“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 Walt Kowalski, in “Gran Torino”
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, Kovic is 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. As he gets to the part about his experiences in Vietnam, a baby in the crowd of spectators begins bawling loudly and Kovic’s voice falters. The voices of crying Vietnamese kids blanket his consciousness and he is overwhelmed by the sheer 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, come back and swamp him. Kovic just sits there on his wheelchair, trying to form the words but can’t.
Ron Kovic’s sudden meltdown from simply hearing a baby cry was a reaction known as ‘intrusive recall’, an anxiety disorder which in those days hadn’t yet been recognized as an injury that needed treatment.
We now know that condition well, as Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) – the other war on terror.
Here’s another classic example of PTSD……
“…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, man! I had all these guys back there, my buddies. Out here there’s nothing, man, no buddies. Where is everybody?
Remember Joey Danforth? He was always talking about Vegas and he was always talking about this big fuckin’ red ’58 Chevy convertible. ‘We are gonna cruise till the tires fall off, man’, he’d say.
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. But he kept askin’ and Joey said “Yeah, okay.” 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, screaming. There’s pieces of him all over me and I’m tryin’ to pull him off, you know, my friend, he’s all over me, man! The guy’s fuckin’ insides keep comin’ out and I keep tryin’ ta hold him together! He’s repeatin’ over and over, “I wanna go home, Johnny!” He keeps calling my name! “I wanna go home, Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy!” And I’m lookin’ at him and 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 may be fiction, but it is a very close representation of the senseless mayhem that is war. Combat veterans always say that it is hard to make civilians understand what they have been through. The following account is of a real Vietnam Vet, taken from a 1971 issue of Time Magazine that I chanced upon….
“The noise, the confusion, the suddenness of the shelling, the deadly invisible snipers, the dank heat, the 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’ straight sprint from where we are.
There’s pin-drop silence but we know they are there, behind those trees to the left with their heavy machine guns, waiting. I turn 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, a flesh wound somewhere on his left arm soaking his tunic through.
The Captain is just a kid out of West Point and he has defecated in his pants. I can tell, because in the close quarters of the ditch, the stench of his filth is intense. He is just sittin’ in there, trying to form words but he can’t get them out. I nudge him impatiently and he lets out a hoarse whisper,” I want to see my Mommy. I want my Mommy…”
I remove his army-issue Colt from his holster and put it to his head and order him to pull himself together and issue the command….“
Close your eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like for the GI who wrote this account. You’ll find it hard if you have been a civilian all your life. Most would look at the captain who had simply snapped, with derision.
I have an American colleague, Stan, whose late father had been a navigator in B-24 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 that had several large lorry manufacturing plants, belonging to the auto major, Deutz. These factories were believed to be churning out armored personnel carriers for the Wehrmacht.
It was December 1944 and Stan’s dad’s squadron had been told that the Luftwaffe had been completely wiped out and therefore the bombers were flying that night without fighter escort. 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 blockbusters would be followed by white phosphorus and thermite incendiary bombs that would the set the rushing air on fire, incinerating everything.
A pair of Messerschmitt-109s suddenly appeared out of nowhere and tore into the lumbering B-24s with their 20mm cannons. The plane that Stan’s dad was in took multiple hits. Both right engines and the complete right wing were chewed up and the fuselage and tail section ripped to shreds. They were going down.
As the big plane tipped its nose for the downward spiral, Stan’s father jumped directly over the city. He suffered a cracked ankle as he hit a stretch of ground that was covered with jagged rocks, right next to a street that was paved with asphalt. It was a grotesque sight straight from hell.
The asphalt had melted and was boiling in the heat of the white phosphorus. 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. Tortured 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 Stan’s dad 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 post traumatic stress.
Why does one man succumb to PTSD 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 PTSD cases among WWII veterans.
I posed this to Stan and he said his father and his buddies saw WWII as a “just war”, one that America had entered reluctantly, only because its allies needed it’s support. The American GIs knew who the enemy was. They knew what they were fighting for and they were proud of that noble goal. The war galvanized and united America and when it was over, it paved the road to unprecendented prosperity and power.
In comparison, the Vietnam War was very different. At the height of the Vietrnam War(1967), the US Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara commissioned a top-secret study that would cover the entire history of American involvement in Indochina, right from the end of WWII. Maybe he wanted to record it for posterity.
The resulting 47-volume document, now famous as “The Pentagon Papers” described in vivid detail an infamous 1964 plan to create NSA-doctored radar images that were made to look like North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacking a US Navy destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. The goal was to conjure up the justification to launch military attacks inside North Vietnam, a sovereign nation that had never done the US any harm.
That NSA subterfuge is now infamous as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It started the Vietnam War.
Deceit doesn’t remain under wraps for long and by 1971, The Pentagon Papers was being serialized and published chapter and verse by the New York Times and the Washington Post. (Check out the 2017 Steven Spielberg movie “The Post” which is centered on the Pentagon Papers).
The exposé left Americans feeling cheated. GIs returned home defeated, riddled with guilt, from the realization that they had been directly involved in the killings of thousands of innocent civilians in a sovereign nation half a world away, one they had no business being in.
Iraq took the Vietnam deceit one step further. Not only did the US 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 and even convicted as war criminals, had they been from another nation, 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 weapons of mass destruction had indeed been found in Iraq and if Saddam Hussein was found to be really in bed with Osama Bin Laden, would there have been less PTSD cases among Iraq war veterans, since the 2003 invasion could then be termed a just war?
I don’t know, to be honest, but don’t forget to check out Part-2 which I am still working on. Just relax, get yourself a beer and wait. You have nothing better ta do anyway.
Gary Robinson said:
Great article, Achyut. It’s funny but even today you hear among liberal Americans that the Vietnam war was a “mistake,” something the Americans unwittingly became involved in. But in fact it was a carefully calculated assault on a foreign nation that didn’t pose any threat to the Americans. A lot of innocent people around the world have died as a result of American intervention, which explains why so many people dislike the US.
Take it easy, Gary. Donald Trump’s new boot licking NSA chief might read your comments and send in an MQ9 Reaper after you. 🙂
Gary Robinson said:
I keep forgetting, Achyut, they know everything we do on the net. 🙂 I’m as good as doomed, I think. 🙂
Don’t forget ta menshun me in your will, Gary. 😛