Invisible scars
: Commonwealth military psychiatry and the Korean War (1950-1953)

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Over the past several decades, both the academic community and the public at large have become increasingly interested in the development of modern military psychiatry. Work on this subject has enriched our understanding of the psychological impact of war and the overall human toll of conflict. However, very little research has been conducted on the Korean War (1950-1953). A brutal conflict, Korea produced roughly 4 million casualties. Nearly 145,000 Britons, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders served in the Far East as members of the 1st Commonwealth Division. While many suffered physically, others grappled with significant mental health problems. Psychiatric casualties accounted for roughly 1 in 20 wounded or sick Commonwealth soldiers. This dissertation examines the psychiatric care system in place both during and after the war. ‘Invisible Scars,’ represents the first comprehensive study of Commonwealth medical or psychiatric practices and is intended to act as a foundation upon which future studies can build. Chapters are organised both chronologically and thematically and review topics such as organisation, treatment, morale and pensions. 
I conclude that army doctors were largely successful in treating men with mental health problems in the short term. Return-to-unit rates ranged from 50% to 83%. Those men who could not return to their units were re-employed in less strenuous occupations. Treatment was designed to be practical and focused on rest and reassurance. Only 5% to 7% of patients were evacuated to Japan for further hospitalisation or repatriated for the purposes of long term care. Be that as it may, the Commonwealth countries failed to put long-term support systems in place for vulnerable veterans. There was little available in terms of either compensation or counselling. Ex-servicemen also found applying for a pension to be a difficult and bureaucratic process. They were generally ill supported by veterans’ organisations and in some cases they were turned away by individual branches. The Korean War brings up important questions about the military’s duty of care and the long-term needs of ex-service personnel. It also highlights the role that public commemoration can play in the healing process. While Korean War veterans share many similarities with veterans of other twentieth century conflicts, they are a unique group worthy of further study.
Date of Award1 May 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEdgar Jones (Supervisor) & Helen McCartney (Supervisor)

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