focus on mundane things.(As shown in the "Zulu" scene by Lt.Chard's response to C/Sgt.Bourne's telling him that the men are tired.)

Those who couldn't be readily brought round would often respond after a period of rest and relaxation. The '2,000 yard stare' is in fact a state of shock and far from being able to function well the afflicted were hard pressed to function at all. If you couldn't get them out of the line you had to get them under cover. Everyone has a point beyond which they can not be pushed.


Affectionless psychopathy is considered an affect of the maternal deprivation hypothesis which theorizes that a child, if seperated from his mother in the first three years of life, will show behavioral problems. However this may not be wide of the mark for soldiers.

The idea behind basic military training is to tear down the individual to a child-like state and build them back up into a new family unit, officers and ncos taking the place of traditional mothers and fathers and one's fellow squaddies taking the place of siblings. (Not ,of course, to the total exclusion of reality.) After prolonged or particularly brutal combat where one witnesses the continuing deaths of one's surrogate family,especially within three years of birth (passing into the ranks) a case could be made for affectionless psychopathy.


Well stated. Perhaps you should become a historian! ( I only continue the jest because you've shown you appreciate them and seem more than capable of bearing up!)


13th February 2005Paul Cubbin
Michael - you soft soaper, you. You notice I try not to debate issues that are clearly over my head! If I continue to rub shoulders with my intellectual superiors and keep an open mind it can only help my understanding of this subject. Plus, us celebrated historians must stick together!
13th February 2005Coll

Thankyou for your detailed replies.

14th February 2005Invader
Gosh Michael, you do know your stuff. It's true that Bowlby and Klein (1987) looked into maternal deprivation and concluded it can lead to affectionless psychopathy.
I took the definition "The permanent lack of feeling for others" and thought it fitted this quite well. So much for my hopes to follow my A levels with a Psychology degree!
I'll start booking my retakes now!
14th February 2005Michael Boyle

Although psychology may not be a very high paying vocation (without a Doctorate) if you feel drawn to it by all means give it a go. The worse that can happen would be perhaps losing a few credits if you transfer your major.

Given the complex times in which we live I have a feeling that within a few years there may a great need for those who broaden the field of combat psychology.

Maybe you could even work the above analogy into a thesis!


14th February 2005Paul Cubbin
For anyone wanting to dip their toe in the water of combat psychology there is a book called 'The Face of Battle' (I forget the author) that covers the often bizarre actions and mental state of men under fire. It is fascinating and I now have no idea where I've put my copy!
14th February 2005Coll

I also have been aware of a couple of titles, but I guess they are less to do with mental state, more with the type of men involved in a battlefield situation.

The authors evade me but I'm sure the titles are as follows :-

Leadership in Combat. (a book studying the qualities a man needs to lead others into battle)

Hero or Coward. (a book studying how being in a battlefield situation can affect a man to either extreme)

However, I do think it has something to do with our individual characteristics and the way we all deal differently, mentally, with combat.

14th February 2005Coll
Further to the above

Hero or Coward : Pressures Facing the Soldier in Battle.
by Elmar Dinter.

I think this is the title that I mentioned.

Additionally, while looking for the above book, I found 2 interesting titles, although I don't know if they are any good.

Achilles in Vietnam : Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.
by Jonathan Shay.

Odysseus in America : Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.
by Jonathan Shay.

There probably are many titles on this subject, but maybe these are worth considering.

14th February 2005Paul Cubbin
As the British Army found out the hard way, fighting a guerilla-type war against a hidden enemy in jungle is possible the most wearing on the mind of a soldier. Thus they trained their jungle fighters extremely well to cope and prevail. In Vietnam unfortunately, US troops were often civilians just weeks before entering combat and were just not prepared. The short length of their service term also ensured that there was always a distinct lack of experienced men available, whilst inadequate 'cool down' thrust traumatised young lads back into civvy street.
14th February 2005Coll
There is a scene in Zulu where Chard is loading his revolver and even though he was functioning as an officer, giving orders making decisions, etc., unseen to others his hand was trembling very badly.

I mention this, as a watched Saving Private Ryan again last night and this same sort of incident was portrayed by Tom Hank's character, first being unnoticed by his men, but later in the film it was very much noticed by them and an uneasy silence occurred.

That is why I mentioned the leadership book above also, because for all they have specific qualities needed for officer material, battle stress takes its toll, but somehow, especially with the film last night, the soldiers appear surprised that their commander could also suffer the same physical or possible mental conditions as them, maybe thinking that in way an officer was incapable of such ailments.

This is why I find the mental state of each individual in a battlefield situation so fascinating as we all react so differently.

What makes a soldier unable to shoot, yet another almost 'lives for the fight'.

What makes a soldier confused and disorientated, yet another in the same situation thinks clearly and reacts accordingly.

It really is incredibly interesting and makes you ask yourself " What would I be like in this kind of environment ?."

The fact of the matter is that you would basically have to be there to find out and sometimes that is far too late.

14th February 2005Paul Cubbin
Coll - a telling point in 'Zulu' is when CSgt Bounre says, "Do your tunic up lad," to a nervous private in the firing line. A disciplined force is able to use such trivial routines to bring familiarity into a terrifying situation. When the human mind begins to lose many of its higher functions due to trauma it can be 'kept on track' by simple, seemingly pointless tasks.
14th February 2005Coll

I think it is when the percentage of men starting to waver at any point during a battle gets too high, the cohesion begins to falter, no matter what encouragement is given by any of the smaller percentage still 'in control'.

