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Sleeping Soldiers and the War for the Mind

“New Soldier Asleep.” Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.

The language of sleep, dreams and, especially, awakening permeated the radical movements of the post–World War II era and reflected a commitment to a politics of consciousness. Antiwar veterans, like other movement activists, used sleep states—nightmares and insomnia, dreams and waking—to recount their experiences and rouse their listeners. For radical veterans, however, the language of sleep had special significance as it spoke directly and back to a history of military experimentation that employed sleeping soldiers to produce new knowledge about the mind. If we want to corral the various meanings of sleep as they pertain to postwar social movements and better understand the historicity of Cold War sleep practices, the sleep of soldiers is a good place to begin.

During World War II and in its immediate aftermath, military psychiatrists induced sleep in an effort to treat traumatized soldiers; in the process, they had a chance to investigate the impact of war on perception and identity. In later years, Vietnam veterans claimed the right to analyze themselves and repurposed psychiatric principles developed during earlier wars. Their efforts to redefine both sleep and trauma culminated when the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) fought the courts for the right to sleep in public as part of their weeklong demonstration named Operation Dewey Canyon III. The struggle between the psychiatric establishment and veteran war resisters, as it unfolds over the course of a generation, demonstrates that sleep is a site of conflict and a source of power, which allows us to root the meaning of sleep in the ways it has been manipulated, theorized, and retold.

During World War II, an epidemic of mental illness in the military helped to focus the fledgling field of psychology on the experiences of soldiers and made their sleep a special source of information. Experiments in drug-induced sleep, commonly used to treat traumatized soldiers, gave clinicians a chance to investigate the emotional effects of war. Clinicians employed two types of sleep treatment: deep sleep therapy and psychotherapy under sedation. Deep or “continuous” sleep therapy employed barbiturates to put soldiers to sleep in the hope that they would awaken restored and calm. Easing traumatized soldiers into sleep that would last for days and sometimes weeks, psychiatrists (as well as physicians, nurses, and battlefield medics) used the regenerative properties of rest to rehabilitate—or, as they put it, “salvage”—the soldier so that he would be ready to return to combat.

Psychotherapy under sedation, also referred to as “narcoanalysis” or “narcosynthesis,” used the same drugs to produce not deep but twilight sleep. The patient received a barbiturate injection of sodium amytal or sodium pentothal that set him on the path to sleep. When it worked well, the drug loosened the soldier’s tongue, stripping away his inhibitions. As the patient grew sleepy, he spoke more openly about his thoughts and feelings, and became more receptive to the prompts, questions, and suggestions of the therapist. During this brief, unguarded phase, the therapist encouraged the patient to relive the foundational trauma as if it were happening again in the present moment and, in doing so, produced a cathartic release of repressed emotion. Such experiments in sedation were conceived during wartime as a military necessity and in the war’s aftermath as a means of helping veterans readjust to civilian life.

Clinicians went to great lengths to create the experience of reliving, and when a patient could not or would not remember traumatic events, therapists resorted to role playing and dramatic simulation to provoke the recurrence of traumatic memories. Psychiatrists who practiced narcoanalysis were frank about the fact that they sometimes suggested fictions in order to cure a soldier’s traumatic symptoms. British psychiatrist William Sargant, who treated soldiers during World War II and went on to study brainwashing, observed that “quite imaginary situations to abreact the emotions of fear or anger could be suggested to a patient under drugs.”[1] Walking a fine line between memory retrieval and memory production, practitioners agreed that imagined experiences worked as well as and sometimes even better than actual experiences to produce the desired effects.

Inducing deep and twilight sleep in clinical settings, military psychiatrists tried to heal traumatized soldiers. In the process, they pioneered techniques of brainwashing that would weaponize both memory and sleep. Experiments in brainwashing, which treated identity as inherently malleable, had deep roots in clinical efforts to treat mental illness. For example, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–sponsored program in “psychic driving,” developed by Scottish-born American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron at Allan Memorial Hospital in Montreal, combined drugs, prolonged sleep, and recorded sound as part of a single system used to destroy, and then (hypothetically) rebuild, the mind. Cameron’s program, which began as an attempt to cure schizophrenia, used sodium amytal to put his patients to sleep for extended periods. While in a deep sleep state, or “clinical coma,” a patient’s behavior would be repatterned through the use of tape recordings, drawn from her life history, that sometimes played for as long as twenty hours a day. Combining the techniques of deep sleep therapy and psychotherapy under sedation, Cameron used his patients’ words to deconstruct their habits and personality.

