“The things you did that haunt you the most…they were the things that you weren’t ordered to do.”
– Clint Eastwood’s character, Korean War vet Walk Kowalski, in “Gran Torino”
“…Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge. Back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars! Uhhh!! Where is everybody? I had all these guys man, back there, my buddies. ‘Coz back here there’s nothing, no buddies. Remember Danforth? He wore this black headband and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, “Hey mail us to Las Vegas, man.” Danforth was always talking about Vegas and he was always talking about this fucking red ’58 Chevy convertible. He said,’ we are gonna cruise till the tires fall off, man’ … Then we were in this bar in Saigon and this kid comes up, this little kid carrying a shoe-shine box. And he says “Shine, please, shine!” I said no. He kept askin’ and Joey said “Yeah.” And I went to get a couple of beers. The box was wired and the kid opened up the box, fucking blew his body all over the place. And Danforth, he’s layin’ there, he’s fucking screaming. There’s pieces of him all over me, just like this, and I’m tryin’ to pull him off, you know, my friend, he’s all over me, man! I’ve got blood and everything and I’m tryin’ to hold him together! The guy’s fuckin’ insides keep comin’ out! And nobody would help! He’s sayin’ “I wanna go home, Johnny!” He keeps calling my name! “I wanna go home, Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy!” I’m thinkin’, “With what? I can’t find your fuckin’ legs!”
— John J Rambo, Green Beret, in the 1982 film ‘First Blood’
The above is fiction, but it is a very close representation of the senseless mayhem that is war. Ask a combat veteran and he will say that it is hard to make civilians understand what they have been through. Here’s an authentic Vietnam Vet’s narration…
“The noise, the confusion, the suddenness of shelling, the deadly invisible snipers, the dank, incessant rain, the terror and with it, the desire to stay put even though that could cost me my life. The nearest cover is a large rocky outcrop about a hundred meters from where we are. It is a straight sprint. There’s pin-drop silence but we know they are there, behind those trees to the left, with their heavy machine guns, waiting. I turned to look at the guy closest to me inside the hollow. Its the Captain. The Captain I looked up to on the parade ground, is cowering down there. He is just a kid. He is sitting there in his filth since he has just defecated in his uniform and he is trying to form words but he can’t get them out. I remove his Colt M1911 from his holster and put it to his head and order him to pull himself together and issue the command“
Before I start, let’s just watch this clip from the Oliver Stone film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’. The movie is a true account, based on the life of paraplegic Vietnam vet, Ron Kovic, skilfully played by Tom Cruise…
In the clip, he is shown being given a hero’s welcome in his neighborhood, after his return. Asked to say a few words, Kovic begins warming to his speech, waxing eloquent about how America is doing the right thing in Vietnam and will surely win the war in the end. When he gets to the part about his experiences in Vietnam, he is overwhelmed by the untruth in the rosy picture he just presented. The stark sounds of Nam, the thaka thaka thaka beat of a Huey’s turbo-shaft engine, swamp him. Kovic just sits there on his wheelchair, trying to form the words but can’t.
What Ron Kovic faced that day at the lectern were symptoms known as ‘intrusive recall’, of an anxiety disorder which hadn’t yet been recognized as an injury that needed treatment. We now know it well as Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD).
I have an American colleague, Stan, whose late father had been a navigator in B24 Liberators during the Second World War. He flew over forty sorties and bailed out twice over German territory. The first time, it was very close to the Swiss border and he managed to slip across to freedom and find his way back to his squadron in Malta.
His second jump was in December, 1944. His squadron was on a bombing run over Ulm, an industrial town deep inside Germany where there were several large lorry manufacturing plants, belonging to the auto major, Deutz, which were believed to be making armored personnel carriers for the Wehrmacht.
The bombers were flying that night without fighter escort. They had been told that the Luftwaffe had been completely wiped out. The planes were carrying 2-ton ‘blockbuster’ bombs that were meant to churn up the air and cause turbulence over the city’s boulevards. The white phosphorus and thermite incendiary bombs would then follow, setting the rushing air on fire, incinerating everything.
A pair of Messerschmitt109s suddenly appeared out of nowhere and tore into the lumbering B24s with their 20mm cannons. The plane he was in took multiple hits, with both right engines and the complete right wing chewed up and the fuselage and tail section ripped to shreds. As the big plane tipped its nose for the downward spiral, he jumped directly over the city.