In a recent documentary about the Little Bighorn, it mentioned that troopers who had been in skirmish order, started to 'bunch up' for security, before being cut off and killed or breaking away and heading for other groups positioned elsewhere.

Bracing yourselves for a battle to begin, gives pause for thought and time to get 'organised' and concentrate on your duty.

However, when the battle begins and is ongoing, during which time men are falling, confusion, ranks becoming depleted, some breaking away, a reassuring word or someone to 'bring you back' to your senses, is less likely and you would be 'caught up' in the events around you, which, at the height of the battle would be almost surreal, the sights that you see, the noise, the horror, etc.,
I think in many cases you would feel like an onlooker rather than a participant, as the situation seems so unbelieveable you end up almost trance-like as you witness everything, but don't feel it is really happening, or else view it as a bad dream and try to escape from it, physically or mentally.

It was a zulu account from Isandlwana that mentioned 'soldiers covered their eyes' as they did not want to see death. This is a childlike action when you imagine a scared child covering their eyes with their hands and hope the 'bad thing' will go away, doing this they somehow feel they can't be seen.

There are so many elements involved, it is difficult to isolate and study them individually, but trying to at least understand how the brain responds to horrifying situations, as in a battlefield environment, is, at least, a good start.


14th February 2005Paul Cubbin
Coll - strange isn't it, the way that accounts of Isandlwhana mention a definite point in the action when it ceased to be a battle and became a rout. It sounds like the panic, the wavering, the fear in the British ranks reached a critical point and centuries of pride and steadfastness were swept away. Was it the terror of dying in such a brutal manner? Was it the completely alien surroundings? Who knows.
I do strongly think that of all the various causes for the disaster that have been discussed ad nauseam; the ammunition, the split command, the extended line (they are all factors), but the most important was the breakdown of order. Had the scattered units been able to act cohesively it would still probably have been a defeat, but perhaps not a total disaster. Just think what two companies formed into square around an ammunition wagon might have achieved. But those companies who still retained some cohesion were isolated and operating as effectively independent islands doomed to be swept away in the assegai tide.
14th February 2005Coll

You're right. It is very sad. Fighting over a long distance between 2 opposing armies, you have time to understand the initial stages of a battle, you can see the enemy, he can see you. Again, at Isandlwana, apparently the british soldiers were in good spirits as they thought the zulus were getting a right good beating as the volley firing tore into the zulu ranks, however, as the zulus continued to close in, suddenly everything became very serious and the true danger of the situation started to hit home - the zulus were not going to stop.

This is why accounts cover the closer combat more fully because it became more personal, you could see the faces of your enemy as they approached and, as they crashed into your lines, the hand-to-hand struggle began, of which, any survivors could not help but remember, I would imagine the rest of their lives and I can understand why.

The man you are fighting with you have to kill, not at a distance with a powerful rifle, but with a bayonet, or a knife, or even your bare hands, everything is more real, in the most traumatic way. The look in their eyes, the blood, as they take their last breath, all resulting from your need to survive and the necessity of their death. This sort of image would stay with you for evermore.

The accounts of the zulus at Isandlwana are more vivid, as we read them with the knowledge that the british soldiers they are describing were living the last moments of their life, which truly is emotional.

15th February 2005Paul Cubbin
Coll - funny how few bomber crews suffer from PTSD in relation to ground combat troops - they are probably responsible for many more deaths (including civilians) yet their removal from the enemy is a buffer. Someone I am aquainted with (but not able to identify, obviously) suffers no nightmares or doubts about their service record or the number of people they have killed. Only one incident keeps them awake occasionally, that of killing a terrorist using a knife. It was necessary to remain silent and the man had inadvertently stumbled into a static patrol and needed to be removed. War is really not a nice thing.
15th February 2005Coll

I think with bomber crews there can be a detachment from any sort of killing, as the planes fly mostly at high altitudes and their targets are buildings or bridges, etc., far below, so the real damage, regarding people, is unseen to them.

However, attacks by enemy fighters would affect them pretty badly, unless protected by their own fighter escort, the bomber's gunners are kept busy, many of the crews returning home with several of their colleagues dead or severely wounded.

The trouble with being in a plane, there is nowhere to hide, you are right there where everybody can see you, the flak exploding all around, constantly scanning the skies for any enemy planes speeding towards you, they must have felt like 'sitting ducks' while it seemed that everybody was taking a shot at them.

So I'm sure that some did indeed suffer some kind of trauma, although maybe less than the ground troops.

In the film Memphis Belle (I think it was called), as they were in radio contact with other planes, when another bomber had been badly hit and was breaking up as it nosedived, the other crews heard the screams of those inside.

Now that sound really would stay with you forever.

16th February 2005Richard
Another problem that affected Bomber Command was the fact that the crews were to an extent living and working from home. It must be strange to have flown over Germany, gone through all the flak and enemy fighters and then be at "home" a few hours later. Some of you may remeber the Kosovo bombing campaign, the Tornado crews flying from their home base of Bruggen in Germany. Alot of the crews were saying how surreal it felt to leave home in the morning plan a sortie, take off drop bombs on the enemy and then be home watching the TV with the wife and kids.