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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 one’s actions. Nor could the attempt at logical explanation of why one person died and not another, so characteristic of death immersion in general, ward off the sense of total absurdity. Subsequent deaths one witnesses are no more acceptable, though more effectively managed by numbing—but one never really recovers from that first survival.

However, a reader is forced to wonder if the fear of death was—and is—as great for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. It certainly does not seem so. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the service of a political faith or in the interest of “liberating” South Vietnam seems more typical than the behavior of our soldiers. In the Second World War fear of their own death could hardly be said to have been the sole or even the dominant anxiety for soldiers of the Allies or the Axis powers.

Lifton takes Freud to task for subordinating death anxiety to the fear of castration. Both are common on the battlefield, as any veteran can testify. But there are other fears equally pervasive, I think. For example, fear of letting down one’s comrades, of showing oneself a coward, fear of disgrace and dishonor, of not proving to be a man in ways that have little to do with any notions of glory and immortality. Just why we must accept a single cause to explain the complexity of human responses, or one always more fundamental than the rest, puzzles me. Robert Lifton is so absorbed in the experience of this group of veterans that he tends to forget how untypical they really are. His preoccupation with the theme of death seems too much rooted in the current moment and his overemphasis makes it difficult to understand other peoples and other times. Whatever its causes, the exaggerated fear of death has reached fantastic proportions in contemporary America, ironically enough at a time when life is “not very much to lose.”

Lifton gives a fascinating and sophisticated account of a group of young Americans who were overchallenged by an evil experience and who now seek to cope with their horrible memories. Having participated in slaughtering and mutilating their opponents, and often innocent civilians as well, they have come to recognize with nearly paralyzing force that they have transgressed acceptable human boundaries. He quotes at length their conversations in these extensive sessions and his sympathetic description of their plight is painfully instructive.

Lifton’s conviction is that the veterans’ consciousness of guilt must be transformed rather than done away with. Static guilt must be made over into what he calls animating guilt, which involves a rediscovery of oneself as a human being capable of growth. This idea is adapted from Martin Buber but it is older, based on the principle that acceptance of guilt can open us to others and to a sense of our indebtedness to them and to society. In German the world guilt, Schuld, is the same as the word debt, and it is not difficult to perceive the connection between assuming responsibility for one’s debts or wrongdoing as a way of becoming more self-aware and sensitive to others.

In a society like ours which relies so much on talk, it is often assumed that the best way to accomplish this transformation is in groups. One must expose one’s guilt feelings to others and hear their reactions; nothing must be held back. It is as though one could atone for one’s sins by a public confession. To his credit as a psychiatrist Lifton knows that this is only a beginning. After the confessions of these guilt-scarred veterans, he urged them to action, and he also participated in their public protests. For him the political-ethical and the psychological-therapeutic are inseparable.

Even so, the reader may often ask whether it is necessary to require these veterans in group sessions to turn their guilt feelings into conscious acceptance of guilt. Is not the process of changing unproductive guilt into “animating guilt” a much longer and more solitary process than is here envisaged? Will not atonement for guilt affect the character of one’s life years after the guilt-inspiring deeds have been committed? I suspect that the VVAW are unlikely to grow very much by their antiwar activities alone. As one of them says poignantly in these pages: “Our life is being against the war. When the war ends then we end as people.” Such recognition indicates the limitations of their struggle. Building a life on solid accomplishment is more difficult than being an antiwar veteran and confessing one’s guilt in public.

This is in no way meant to denigrate the work these men did in helping to awaken American society to the immense evils of Vietnam. I agree with Lifton that “there is a very real sense in which those few are doing symbolic psychological work for all veterans, and indeed for all of American society.” If the American involvement in the Vietnam war ever ends, we may hope that they will discover other tasks that have meaning for them, without, however, ceasing to remind Americans of the evil nature of the war. No doubt it will require years for many of them to feel that life is worth living once more, and it may unfortunately be even longer before millions of their fellows will be able to accept the disgrace and dishonor that the war has brought upon us as a people.

Lifton is probably overoptimistic in believing that the value of Vietnam for our society may lie in a turning away from the warrior ethos with its irrational enthusiasms and subtle poisons. It is surely more realistic to expect little from these few men, even if our society were suddenly to become stable for a decade or two, itself an unlikely prospect. He concedes that American pilots did not experience anything like the guilt that a few of the ground troops did, though they killed and maimed many more than “grunts” could have. As some of them express it: “Look, we’re just bus drivers.” Or “I don’t feel like a war criminal. What I was doing is just like screwing fuses into sockets.” One of Lifton’s sources remarks about these pilots: “The issue of guilt becomes meaningless. Conscience and morality are irrelevant. One does not set out to kill and therefore, psychologically, one does not.”

