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Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners

by Robert J. Lifton
Simon and Schuster, 478 pp., $8.95

Free Fire Zone: Short Stories by Vietnam Veterans

edited by Wayne Karlin, edited by Basil T. Paquet, edited by Larry Rottmann
McGraw-Hill/1st Casualty Press, 208 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Is it possible that Vietnam will prove a turning point for Americans? Are we likely at last to turn away from the warrior ethos and toward a more life-affirming one? Robert Lifton, the Yale research psychiatrist who has reported in previous books on survivors of Hiroshima and on China’s revolutionaries, seems to think so. From his extensive work with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, more especially his participation in numerous discussions about the war over the last few years, he has discovered in this small group “a quality that has to do with a transformation of the human spirit.”

These antiwar warriors feel great guilt about their war experiences and with Lifton’s help have been struggling to come to terms with it, both psychologically and by active resistance to American war policy. They want to extirpate in themselves the John Wayne image of the fighting man in search of glory and immortality, and rediscover themselves as capable of a stable private life and a nonlethal “integrity” that are unlike the military conception of the heroic life. They have a “survivor mission,” according to Lifton, to expose to us civilians the meaninglessness and hideous evil of their war. They also mean to defy the tendency of veterans to cherish their war experiences in organizations that are always politically conservative, and usually reactionary.

As a war-resister and activist himself, Robert Lifton tried to combine psychiatric therapy with ethical and political counsel in his work with the VVAW group. This interesting and valuable book is Dr. Lifton’s account of their struggle with their memories of brutalities committed and witnessed, their resolve to be revolutionary opponents of a war they had earlier participated in. Robert Lifton is here clearly trying to break out of psychiatric conventions by taking full account not only of his patients’ subjective lives but also of historical, political, and ethical factors. Since he believes that psychological experience is not self-contained, he thinks of himself as a “psychohistorian” and has tried to make use of what he calls “extrospection” as well as introspection. It is abundantly evident that Lifton is a “committed” man. He is transparently honest, sometimes painfully so.

In this book Lifton makes use of a theory, worked out in previous studies, which emphasizes the opposition of death and the continuity of life, a conceptual scheme he thinks more appropriate to contemporary experience than the traditional psychoanalytical preoccupation with sexual instinct and repression. For him fear of death is the overriding fact of life. It must be said that such a model has served him well in treating the Vietnam veterans in this book. In the absence of any larger values to defend, for most of them the war became simply a struggle for survival. As he puts it,

One could make no inwardly convincing association between death and a higher principle. Individual survival, always the predominant preoccupation in war, became in this war the only purpose or cause one could call forth to justify …

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