He suffered a cracked ankle as he hit a stretch of ground that was covered with jagged rocks, next to a street whose asphalt had melted and was boiling in the heat of the white phosphorus bombs. Flames were licking up from the bubbling black tar. Here and there, people were stuck in the tar. They were on their hands and knees, trying to extricate themselves. They were stark naked, their clothes having been blown off their bodies by the blast of the firestorm.
Stan’s Dad was immediately spotted and captured and he spent the remaining months of the war as a POW inside a nearby prison camp run by hardened SS-Totenkopfen. Repeatedly beaten and deliberately starved, he lost 60lbs in the six months that he was incarcerated there. By the time he was liberated at the end of the war, he was barely alive.
Despite being brutalized in the prison camp and witnessing horrifying scenes of death and destruction for five long years, the old man survived, regained his health, settled down to a solid family life, went on to build a successful business and finally passed on peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of 94, last summer. He had never shown any signs whatsoever of PTSD.
Why does one man succumb to post-traumatic stress while another is able to shrug off the horror and move on?
Let me take this a bit further. If one were to compare the horrors of the Second World War with the Vietnam War, there is no question that the WWII was far more horrific. Yet, the surviving Allied military personnel of the Second World War appeared to have weathered it more ably, since we never heard of a rush of post-war stress-related issues.
There could be another answer to what fueled PTSD in Vietnam vets – guilt, from the realization that it was an ‘unjust’ war and they, the aggressors, had no business being there. That the Vietnam War was an unjust war, there is now very little doubt left. The war is widely known to have been initiated by the US through a deliberate act of provocation, which is now infamous as the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
In comparison, the Second World War has always been seen as a just war. Stan says his Dad averred with this view. His Dad always said,” We knew who the enemy was. We knew what we were fighting for. The war was liberating for women. It was a cleaner war than World War I. Americans were united. Soldiers were proud. It paved the way to prosperity and power.”
Iraq (2003) took the Vietnam deceit one step further. Not only did it participate in a subterfuge designed to fool the world about a non-existent threat, but it showed America to be capable of harboring leaders who might otherwise have been prosecuted as war criminals, had they been from another nation and probably even convicted, if the existing international treaties on war crimes were allowed to be applied.
In terms of the number of diagnosed cases of PTSD, the 2003 Iraq war has even larger numbers which, according to a study, is expected to cost the US exchequer billions to treat over the next two decades. If WMD had in fact been there and if Saddam was found to be really in bed with Osama Bin Laden, would there have been less PTSD cases among Iraq war veterans, since then maybe it could be termed a just war? I don’t know, to be honest.
Currently, the largest category of combatants who are susceptible to PTSD is seemingly the most unlikely, given the fact that these fighters never get to smell the burning flesh and cordite of actual combat, being situated inside secure air-conditioned bases, thousands of miles from the war zone. They are the new-age warriors of today – the drone pilots.
Drone pilots are like ordinary folk who work a 9 to 5 job. Sitting half a world away at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA, they kill in the line of duty, people who have done them or their nation personally no harm. They have no rules of engagement. Just a simple, uncomplicated drawl over the headphones,’ This one looks like a bad guy. He is moving around suspiciously. Burn the m—er f—er.’ There is a simple two-man chain of command that cuts through all red tape and makes it easy to do what the drone is supposed to do: kill.
Then, after their shift gets over, they strut out into the dazzling Nevada sun and drive home in their souped-up F350 trucks. At home, they have work to do – take their kids out for their little league baseball and maybe a slice of pizza after.
Drone pilots careen between two vastly different lives, all within the span of 24 hours – wholesale slaughter where women and children get vaporized and then being home, leading a peaceful family life, day in and day out. It can be devastating to the basic sense of humanity that most humans are born with.
The drone pilot’s initial sense of playing God, instantly annihilating people at will, ultimately gives way to massive guilt at the enormity of the wanton mayhem that he willingly participates in. He finds it difficult to understand how what he is doing can ‘save American lives’. Is it possible for someone to be able to absorb this kind of guilt-laced stress on a daily basis and go on leading a normal family life? I doubt that very much.
Participating in gut-wrenching brutality on a day-to-day basis was commonplace, maybe even the norm, up to the middle ages, when the victors were expected to rape, enslave, pillage and burn. Monarchs and military commanders had to be ruthless to earn respect and maintain order. Good governance was another word for ruling by terror. The great Mongol chieftain, Genghiz Khan, at the gates of the besieged Jin Dynasty city of Xi Xia in 1209, had this to say to his troops….
“Nothing should make you happier than to chop off the head of your enemy, burn his temples, snatch away his gold and enjoy his wives and his daughters and savor his despair.”
