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Life After Wartime

Combating the veteran-as-victim narrative

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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What does America owe its veterans? Perhaps the best answer to this question I have ever seen came from a young woman named Julie Ponzi—wise beyond her years—in response to a review I had written of Karl Marlantes’s magnificent Vietnam war novel, Matterhorn. She observed that by providing a real understanding of war and its sacrifices, memoirs and novels such as Matterhorn make it possible for “our fighting men to finally get some genuine gratitude. Not sympathy or pedestals; but real gratitude. .  .  . Every civilian should understand that the veteran has done nothing less, and also nothing more, than what is sometimes required to maintain liberty.” 

LukeSharrett_GettyImages

Luke Sharrett /GettyImages

Neither sympathy nor pedestals, but gratitude: How breathtakingly simple! Alas, too many Americans see veterans as victims, a phenomenon that goes back to Vietnam. But as the highly regarded and greatly admired retired Marine general James Mattis argued in a recent speech to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those Americans are wrong. 

“You’ve been told that you’re broken,” said Mattis during the Q&A portion of his April 23 speech at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco, “that you’re damaged goods and should be labeled victims of two unjust and poorly executed wars. I don’t buy it. The truth, instead, is that you are the only folks with the skills, determination, and values to ensure American dominance in this chaotic world. 

“There is no room for military people, including our veterans, to see themselves as victims even if so many of our countrymen are prone to relish that role,” he continued. “While victimhood in America is exalted, I don’t think our veterans should join those ranks.”

One of Gen. Mattis’s targets is a major component of the veteran-as-victim narrative: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he calls a “disease orientation” toward combat stress. As Thucydides observed, war “proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” Those who have experienced it are never the same as they were before. One who has seen a comrade die or who has looked into the eyes of an enemy whom he is about to kill lest his enemy kill him is forever transformed. But the disease orientation underlying PTSD paints the combat veteran as one who is broken and cannot be repaired, who is a threat to society and needs to be medicated, and who might explode in violence at any time. 

While not denying the existence of PTSD, Gen. Mattis offers an alternative, which he calls --“post-traumatic growth.” ------Post-traumatic growth (PTG) has echoes of Nietzsche’s aphorism from Twilight of the Idols: “From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger.” In Mattis’s view, PTG describes the fact that most veterans return from war with the potential to be stronger than before. The PTG orientation holds that what the returning veteran needs are time and support in order to actualize that potential for growth.

Karl Marlantes makes a similar argument in What It Is Like to Go to War, his nonfiction follow-up to Matterhorn. Marlantes calls war “the temple of Mars,” a “sacred space” that possesses a mystical quality for those who fight it. A major thrust of Marlantes’s argument is that modern liberal society doesn’t recognize the psychological split that war engenders in those who fight it. Killing is what soldiers do for society. But the split it creates in the soldier’s psyche is a spiritual weight that the combat veteran will carry for the rest of his life. In the HBO series The Pacific, the father of future Marine Eugene Sledge, a genteel Southern physician who served in World War I, tells his son that “the worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War was not that their flesh had been torn, but that their souls had been torn out.”

Marlantes captures the source of this spiritual burden for the soldiers of a liberal society, writing, “War is the antithesis of the most fundamental rule of moral conduct. .  .  . To survive psychologically in the proximity of Mars, one has to come to terms with stepping outside of conventional moral conduct. This means coming to terms with guilt over killing and maiming other people.” But what one does or witnesses in war is properly seen as a source of strength, not victimhood.

Another veteran, my friend and colleague Dave Danelo, the author of Blood Stripes, invokes the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in his own forthcoming treatment of returning veterans, The Return: The Warrior Life After Combat (Black Irish Books, fall 2014). Campbell held that “universal myths,” the quintessential example of which is The Odyssey, represent a quest for meaning, maturity, and mastery that is repeated by human beings in infinite forms.

The hero makes a journey marked by departure, adventure, and return. For Danelo, the universal myth also describes the veteran’s quest: “lifting ourselves up, finding new experiences, drawing on the old soul’s ancient wisdom, and making ourselves more useful to our families, communities,” and country.

Gen. Mattis, Marlantes, and Danelo all treat the veteran as an object of admiration and respect, not a victim. But as Mattis observes, the veteran-as-victim narrative exerts a profoundly powerful influence over the American people. It can be seen in news stories that paint veterans as overrepresented in rates of suicide, drug abuse, homelessness, and incarceration.

Such sensationalist stories inevitably portray an “epidemic” of some sort among veterans, such as the commission of murder. The implication is that veterans have been traumatized by their combat experience and are ticking time bombs who inevitably will commit mayhem against themselves or civilian society. 

A particularly egregious example of this sort of journalism is a February 2013 Washington Post story on the “epidemic” of suicide among veterans, presumably resulting from the trauma of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It featured a photo of a young, healthy Navy SEAL who did indeed commit suicide, though in reality the story makes clear that most of the veterans who commit suicide are over 50 with no connection to either of our recent wars.