By the 1960s, the assumption behind psychological warfare—that the mind could be unmade and restructured—as well as its signal techniques (drugs, trance states, interrogation) were democratized by a counterculture that took this malleability as an occasion for utopian self-reform that went by the name of “consciousness-raising.” Veterans who joined the VVAW routinely referred to military indoctrination as a type of brainwashing and described their activism as an effort to deprogram themselves. If, as Joe Urgo put it, the VVAW wanted to “rid itself of a whole lot of our brainwashing process,” veterans did so by “remolding and changing” themselves.[2] The interest of antiwar veterans in politicizing forms of consciousness stemmed, on one hand, from their time in the military, where they experienced indoctrination that amounted to a kind of thought control, and, on the other hand, from their engagement with an activist counterculture.

A case in point: in December 1970, the VVAW began holding “rap sessions” in New York City. In these informal discussions, modeled on the consciousness-raising groups of second wave feminists, veterans talked about their difficulties returning to civilian life and their experiences in Vietnam. They invited radical therapists, including the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, to join in these difficult conversations. Lifton was eager to participate in the rap groups not least because it gave him a chance to revisit research on traumatized veterans that he had conducted while serving as a psychiatrist for the U.S. Air Force. During the summer of 1953, Lifton traveled by ship from Inchon to San Francisco with American soldiers who been held captive in Korea. On board the U.S.S. General Pope, he conducted interviews with ninety men and led twelve group therapy sessions. The military feared that while imprisoned some of these soldiers had been brainwashed and turned against their country; travel by ship provided both psychiatrists and military investigators time to study and examine men who had been subjected to the methods of thought control. In the informal setting of the rap session, Lifton hoped to converse with veterans unencumbered by the institutional authority that had, in his view, inhibited Korean war veterans from speaking openly.

In a letter to Lifton, VVAW founding member Jan Barry explained that the rap sessions were the group’s response to military policies that resulted in both “war crimes and veterans’ nightmares.”[3] As Barry’s formulation suggests, veterans wanted to unearth traumatic memories in order to develop a critique of U.S. militarism. From the beginning, rap sessions were entangled in a broader effort to redistribute knowledge, and the power that goes along with it, about the effects of war. These sessions included therapists as participants while rejecting the hierarchies of therapeutic dialogue. In a variety of contexts, the language of sleep allowed veterans to dramatize not only the devastating effects of a war that generated “veterans’ nightmares,” but also the dawning of a new antiwar perspective. At the VVAW’s Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit, veteran Allan Akers observed, “Once you come back from the Nam, your awareness of not only the Vietnam War but of the government is fantastic. And you say, ‘Hey, wow, you mean this is what I’ve been asleep under all this time. Jesus Christ, someone hit me with a baseball bat. You know, I’ve been asleep!’”[4]

During and after World War II, the reexperiencing of a traumatic event was a clinical goal, and therapists found innovative ways to encourage veterans to relive their war experiences in twilight sleep. In the Vietnam era, however, such intrusive recollections, which took the form of recurrent nightmares and the waking memories called “flashbacks,” were perceived not as a way to cure trauma but as the veteran’s most durable and difficult symptom. Eventually “recurrent painful intrusive recollections” were codified as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.[5] Antiwar veterans claimed such recollections as tools in the effort to stop the war. In rap sessions they recollected, discussed, and interpreted their memories of war. Then they publicized these memories through testimony and guerilla performance. In each instance, they used the symptoms of traumatic memory to document the institutional production of war atrocity and build political community.

Activist veterans repurposed the history of military experimentation by reclaiming their own traumatic memories and putting them to work in the service of war resistance. Their efforts culminated when on one important occasion they refused to be identified with painful memories and instead demanded the right to sound sleep. In the spring of 1971, the VVAW fought the courts for permission to sleep on the National Mall as part of Operation Dewey Canyon III. When the Supreme Court denied their petition, veterans decided to break the law by sleeping anyway. On the night of their sleep-in, the cast of the musical Hair stopped by their encampment, and together veterans and Broadway performers sang “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded two years earlier by John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their Montreal bed-in. Turning good rest into a form of dissent, hundreds of veterans fell asleep that night wondering whether or not they would be arrested by daybreak. Having effectively politicized therapeutic concepts and principles, they briefly abandoned them and for a moment the sleep of soldiers, untethered from a history of military experiment, signified not the emotional aftermath of war but rather the prospect of peace.

Franny Nudelman is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Carleton University in Ottawa, where she teaches U.S. culture and history. This post originates from her most recent book Fighting Sleep: The War for the Mind and the U.S. Military. She is also the author of John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, and coeditor, with Sara Blair and Joseph Entin, of Remaking Reality: US Documentary Culture after 1945. 


[1] William Sargant, Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing (Cambridge, 1957), 17–18.

[2] Richard Stacewicz, Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York, 1997), 232.

[3] Robert Jay Lifton, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans, Neither Victims nor Executioners (New York, 1973), 75.

[4] Winter Soldier, directed by the Winterfilm Collective (1972; Millarium Zero, 2006), DVD.

[5] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed. (DSM III; American Psychiatric Association, 1980).

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