Opinion » Bill Cope

The Never-Ending Nam

Do we live in a collaterally damaged land?


Almost seven years ago, I wrote an article for this paper on the effects of PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—on combat veterans. It was in no way groundbreaking, nor did it expose anything new about the disorder that hasn't been known for decades, even centuries, though the nomenclature may have changed from one war to another. I had two reasons for thinking the world needed another examination of PTSD, one being that in the midst of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps Americans could use a reminder of what was in store for the returning vets, those sons and husbands and brothers (not to leave out their female counterparts from more recent wars) who had answered a call to duty that, for many, would turn into a perpetual nightmare.

The other reason was that it seemed to me the great bulk of existing material on what had incited PTSD in soldiers had to do with what those soldiers had been subjected to—the violence, the fear, the horrid things witnessed, the comrades lost—with very little conversation on what those soul-wounded soldiers might have subjected others to. With no military experience of my own, let alone any combat experience, I tried to imagine what would leave the more enduring damage to my personal psychology—having horrible things done to and around me, or the horrible things I might be called upon to do.

My research—including interviews with vets of past wars and mental health professionals whose calling it was to help those stricken with PTSD—led me to believe what I suspected to be true from the start, that doing violence onto others was to some immeasurable degree more damaging to a normal human being's essence than having violence done on him. Applied to soldiers, there is no mystery as to why that is true: The actual combatants experience the same terrors as the non-combatants, plus the terrors they wreak upon the enemy.

I admit that what I found was what I expected to find. But there was an aspect to the PTSD curse that I wasn't expecting: The concept of secondary PTSD, being the disruption and disorder those cursed with the causal experiences pass on to those they come home to. Again, there is no mystery why: As the most common symptoms of PTSD are substance abuse, sleep disorders, drastic mood swings, distrust of others and suicidal tendencies, it is hard to imagine the initially afflicted are not traumatizing those closest to them. If we looked no further than the dramatic rate of divorce among returning veterans, we would have to acknowledge that PTSD cuts a wide swath.

I have thought sporadically about this secondary PTSD over the years since I did that article, secretly wondering how many women had endured the pain of living with, or leaving, a man who could escape his own pain only with drugs or drunkenness. How many children grew up with a father they could not trust because he had left his own trust on a battlefield far away? How many mothers and fathers lived the tragedy of a once-loving son slipping out of their grasp into suicide? How often might we have traced, had we been looking in the right places, a case of domestic violence or unexplainable madness back to the seed from which it sprang, a generation (or two or three) earlier? How much of the dysfunction currently plaguing this society has its roots in the young sons and husbands and brothers who came back shattered from war, and had to live out the rest of their lives trying to cope with their very nature so distorted by this psychological scar tissue?

As I watched, a couple of weeks back, the series of documentaries PBS presented to commemorate the 40 years that have passed since the Vietnam War came to an end, the wonder returned with renewed vigor. The dreaded draft... the anti-war demonstrations... the guys leaving as boys and returning as troubled men... the endless film of body bags and screaming wounded being loaded onto helicopters... the specter of our nation's capitol turned into a militarized zone of opposing angry forces... the piles of dead peasants lying in the ditches of My Lai... the dead students lying on the grass of Kent State... the visions of American boys wreathed with necklaces of ears they'd sliced off the bodies of enemy soldiers...the American construction workers attacking American protesters in New York... the mobs of terrified Vietnamese clinging to the landing gear of anything that might take them away from a country ruined from 30 years of constant conflict... the sense of shame and rage and abandonment and betrayal and infamy that every American felt, regardless of whom they blamed for it all... other than a full-blown civil war or an invasion, how much more trauma could have befallen a country? Especially since, as I believe to this day, that it was America wreaking terrible violence on a fragile place to which we were not justified to go.

Could it explain why our modern America seems to be floundering so clumsily?... to understand that what we did over there came back to haunt us, one soldier at a time, one family at a time? To understand that, until we acknowledge how much damage we did in Vietnam—to ourselves as well as to the Vietnamese—we can never be healthy again?