A few, pitifully few, of these airmen are able to break through the deadly abstraction of technological warfare. But during the recent return of the prisoners of war, most of them pilots, there was no indication that many were burdened with guilt feelings. More and better military technology is soon to come, of a sort that will make its operators even less sensitive to the human consequences of their deeds. Those who have been strong enough to get through the recent book Voices from the Plain of Jars will have a chilling premonition of this sort of “warfare.” No psychic numbing is necessary, or as Lifton puts it, numbing itself is “automated.”

In one of his most successful chapters, “The Counterfeit Universe,” Robert Lifton deals with what appears to be a widespread sense of unreality among Vietnam veterans. They felt that they were engaged in unreal combat, playing at being soldiers, committing and witnessing absurd acts of evil without conviction and without even believing they were identified with it. Home again, these veterans find the same bogus and malignant quality in American life, even in their own inner selves. Lifton quotes Philip Kingry to this effect: “The war isn’t just an excuse. It was everything. I am a lie. What I have to say is a lie. But it is the most true lie you will ever hear about a war.”

In combatting this virulent disease, which I agree is widespread in contemporary America, the Existentialists’ remedy of seeking authenticity and confronting the Absurd (always capitalized) begins to taste like very thin gruel. Though Lifton draws upon such remedies freely, he does not succeed in making clear how one can be “authentic” in a society or universe that makes no sense at all. At the end of his book he falls back on the principles of perpetual rebellion against murder and the solidarity among men that Camus claimed to be the result and justification of rebellion. I fear that such romantic defiance appears as futile to the post-Vietnam generation as it seemed appropriate for a short time during the Second World War in France.

The search for reality seems nowadays to be taking a religious direction, rather than one toward Existentialist atheism. If one were inclined to prophesy, one might predict that the last quarter of our century will witness a proliferation of religious faiths, many of them as unwelcome to the old as are current religious tendencies. Traditionally, religion has been a search for reality when all else fails, and particularly when the dominant ethic disintegrates, as appears to be the case today. For those of us who teach in American colleges the signs are already numerous enough.

In spite of his psychiatric training and his failure to mention religion explicitly, Robert Lifton frequently sounds like a rabbi. In his chapter “On Healing,” he describes the three steps necessary for a transformation of the self. First there is “Confrontation,” which consists in a “questioning of personal integration or integrity brought about by some form of death encounter.” The guilt that follows causes the second stage of “Reordering.” The third stage is “Renewal,” that is, the self’s attainment of a form for its newly won integrity. Though all of this is put in the secular language of psychiatry, it requires little imagination to see that it follows the classic patterns of religious conversion.

Earlier, in discussing the veterans’ rage against military chaplains and psychiatrists in Vietnam, Lifton himself calls attention to the kinship between psychiatry and religion. “Chaplains and psychiatrists are not only spiritual counselors; Americans also perceive them, rightly or wrongly, as guardians of the spirit, as guides to right thinking and proper behavior (in this way psychiatrists resemble chaplains more than they do other physicians).” I confess, perhaps naïvely, that this idea had never occurred to me. In World War II we had little chance to see psychiatrists but it would never have entered our heads to put them in the same category as chaplains. However, in spite of Freud’s allegiance to the scientific world-view, there may be a continuity here that had escaped my attention. In any case Lifton’s moral earnestness, passion for justice, and concern for healing sick souls clearly connect him with this ancient tradition. Hence he may well find a religious revival, if it comes, infinitely easier to adjust to than will most of his professional colleagues.

Though understandably sensitive to the veterans’ scorn for “shrinks,” he ascribes their dislike to the fact that therapists have become mere technicians. He is probably right in his strictures against many psychiatric practices. In any event a layman like myself is inclined to be sympathetic to Lifton’s determination to link psychiatry to ethics and to the larger situation in which the neurotic finds himself. The kind of healing that concerns him seems ultimately closer to a noninstitutional religious faith than it does either to the biological sciences or to philosophy. On this matter he will doubtless discover much disagreement with the profession.

What therapeutic role can literature play in closing the psychological wounds of Vietnam? Free Fire Zone hardly supplies an answer. This is the second of a series (Winning Hearts and Minds was the first, and the third is to be called Postmortem) written and published by veterans who have set up the 1st Casualty Press. Surely there is an unintended irony in the line from Aeschylus on the fly-leaf: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” These twenty-four stories by twenty-one writers seem “true” in the sense of being accurate—many are direct transcriptions of events that actually happened. Whether they are “true” in the literary sense is another matter. Like Lifton’s veterans most of the writers are antiwar warriors, intent on depicting the ugliness and horror of their war, and by telling you what happened they hope to make what happened “part of you, too,” to quote one of them.

