On April 21, 1971, hundreds of Vietnam veterans fell asleep on the National Mall, wondering whether they would be arrested by daybreak. Veterans had fought the courts for the right to sleep in public while demonstrating against the war. When the Supreme Court denied their petition, they decided to break the law and turned sleep into a form of direct action.
During and after the Second World War, military psychiatrists used sleep therapies to treat an epidemic of “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 Fighting Sleep, The War for the Mind and the US Military, Franny Nudelman recounts the struggle over sleep in the postwar world, revealing that the subject was instrumental to the development of military science, professional psychiatry, and antiwar activism.
“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.”
– Timothy Melley
Franny Nudelman is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Carleton University. She is the author of John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War and coeditor, with Sara Blair and Joseph Entin, of Remaking Reality: US Documentary Culture after 1945.
Jonathan Crary is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University and is a founding editor of Zone Books. His books include Techniques of the Observer, Suspensions of Perception, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep and Incorporations (coeditor).