The recent, shocking discovery that the Soviet Union forcibly lobotomized thousands of World War II veterans when the battle-weary soldiers could not cope with the post traumatic stress created by the horrors of war reaffirms our convictions about the dehumanizing effects of totalitarian government.
Wait…did I say the Soviet Union? My mistake. It was our government that did this, and sent letters to their families like this one:
From the Wall Street Journal this week:
“The U.S. government lobotomized roughly 2,000 mentally ill veterans—and likely hundreds more—during and after World War II, according to a cache of forgotten memos, letters and government reports unearthed by The Wall Street Journal. Besieged by psychologically damaged troops returning from the battlefields of North Africa, Europe and the Pacific, the Veterans Administration performed the brain-altering operation on former servicemen it diagnosed as depressives, psychotics and schizophrenics, and occasionally on people identified as homosexuals. The VA doctors considered themselves conservative in using lobotomy. Nevertheless, desperate for effective psychiatric treatments, they carried out the surgery at VA hospitals spanning the country, from Oregon to Massachusetts, Alabama to South Dakota. The VA’s practice, described in depth here for the first time, sometimes brought veterans relief from their inner demons. Often, however, the surgery left them little more than overgrown children, unable to care for themselves. Many suffered seizures, amnesia and loss of motor skills. Some died from the operation itself.”
This is beyond shocking, but it compels perspective. The Wall Street Journal’s exhaustive report, which you can read here, does not show U.S. doctors or the military motivated by diabolical ideas or warped values, but by desperation, well-meaning misjudgments, ignorance, and dire circumstances they did not know how to handle. There was no enmity directed to these heroes; this was the Veterans Administration. Yet these men were, as we see it today, the victims of atrocities. This terrible chapter in our history does not mean the the U.S. Government was (or is) evil, just as other, equally terrible conduct—slavery, the treatment of Native American tribes, Jim Crow,child labor, sexism, homophobia, the internment of Japanese-Americans, even the Tuskegee syphilis study—were not necessarily the product of diseased minds and vile character. Ethics is a progression, and once a civilized society learns that what was once thought of as right was really very, very wrong, it seems so obvious that we often can’t imagine that those who engaged in the conduct didn’t know already, in their hearts and minds, that it was wrong too. Most of the time, however, they did not, and it is unfair to them for us to use hindsight bias and our current accumulated wisdom to condemn them.
It is unfair to ourselves as well. Future generations are certain to look back on some beliefs and practices that we thought were right and just with the same disgust and disbelief with which we now view the lobotomizing of our damaged WWII heroes.
I guarantee it.
Facts and Graphic: Wall Street Journal