Most of the stories are too journalistic to accomplish this ambitious task. The authors have not had time to gain perspective or to allow the necessary imaginative re-creation of events. Their accounts of sex acts, torture, and slaughter are too explicit and descriptive to make us real participants. One is grateful for the three-page story “The Meeting,” in which an anonymous soldier wakes up one morning in a camp somewhere in Vietnam and goes to a nearby river to wash. While doing so he sees a leopard on the other side of the river with blood on his muzzle and paws. They stare at each other for a minute before the leopard vanishes in the bush. It is a suggestive meeting of two animals, the grace of the wild one contrasting with the clumsiness of the human; the one having killed purposefully to satisfy its hunger, the other, out of place, and engaged in purposeless slaughter. The author, Julian Grajewski, Private First Class in the infantry, barely suggests such a contrast. His description is nonetheless “phenomenological” rather than merely realistic.

But such subtleties are rare in these pages. Psychic numbing, of which Lifton speaks so often, is doubtless inimical to the literary imagination, but since many of the writers were not in combat at all, such numbing is hardly a sufficient explanation. When we reflect on the war literature of this century it is hard to avoid being gloomily aware of a steady decline in quality. It seems to me that the First World War brought forth many fine poems, novels, and stories from participants and nonparticipants alike. Some have become a striking part of the Western literary tradition and serve to mitigate, if they do not at all justify, the horrors of the years 1914-1918. Apart from a few novels, the Second World War writers have thus far been unable to accomplish nearly so much. Of course, the Korean and Vietnam wars have been more peripheral, if hardly less harrowing. As yet they have not proved themselves susceptible to literature.

Why? Is it the increasing technology and abstraction of these wars that rob them of beauty, clarity, humor, and other qualities necessary for reflective art? Perhaps our incapacity to connect these wars to the rest of our experience is near the root of the matter. But there has also been a coarsening of language, as the century wears on, an impoverishment of poetic and philosophic nuance. We would like to believe that youth experience these later wars as deeply as their fathers faced earlier ones, that they lack only the language to give that experience structure and texture. But without language one does not really fully experience; and command of logos enables one to explore consciousness and the external world on many levels.

The loss of interest in language is peculiarly depressing. Declining enrollments in the study of foreign languages at our schools and universities come at a time when distance among nations has been reduced to hours. Are Americans unaware of the truism that he who knows no other language does not really know his own? If one tried to document the decline of American culture and the growth of the imperialist mentality, one would do well to start with this trend. As yet it has received hardly any public attention.

The editors of Free Fire Zone are persuaded that the Vietnam War was an imperialist adventure. In their introduction they assert that racism is at the core of our soldiers’ actions and responses to the Indochinese. Nearly all the stories support their claim. But it is surprising how little the stories have to say about the South Vietnamese. Contempt for “the gooks” as inferior servants and sex objects is pervasive, and interest in their language and their regional and individual differences nearly nonexistent. In other wars American soldiers have known how to moderate the boredom and fears of combat by freely mingling with the local populations. Hitherto we have enjoyed a fairly good reputation, even among our enemies, as a friendly, generous, and unmilitant nation.

Among these stories is one exception, “The Rabbi.” Perhaps significantly it concerns a young Jewish lieutenant in the Military Police, stationed in Saigon. He becomes a problem to his superiors, for he studies the language of the country and uses it, albeit imperfectly, to talk to the local people among whom he works. His interest even extends to learning about the physical and linguistic differences between natives from the Mekong Delta and those from the north. To everyone’s astonishment he keeps extending his tour of duty without any of the usual reasons. He does not have a girl, doesn’t make money on the black market, is not interested in being promoted to captain. Finally forced by his commanding officer to reveal his true motives, he can only stammer: “I like the Vietnamese people. And…I like Saigon. I enjoy the city.” This story by Barney Currer is the most memorable for no other reason than its uniqueness. It is a measure of where we are that in an earlier war the point would have been so commonplace as not to be worth making at all.

It is clearly too early to expect these young men to be able to transform their experiences into literature. But is this likely to happen in the next decades? I fear that the coarsening occasioned by the incessant wars of this century is infecting nearly all of us; we forget that factual description alone is not a means of conveying experience. In our increasing reliance on sex and violence, we hardly feel any longer the loss of beauty, poetry, and light in the flood of books that compete for our attention. The one-dimensional writing in Free Fire Zone may eventually come to be all that we can expect from the literature of war.

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