How America is eating its young


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 25 May 2010 Updated: whenever ...

This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @). However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

I just watched a PBS program on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among soldiers at Fort Carson, CO - called "The Wounded Platoon". Some very sad stories, there. And they take me back to my experiences in the military. This essay is not to say that my time in Vietnam was marred by anything even vaguely resembling intense combat. But I experienced the unpleasant atmosphere of a combat zone, nevertheless. The whole place reeked with a sort of stench of unreality. We called the USA "The world" because we seemed to be in some very strange, other-worldly place, where everything had gone crazy around us. Things that in civilian life would be utterly unthinkable were the norm. No one seemed to be particularly bothered by the death of "gooks" – it was clear that we had dehumanized the Vietnamese. Not just the Viet Cong (VC), and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers. Every Vietnamese was a "slope" – a "dink" – a "gook". Who cares about gooks? They’re like vermin. Kill 'em all and let God sort them out!

Vietnam was a particularly ugly version of war. Our enemies didn’t meet us in many "set piece" battles. Why should they? They’d lose most such fights because of American firepower. No, Ho Chi Minh learned about and understood American history, and the American rebels beat the British in part by following guerilla tactics very similar to those followed by the Vietnamese Communists. In such a war, enemy soldiers don’t always wear a uniform. Even women and children might be trying to kill you. This makes soldiers trigger-happy and suspicious of everyone, of course. Killing civilians as a result of this is just a "natural" way such wars will go. Killing of civilians breeds even more hatred for the soldiers in the indigenous population, of course. Collateral damage always has been a great tool for recruiting more enemy fighters. We now refer this using a fancy word – asymmetric warfare.

Even in the rear areas, it wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary to discuss, calmly and without a lot of fanfare, such things as fragging (killing) someone you didn’t like. When you found yourself thinking about such things, without any sense of it being anything particularly extraordinary, it was horrifying. At least to me. I struggled to understand why I was thinking such things and was trying to understand the calm detachment with which I contemplated extraordinary things.

I also met combat troops as part of my duties, and it was pretty clear they inhabited a world that was far more off that deep edge that I was finding so scary. They shared their stories and their photographs with a kind of child-like enthusiasm, as if they weren't the very horrifying things they were (to me). I wish I had copies of those photographs, now. It might be useful for the chicken hawks among us to see up close and personal just how horrible war can be. Images of mangled dead NVA and VC (and other Vietnamese?) might just get the point across: war is sordid and ugly. To protect themselves from these extraordinarily awful things, soldiers quickly become indifferent to death and agony (or they go insane). I understood from that that they had been to places I could only imagine, and certainly had no wish to experience.

Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we put our soldiers through this same sort of hellish world. As was said on the show, the reaction of the soldiers to this abnormal experience is actually normal – their experiences are traumatic and horrible and they return from those hellish places with their psyches damaged. It's normal for trauma to cause damage! In some cases, they’re so damaged, they retreat into depression, fits of rage, drug abuse, criminal behavior, murder, and suicide.

When I processed out of the Army, I thought it would be easy to become a civilian again. But when I found myself around civilians again, I saw them differently. I was contemptuous of their ignorance. What did they know of what I’d seen, the life I’d experienced? Nothing! They obviously didn’t want to know about those things, either. So what could I talk to them about? Nothing. What did I have in common with these people? Damned little. They were “outsiders” to my world, a world that had absorbed my every waking moment for 2 1/2 years. It took me about a year to return to their world from where I had been. Imagine if I’d seen intense combat! Imagine if I’d seen my friends killed and maimed for life! Imagine if I had killed people myself! It’s not at all hard for me to understand at least something of what PTSD victims might be going through.

My experience in Vietnam gives me a better idea of what the situation there was like, even though I was a REMF who never saw any action, than any person who’s never even been in the military. I’ve mentioned this in other essays. I can’t stand in judgment of anyone, if I wasn’t there, in the situation. If I wasn’t there, facing the particular situation in which a group of soldiers found themselves, I can’t know the circumstances well enough to say for certain that I would have acted in a way that I could live with after it was all over. Soldiers generally are young for the obvious reason - young people can be molded in ways to obey orders without thinking. And we ask them to do horrible things. Some of those things are unlawful, and we expect them to disobey unlawful orders! This is pretty difficult for someone without a lot of life experience. I simply don’t know how I would have acted under those conditions. So I can’t judge the actions of others. Although I maintain they're responsible for what they did, I can well imagine that afterwards, for some, it must eat at them, perhaps to the point of rage, depression, drug dependency, murder, or suicide.

So America is sending its soldiers – men and women, now – into these hellish conflicts that aren't necessarily serving any obvious purpose. We ask our troops not only to risk their lives and their bodies, but to risk being destroyed by the mental trauma inflicted by a war where it can be very hard for front line troops to understand why we’re there in the first place. Our politicians are sending our young people to face this horror not just once, for a year (as was done in Vietnam), but over and over again – in part because they lack the courage to build up our armed forces with conscription, for fear of committing political suicide. Because our troop levels are so low, we must send our limited forces back to those terrible places repeatedly. And extend their stays for 15-18 months, or more. The mental damage is certainly cumulative, to say nothing of the losses we suffer from physical trauma.

Life is all about choices, and our soldiers are responsible for the choices they make, even in wartime and certainly afterward. But they didn't necessarily choose to experience PTSD. That happened because they were doing their duty in a terrible situation: combat is always terrible. And they're suffering the consequences of PTSD in awful ways: rage, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, murder, suicide. If we're going to make our young people suffer such things, one would hope that it would be for a good reason (e.g., WWII) rather than bad ones (Vietnam, Iraq).

The first Rambo movie, First Blood, was about this - however bogus and stupid Hollywood can be, at least this was an attempt at a sympathetic treatment of PTSD victims when they return home, only to learn they've become strangers in what seems to them to be a strange land. Some legitimate PTSD cases choose not to seek help, perhaps hoping instead to survive and readjust, or perhaps not understanding what has happened to them and not wishing to seem like a coward or a wimp. When they break the military rules (or civilian laws), the military says, “You didn’t seek help, so you’re just using PTSD as an excuse for your misdeeds!” A bad discharge follows. With a bad discharge, no veteran’s benefits are available, so the military simply writes them off the books.

As Memorial Day nears, I’m sure that our nation will honor their warriors, even though many of us hate the wars. Memorial Day is for the dead, not the living. But what of the living casualties? The war fighters suffering PTSD are in a kind of living death. Since Vietnam, America seems more inclined to support their troops, even in unpopular wars, than they did during the Vietnam era, but there still seems to be little understanding for PTSD victims. We as a nation need to help support them, too. Although I certainly am not justifying the deeds of some of them, I'm saddened by the way our nation has used them and then discarded them, when they have problems caused by their service. We collectively are responsible for what happened to them - we as a nation sent them to those wars to fight those battles. Blaming the politicians isn't any excuse, since we elected those politicians. For the military simply to give them bad discharges and turn them loose is just not right.

Think that over this Memorial Day weekend ...