Such stories are fundamentally flawed. Do some veterans commit suicide? Are some others afflicted by drug use, homelessness, and incarceration? Of course, but it is always necessary to compare veterans with nonveterans by age cohort, something that sensationalist reporting based on the veteran-as-victim angle habitually fails to do. When such comparisons are made, the claim that veterans are uniquely likely to lead dysfunctional lives falls apart. 

But the very number of such stories confirms Gen. Mattis’s contention that the veteran-as-victim narrative is strongly embedded in the American psyche and seems to be a constant feature of our view of veterans. However, as the old adage has it, “It’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so!” But in order to correct the narrative, it is important to understand its origin. 

"The country doesn’t know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.” 

So testified John Kerry, before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 22, 1971.

The image of the veteran as victim had its genesis in the anti-Vietnam war left of the 1960s and ’70s. According to this image, the Vietnam war was uniquely brutal and unjust, and it brutalized those who fought it. At first the antiwar left vilified veterans as war criminals and baby-killers. But this approach evolved into the idea that the Vietnam veteran was a victim: He was victimized first by his country, which disproportionately sent the poor off to fight an unjust war. Then he was victimized by a military that dehumanized him and turned him into a killer, one who was dangerous to society because he could lash out at any time.

The press was complicit in perpetuating the negative stereotype of the Vietnam veteran. B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley’s incomparable 1998 book, Stolen Valor, explains how. Burkett used the Freedom of Information Act to check the actual records of the “image makers” used by reporters to flesh out their stories on homelessness, Agent Orange, suicide, drug abuse, criminality, and alcoholism. What he found was astounding. More often than not, the showcase “veterans” who cried on camera about their dead buddies, about committing or witnessing atrocities, or about some heroic action in combat that led them to their current dead end in life, were impostors. Many had never been in Vietnam, or even in the armed services. Burkett’s book stands as a rebuke to a generation of journalists who were so predisposed to believe the worst about the Vietnam veteran that they failed to do due diligence in checking the facts.

The “Vietnam vet goes berserk” angle became a staple of journalism. A watershed event in the evolution of this genre was the 1988 CBS documentary The Wall Within, which constituted a veritable caricature of Vietnam veterans: During the war, they routinely committed war crimes. They came home from an immoral war traumatized, vilified, then pitied. Jobless, homeless, addicted, suicidal, they remain afflicted by inner conflicts, stranded on the fringes of society.

It was during the Vietnam war that PTSD became a major issue. While PTSD was not officially recognized as a psychiatric syndrome by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, its foundation was laid by such anti-Vietnam war psychiatrists as Robert Jay Lifton, who claimed that the psychiatric trauma suffered by Vietnam veterans was unique. In other words, since Vietnam was worse than earlier conflicts, returning soldiers were suffering severe psychological effects specific to the war. 

Vietnam also marked a related change in military psychiatry. In World War I, the psychological stress of combat went under the name of “shell shock”; in World War II, it became “combat fatigue.” In both of these conflicts, the goal of military psychiatrists was to return the soldier to combat as quickly as possible. Approaches differed, but the idea was that the traumatized soldiers should be treated as close to the front as possible. Of course, not all could be returned to combat, and many who could be had to be treated farther to the rear.

The World War II approach was nicely captured by the 1963 movie Captain Newman, M.D., starring Gregory Peck, Angie Dickinson, Tony Curtis, and Bobby Darin, who received a best-supporting-actor Academy Award nomination for his role as a traumatized soldier. He is cured and returned to combat, only to be killed in action, illustrating the military psychiatrist’s dilemma. 

Despite the recognition by the medical profession that psychological trauma was a reality, those suffering from such maladies were often seen as malingerers or even cowards. A case in point involved Lt. Gen. George Patton, who on two occasions slapped and berated soldiers who were patients at evacuation hospitals but without physical injuries during the Sicily campaign in 1943.

As Eric T. Dean noted in his fascinating book Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War, psychiatrists had traditionally seen their job as “salvaging” the agitated soldier and returning him to combat. But with Vietnam, psychiatry moved from a cooperative stance vis- à-vis the military to an adversarial one; the new goal was to keep soldiers from returning to combat. Dean quotes a psychiatrist who wrote:

Out of kinship with the veterans, some professionals have moved beyond therapy alone, and toward advocacy; we have entered actively into public affairs. Our goal is to give the widest publicity to the unique emotional experiences of these men; to do so, we go—together with the veterans—wherever we will be heard: conventions, war crimes hearings, churches, Congress, even abroad. 

As Dean wrote, “PTSD has formed a perfect bridge between the horrors of combat in Vietnam and the supposedly widespread readjustment problems of its veterans.” Today’s PTSD disease orientation, focused on an irreparably “broken” veteran, is directly traceable to Vietnam. 

The ideological basis of PTSD as a disease caused by service in Vietnam gave opponents of that war an incentive to claim that the malady was very widespread, leading to soaring estimates of the disorder’s incidence among Vietnam veterans. Indeed, some have claimed that as many as half of those who served in Vietnam suffered from the malady. This seems implausible given the fact that only about 15 percent of those who served in Vietnam took part in combat. 