The Khan went on to practice exactly what he preached. He was not being unduly cruel as per the perceptions of the time. He was just following the norm through the ages. Annihilation, Genghiz Khan-style, was already a well-established war-craft by then for 4000 years.
Take the Babylonians in 680BC, when the city fell to the mighty Assyrian King Sennacherib. You wouldn’t want to be there. Sennacherib’s account of the plunder went thus….
“…I leveled the city and its houses from the foundations to the top, I destroyed them, and I consumed them with fire. I tore down and removed the outer and inner walls, the temples and ziggurats built of brick, and dumped the rubble in the Arahtu canal. And after I destroyed Babylon, smashed its gods and massacred its population, I tore up its soil and threw it into the Euphrates so that it was carried by the river down to the sea…”
(Sennacherib’s was a more labor-intensive method of destruction than the ‘Little Boy’ or the ‘Fat Man’, but the effect must have been about the same.)
Do the history books mention any PTSD among the hoi-polloi of either Babylon or Xi Xia? Heck, empires and city-states were constantly rising and falling, challenged by rampaging nomads from the surrounding grasslands, for millennia. Being treated barbarically, having dear ones ravaged right in front of their eyes and seeing blood and gore was almost a weekly occurrence in most ‘civilized’ regions of the ancient world. I’d imagine that around 95% of the world population must have experienced some kind of serious long-term trauma in those times. Yet, the world on the whole appears to have shaped up over the centuries quite well and we, their descendants, seem to have not only shaken off the trauma but progressed by leaps and bounds, to where we are today.
In all fairness, some strong arguments against the ‘just war’ theory also exist. Many believe that the premise that a morally justified war is psychologically clean and therefore PTSD-free, is a myth. They argue that there were in fact comparable numbers of the PTSD-afflicted among WW2 vets too. The vets just didn’t know they had it, calling it simply, ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’. Unaware that PTSD was a sickness that needed treatment, they kept it to themselves and just sort of muddled along, trying to make the best of what post-war life had to offer them.
I still believe that the good guys and the oppressed tend to suffer less from PTSD.
Take the Vietnamese, for example. In those 11 years that they fought the Americans, nearly 1.6 million gave up their lives. They suffered horrible burns from Napalm and they were consumed by Agent Orange. Countless others died in massacres such as the one at the hamlet of Mai Lai in 1968, when American soldiers went berserk, killing hundreds of innocent villagers. We recall Tây Vinh, Gò Dài, Binh Tai, Tinh Son, Bình Hòa and last but not the least, ‘Operation Speedy Express’ which was a macabre ‘reverse hearts and minds’ effort that killed 11000 innocent Vietnamese villagers.
The list of known massacres committed by the US troops is pretty long. In comparison, the American deaths were 52000, lesser by a factor of 1 in 32. The incidences of PTSD would naturally be expected to be in the same proportion, but it is just the opposite, as per a research funded by The American-Vietnamese Friendship Foundation, presented in 2005. The study found that as against 35% for American vets, only 19% of the Vietnamese vets were found to have PTSD.
Interestingly, a similar trend was noticed in another study comparing British and American WW2 vets. It was observed that the number of Americans suffering from ‘combat fatigue’ (they didn’t call it PTSD then) was double that of the British. The British and the Vietnamese had one thing in common. They were fighting for their very survival. Perhaps having a solid reason to fight staved off PTSD in both cases.
We note how holocaust survivors have rebuilt their lives. Almost to the very last man, they have picked up the pieces and moved on to build successful careers in business and industry wherever they settled after the war. I’m not saying they didn’t have the occasional nightmare. They did, but they chose to look beyond.
When the state of Israel was still young, it was teeming with holocaust survivors. Out of a total Jewish population in 1948 of 806000, holocaust survivors made up 250000, which means that one out if three Israelis was a holocaust survivor, a walking skeleton with a damaged psych.
If any one group of people were to be expected to suffer from massive long-term PTSD, it was the Israelis. Instead, just the opposite happened in Israel. It farmed the arid land, set up its own industry and built one of the world’s most feared defence forces. It fought off murderous neighbours on all sides and took the battle into their territory.
Fighting for their survival and building a nation at the same time kept the holocaust survivors in Israel busy and saved their nation from becoming a basket case. Stray incidences of PTSD did begin to crop up in the 1980s, when the holocaust survivors began leading retired lives with very little to occupy them and in some cases, became lonesome, with a spouse dead and nobody to talk to and a tiny percentage of them began having nightmares related to PTSD.
I think I’ll stick with my ‘just war’ theory.