The Purple Brain

The Purple Brain

The Purple Brain

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 9 2009 10:54 AM

The Purple Brain

Are mental disorders as important as physical injuries? Many advocates say that they are and that we should treat them accordingly. Most of the fight is over insurance coverage of mental health. But part of the action is in the U.S. military. There, the question has been whether to award the Purple Heart for post-traumatic stress disorder. This week, the Defense Department announced its decision: No.

Eight months ago, when we first checked in on this debate, I was skeptical for two reasons. One was that PTSD would turn out to be widely overdiagnosed. In general, mental wounds are harder to define and identify than physical wounds are. There are obvious cases, but there are also fuzzy ones. Where do we draw the line? How do we keep the Purple Heart from being cheapened?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


The second reason was that the Purple Heart, unlike basic health insurance, isn't a policy instrument. It's an honor. Officially, it denotes " meritorious action ." And honor isn't the first step in a cultural transformation, no matter how worthy that transformation may be. It's the last.

I've been reading DoD's explanation of its decision and looking back at what I wrote eight months ago. And I'm beginning to think the decision may be wrong.

The reason has to do with gay marriage. The "honor" argument against the Purple Heart for PTSD is a lot like the argument against same-sex marriage. Marriage isn't a right or benefit, conservatives argue. It's a special commitment, a moral institution. Gays may deserve equal employment opportunity, just as mental-health patients deserve basic health insurance coverage. But marriage, like the Purple Heart, is a higher standard. It's an honor that should be awarded last, or maybe never.

Andrew Sullivan nailed this argument 20 years ago : Conservatives are largely right about what marriage is. They're just wrong that this understanding precludes extending it to homosexuals. In fact, they have it backward: Marriage would anchor gays, like straights, against "the chaos of sex and relationships to which we are all prone. It provides a mechanism for emotional stability, economic security, and the healthy rearing of the next generation." The key is to preserve the definition of marriage as commitment: to let go of the heterosexual requirement while fortifying the distinction between marriage and shacking up. My favorite proposal, to prove the point, is same-sex covenant marriage .

Something like that should be the solution to the Purple Heart debate. Opponents of the Purple Heart for PTSD say mental disorders can't qualify because the warrior doesn't " shed blood ." That's foolish fundamentalism: Lots of people are wounded without literally shedding blood. DoD also says the wound must be "intentionally caused by the enemy." But the Purple Heart is already awarded for wounds that weren't precisely intended by the enemy. The enemy just throws his grenade at your platoon. Exactly which of you gets incapacitated and how—shrapnel, shock, whatever—isn't his concern.

On the other hand, DoD rightly points out that there have to be "objective" medical ways to distinguish clear-cut PTSD from fuzzy or fake versions. Otherwise, Purple Heart awards will become cheap or arbitrary. Along these lines, the department articulates three clear, reasonable, and tight criteria. First, the wound must be "the result of enemy action where the intended effect of a specific enemy action is to kill or injure the servicemember." Second, it must be "an injury to any part of the body." Third, it must be "caused by the enemy from an outside force or agent."

Can PTSD satisfy these criteria? In principle, I think so. The first criterion is relatively easy to address: You must face the same physical risks as any other Purple Heart recipient. The second is more difficult: Objective physical measures of PTSD must be established. This could be done, for example, with brain scans. We aren't there yet, so consider this a research project for the PTSD movement. The third criterion is a nexus of the first two: You would have to assemble some kind of case file showing that the signs of PTSD in the brain scans or other physical measures postdate the combat incident.

Will service members and veterans with PTSD actually meet these standards? Some won't, and even the most qualified cases will be hard to prove. But they should be, because the Purple Heart is sacred. It's just that there's nothing inherently more sacred about being wounded in your backside than in your brain.