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What is Battle Fatigue?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term “battle fatigue” is used to refer to an acute stress reaction which sometimes appears in soldiers who have been in intense combat. Generally, the more intense the combat, the more likely a stress reaction will be. This stress reaction is temporary in nature and should not be confused with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition which sometimes manifests in people who have experienced trauma, including soldiers among many others.

Writings about war have documented the symptoms of battle fatigue for centuries. The stressed soldier may be tired, indecisive, and tense. Commonly dissociation from the surroundings, including other members of the unit, is observed, along with slowed reaction times. With rest away from the front, a soldier with battle fatigue can often make a full recovery, returning to psychological wellness within several days, at which point the soldier can be released to join his or her unit.

At various points in history, different terms have been used to describe the acute stress reactions experienced by soldiers and such reactions were treated as moral weakness, rather than legitimate psychological issues. Soldiers on the front in the First World War who experienced stress reactions, for example, were sometimes shot for malingering or accused of bringing down morale. Approaches to this issue have since changed as researchers have recognized the psychological toll which combat trauma can take and have taken steps to address battle fatigue and other issues related to stress.

Battle fatigue interferes with a soldier's ability to perform and can also contribute to breakdowns in unit cohesion. Soldiers need to receive treatment for these reasons in addition to the more fundamental need to allow the soldier to recover psychologically from combat stress. Treatment approaches vary depending on the military and the conflict, but usually involve moving a soldier behind the lines to rest and receive counseling until a counselor can certify the soldier as fit for duty or recommend a more extended period of recovery and treatment. Counselors are careful to screen their charges to avoid situations in which people who are not able to return to duty are mistakenly released back into their units.

Combat stress reaction, the term which the military prefers to use, is a serious issue and many militaries have dedicated researchers to studying the phenomenon in more detail. Researchers have also examined different approaches to treatment to identify approaches which are effective for both soldiers and their units. Experiencing battle fatigue does not necessarily mean that a soldier will go on to develop PTSD.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Sep 14, 2013

@donasmrs-- Some symptoms of battle fatigue are also seen in PTSD but battle fatigue is usually considered a milder version of it. Sometimes soldiers will develop battle fatigue and if it's not treated, it will develop into traumatic stress syndrome.

Battle fatigue is basically a state of shock. It involves disassociation, inability to react and respond in time and fatigue.

By donasmrs — On Sep 14, 2013

The name battle fatigue confuses me. My doctor said I have battle fatigue symptoms and not PTSD although they seem similar to me. I'm basically extremely tense all the time as if something is about to happen. I can't sleep to well and have abnormal reactions to loud sounds.

By candyquilt — On Sep 13, 2013

I think battle fatigue syndrome is a very normal reaction in combat. I would be more surprised if someone doesn't experience these symptoms. Soldiers are constantly under pressure and stress. They're exhausted, sleepless and feel under threat 24-7. They don't ever have many opportunities to rest, relax completely and wind down. I think this is why battle fatigue happens.

If soldiers are given the opportunity to feel safe and rest at regular intervals, I think battle fatigue can be avoided or at least reduced. I know this is not always possible, but I wish it were possible. I think reducing and preventing battle fatigue also reduces the likelihood of a soldier developing post traumatic stress disorder.

I'm not an expert or doctor but I've spent a lot of time with soldiers and this is my opinion based on what I've seen.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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