Originally published in New Ground 113, July — August, 2007.
by Bob Roman
Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War by Penny Coleman. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. 223 pages, $23.95.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become recognized as an inevitable consequence of war, and this book is a wonderful discussion of PTSD, it’s history, and the efforts (or lack thereof) to treat it in just that context: war. My only problem with the book is that I agree far too much with the author. Why is this a problem? A great part of the book deals with the Vietnam War, a history that is very much in dispute and often written from a particular point of view. I would feel more comfortable, actually, with someone I had political disagreements with.
For example, Coleman discusses the Nixon Administration’s campaign to blame Vietnam veterans’ problems on abuse the veterans suffered from protesters and radicals. The iconic image, of course, is the spat-upon veteran. Coleman uses Jerry Lembcke’s work, The Spitting Image, to refute this; after extensive research, he was unable to find any evidence such a thing happened. But Lembcke’s research could be absolutely solid and still be wrong. Even if it never happened, why does it feel, to many, as though it did? Why would that be of any concern aside from politics? It turns out that one of several things that leaves combat veterans vulnerable to PTSD is a related violation of a sense of “what’s right.” This mostly applies to the soldier’s relations with the military (including peers), but it could apply to the soldier’s relation to society and country in general, especially given that soldiers were rotated out of Vietnam as individuals and not as units. For a good account of just how general a violation of “what’s right” could be during Vietnam, I’d recommend a slim book of poetry first published in 1976: The Long War Dead by Bryan Alec Floyd. As poetry, the quality is uneven but in affect each poem is etched with blood.
Aside from brief excursions into the Trojan and American Revolutionary wars, Penny Coleman begins her history with the American Civil War. The state of medicine in the States did not allow for any consistency in diagnosis, never mind treatment, but some military doctors made astute observations, even if military practice remained barbaric. For the U.S. military, at least, the big breakthrough was World War I. Apparently someone prior to our entry was paying attention to the European experience; the military devised a scheme to provide effective battlefield maintenance, essentially patching up soldiers well enough that they could be sent back to the front though their post-war fates are another matter. Coleman weaves together a number of interesting strands in her discussion of PTSD up to the Vietnam War: advances in psychology that provided insight into what was happening to these soldiers, lessons learned then discarded for bureaucratic convenience in time for the next war with a pretty consistent lack of interest in providing help to soldiers after their wars, and the epidemic of suicide that seems to plague combat veterans.
A majority of the book deals with Vietnam. This is not simply because of Coleman’s interests; the Vietnam war was different. Coleman uses the history recounted earlier in the book to compare and contrast with military practice during the Vietnam war. One of the more presently relevant observations concerns the implementation operant conditioning in military training after World War II. A study found that during that war, 75 to 80 percent of soldiers were not firing their weapons, even when their lives were immediately threatened. By the time of Vietnam, the firing rate had gone from 25 percent to 95 percent.
Intertwined with each chapter are personal testimonies by families of Vietnam veterans, accounts that give immediacy to the issues Coleman is discussing. All of the testimonies involve suicide. Coleman is making a point here, one that needs to be made. And it can be quite affecting, including one widow who exclaims, “This isn’t over, this isn’t over. It’s 1999, and my husband just died from the Vietnam War.”
After reading the book twice, I’m still not certain what all the political implications are. But an important one is the degree to which the Vietnam war was ended not by protest and politics here in the States but by the disintegration of the combat forces in Vietnam. This has become a fashionable observation in the anti-war movement today, recalling especially those soldiers who were active in organized resistance. This is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking on the part of wannabe revolutionaries; Coleman’s book documents that while there was considerable organized resistance, a better part it was very individual and sometimes violent (e.g., “fragging”). But this does suggest that anti-war organizing within the military and among veterans is not to be neglected.
Perhaps Coleman’s conclusion is correct:
“Those injuries to mind, and the deaths they so often provoke, do not deserve to be erased. They deserve to be included in an honest and honorable reckoning of war’s cost. They deserve to have a public as well as a private meaning. Perhaps the naked magnitude of the cost will convince us that finding peaceful solutions to our problems, though a tall order, offers a compelling, motivating ideal…”
Perhaps. Though Nelson Algren’s short story, “pero venceremos” comes to mind. The protagonist, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, spends much of his time in a bar where he reiterates, endlessly, a particularly gruesome encounter in battle to the complete and uncomprehending distraction of his friends and acquaintances. Finally one of his friends tells him to forget it; the battle was a hundred years ago. No, he says, it’s just like yesterday. But after a long pause, he asks, “Did I say yesterday? It wasn’t even yesterday, the way it feels.”
“How does it feel, Denny?”
“It feels more — like tomorrow.”
Illustration: panel detail from 2009(?) Artists of the Wall, photo by Roman.