Fighting Sleep
The War for the Mind in the US Military
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160 pages / October 8, 2019 / 9781786637819


How sleep has been used by the military—and how soldiers have fought back

On 21 April, 1971, hundreds of Vietnam veterans fell asleep on the National Mall, having fought the courts for the right to sleep in public as part of their week-long demonstration. When the Supreme Court denied their petition, veterans decided to break the law and turned sleep into a form of direct action.

During and after WWII, military psychiatrists used sleep therapies to treat an epidemic of traumatized soldiers who suffered from “combat fatigue.” Inducing deep and twilight sleep in clinical settings, they studied the effects of war violence on the mind and developed the techniques of brainwashing that would weaponize both memory and sleep. In the Vietnam era, radical veterans reclaimed the authority to interpret their own traumatic symptoms—nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia—and pioneered new methods of protest.

In Sleeping Soldiers, Franny Nudelman recounts the struggle over sleep in the decades following WWII, arguing that the sleep of soldiers was instrumental to the development of military science, professional psychiatry, and anti-war activism. Traversing the fields of military and mainstream psychiatry, popular and institutional film, documentary sound technology, brain warfare, and postwar social movements, she demonstrates that sleep, far from passive, empty, or null, is a site of contention and a source of political agency.


“Sleep seems to mark a realm wholly separate from public affairs, but Fighting Sleep reveals its methodical colonization by the US national security state and its surprising centrality to Cold War American politics and culture. Moving deftly between film and public protest, military psychiatry and veteran experience, documentation and reality, Franny Nudelman charts a fascinating pathway from the CIA mind-control experiments and the ‘brainwashing’ scare of the Korean War era to the troubled sleep of the traumatized veteran, the endless wakefulness of the POW, and the emergence of a veteran’s movement focused on the right to sleep in public.”

“In this lucid and moving cultural history of the US from the end of WW2 through the Vietnam War, Franny Nudelman explores the problematic status of sleep for soldiers damaged by the trauma of warfare. Writing against the instrumental logic of sleep as the recuperation necessary for a return to service and combat, she poses the passivity and vulnerability of sleep as an interval of refusal, of healing, or of oblivion in relation to the imperatives of a militaristic society. A revelatory book.”

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