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.