But the ideological predisposition to over-diagnose PTSD soon became linked to a bureaucratic one. Just as PTSD was becoming an issue after Vietnam, the Veterans Administration was facing budget cuts due to the precipitous decline in the World War II veteran population. Thus the VA had an incentive to over-diagnose PTSD in order to protect its budget. Ideology and the self-interest of bureaucrats constitute a powerful combination.

In addition, there is a conceptual problem that helps to explain some of the recent travails of the VA. Most diagnoses of PTSD fail to distinguish between the stress that most combat veterans experience in the aftermath of combat—post-traumatic stress or PTS—and a more or less permanently disabling neuropsychiatric disease—PTSD properly understood. Just about anyone who has been exposed to combat has at one time or another exhibited symptoms of PTS: hypervigilance, flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, depression, guilt—particularly survivor’s guilt—and psychic numbing.

 But most veterans prevail over their demons and, like Odysseus, return “home.” Thus as Gen. Mattis observes, the crucible of combat can lead to post-traumatic growth. 

The problem is that all too often, PTS and PTSD are conflated. This is probably one factor that has led to the current scandals afflicting the VA. Is that agency dragged down by bureaucratic inertia and incompetence, even criminal incompetence? The answer is most certainly yes (for more on this, see the excellent reporting by Mark Flatten in the Washington Examiner). But it is also the case that the VA is swamped by disability claims for PTSD, which—for bureaucratic and political reasons, as suggested before—is over-diagnosed. 

In August 2013 President Obama acknowledged as much in a speech to disabled veterans:

The last time I was with you, I pledged to cut the backlog, slash those wait times, deliver your benefits sooner. And I’m going to be honest with you; it has not moved as fast as I wanted. Part of it is all these new veterans in the system who came in—Agent Orange, PTSD. It means a lot more claims, and despite additional resources, it’s resulted in longer waits. And that’s been unacceptable—unacceptable to me, unacceptable to Secretary Shinseki.

Not all of these additional claims are valid, and in a bureaucratic version of Gresham’s Law, bad claims of PTSD often drive out good. 

The veteran-as-victim narrative has hampered efforts by those who want to distinguish between valid and invalid claims of neuropsychiatric disorder resulting from combat. Attempts to draw the distinction have often been blocked by the assumption that to question any claim of a veteran is to deny him what is his by right, reinforcing the veteran’s status as a victim. The tragedy here is that unjustified claims of disability arising from the over-diagnosis of PTSD mean that less money is available to ensure that those truly suffering are receiving the care they need. 

A milestone of sorts in the veteran-as-victim narrative occurred near the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when he signed legislation authorizing a plaque near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to commemorate veterans who died after the Vietnam war of maladies attributed to Agent Orange and PTSD. According to the New York Times, “experts estimate that the number of veterans who died from these conditions is at least equal to the number inscribed on the wall, 58,220.” There is not an ounce of scientific evidence to support this breathtaking assertion. 

Worse, the addition of the plaque to the memorial reinforces the stereotype of the Vietnam war veteran as victim. Indeed, the Times made the connection explicitly in its headline: “New Category of Victims at the Vietnam Memorial.”

But the veterans of the Vietnam war themselves have rejected this victim narrative. In response to a comprehensive VA survey taken in 1980, 91 percent of respondents who had seen combat in Vietnam reported that they were “glad they had served their country.” A healthy 80 percent disagreed with the statement that “the U.S. took advantage of me.” Nearly two out of three said that they would go to Vietnam again—even knowing how the war would end.

If Vietnam veterans have largely rejected the veteran-as-victim narrative, so have the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they also have had to make the journey of Odysseus, the return from war to peace. Iraq war veteran Danelo describes it this way:

As we return .  .  . we feel ourselves growing strong in our center. Like stressed vines making wine, the broken places strengthen our resolve and sweeten our spirits. Combat’s magic and malevolence can never leave us, but we draw on the same places inside us as we move ahead. . . .

When we first come home .  .  . awareness of the fundamental truths of war and peace, appreciation of their euphoric and tragic dualities, and application of combat’s virtues in routine contexts makes us masters of the universal journeys inside our hearts, minds, and spirits. Violent demons of death and depression threaten, but vibrant dreams of dynamism and destiny emerge. We engage with the constant, but not impossible struggle to direct combat’s mental and emotional energy towards a civilian life that is getting more confusing and chaotic every day.

This is what Gen. Mattis means by post-traumatic growth, and it, more than the disease orientation of PTSD, describes the journey home that most veterans successfully make. 

There are two images that serve as metaphors for the veteran’s return from war. The first, which beautifully captures the duality of human life, is Homer’s description in The Iliad of the Shield of Achilles, which depicts, among other things, the city at war and the city at peace. Of course Achilles, unlike most veterans, will never get to enjoy the fruits of the city at peace. 

The second is a passage from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval epic Parzival, which illuminates the psychological split within the veteran engendered by war: “Shame and honor clash where the courage of a steadfast man is motley like the magpie. But such a man may yet make merry, for Heaven and Hell have equal part in him.” 

Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam, is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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