Retiring the Vietnam-Vet Stereotype

Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan today are as unlike those who returned from the war in Southeast Asia a generation ago as those soldiers were from the veterans of World War II.
Portrayals of mentally and emotionally scarred veterans in RamboGrey's AnatomyForrest Gump, and Taxi Driver are distorting the public perception of those who have spent time in service.

In the early 1970s, a group of antiwar psychiatrists, most prominently Robert Jay Lifton, renowned for his work on the traumatic impact of Hiroshima, became concerned about the corrosive effect of the Vietnam War on the minds of the men who fought it.  As Lifton told a Senate Committee in 1970, the veteran “returns as a tainted intruder…likely to seek continuing outlets for a pattern of violence to which they have become habituated.” To Lifton, the process of readjustment was one of “rehumanization.”

The stereotype of the mentally scarred vet that seized the public imagination during the Vietnam conflict lingers to this day, in part due to the media’s infatuation with the theme. Films such as Taxi Driver, Rambo, and Coming Home portrayed the veteran as a "walking time bomb.” Print media told much the same story. In 1972, the New York Times ran a front-page story, "Postwar Shock Is Found to Beset Veterans Returning from the War in Vietnam," reporting that half of all Vietnam veterans were “psychiatric casualties of war” in need of "professional help to readjust.”

Today, according to a 2012 poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, over half of the public believes that the majority of post 9/11 veterans suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s a belief that could be hindering, rather than helping, servicemembers returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

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What did Vietnam veterans say about themselves? A large 1980 Harris poll conducted for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs revealed that 90 percent said that, “looking back,” they were either “very glad” or “somewhat glad” to have “served their country.” Eighty percent said that returning home was “about the same or better” than they had “anticipated.” In short, said the pollster’s report, many respondents rejected “sensationalist exaggeration [which bears] little resemblance to the experiences and present realities of the emotional lives of these veterans,” according to the report.

Mostly, veterans said they felt invisible, anonymous, and ignored by the public. Former combat Marine and future U.S. Senator, James H. Webb, observed in 1976 how the men who fought in Vietnam “traditionally lacked access to the media and the power centers of this country.”

In a 1981 National Journal article, Jonathan Rauch quoted Bobby Muller, the head of Vietnam Veterans of America: “The crazed, strung-out vet is exactly the image we are trying to dispel.”

But these images and perspectives were largely obscured.   

Today, the voices of veterans of the post-9/11 wars are coming through loud and clear, thanks to a variety of nonprofits, as well as the outreach efforts and blogs of the veterans themselves.

Lt. Col. Daniel Gade, now an Assistant Professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, lost a leg and nearly his life fighting in Iraq. He has recovered, but he’s concerned about his fellow veterans.  Too often, Gade recently wrote at National Affairs, the emphasis from well-meaning helpers is “on what an injured soldier is not able to do [rather] than on increasing what he is able to do.” And doing, Gade makes clear, is the powerful engine behind a successful transition to civilian life.

David Eisler, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a graduate student at Columbia University, cautions in The New York Times about “eye-catching headlines about post-traumatic stress disorder and difficulties readjusting to civilian life after years of war.” It’s more nuanced than that. “It’s surely possible,” he later wrote to us, “for a veteran to be asset to a corporation or as a public servant, even if he also required some degree of care and attention outside work.”

Presented by

Sally Satel and Richard J. McNally

Sally Satel is a practicing psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Richard J. McNally is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and is the author of the book What Is Mental Illness?

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