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.
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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.”

In fact, though, one of the most important forms of care a veteran can receive is the work itself. Based upon our experience with patients, work is the single most effective key to easing financial stress, marital tensions, and the void of loneliness. Unfortunately, unemployment among veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is almost 10 percent, above the national average. On November 6, Jobs Mission, a consortium of over 100 private companies, announced plans find 200,000 positions for veterans and military spouses by 2020. Their efforts complement campaigns by the White House and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

A sense of engagement in the community is also vital, and while employment contributes to engagement, another component involves the sharing of experiences. “The process of communicating a personal war experience to a formal or public audience serves a critical role in the readjustment of the veteran,” wrote anthropologist Don Gomez, a two-tour Iraq War veteran, in 2011 at Small Wars Journal, a site founded by former Marines. This is an area where blogs and non-profits—like Small Wars Journal—have been particularly effective. (Gomez himself believes that he has benefited from being able to “share my war experience through public writing.”) Another non-profit outfit, The Mission Continues, engages veterans in projects that “bridge the military-civilian divide, allowing veterans to feel more connected to their communities and helping civilians gain a better understanding of and appreciation for our men and women in uniform.”

Though the post-9/11 narrative of re-engagement is more optimistic than its Vietnam counterpart, there’s no doubt that the “after war,” as journalist David Finkel has called it, can go terribly wrong for a small minority, as the reports of suicide in veterans attest. The question is how to interpret the numbers: Who is committing suicide, and for what reasons?

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs puts the numbers of veterans who die by suicide at between 18-22 per day. While the percentage of all suicides nationwide reported as “veteran” has decreased since 2000, the absolute number of suicides by veterans has increased. Yet over half of the veterans who died by suicide last year were over 50 years of age; far fewer were from the post-9/11 cohort. 

Contrary to expectation, the roots of suicide do not appear to lie in the number or extent of deployments, exposure to combat, or to PTSD itself, as data from the massive US Millennium Cohort Study indicate.

In fact, according to a study featured in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013, over half of all active duty personnel who died by suicide between July 2001 and December 2008 were never deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and 77 percent of all personnel who died by suicide never saw combat. Instead, the data point to other risk factors, such as mood disorders and alcohol problems. Further factors surely play a role in suicide as well: Financial pressure—exacerbated by recent economic disruption—marital discord, and social isolation, often mixed with alcohol, can be lethal.

War veterans have always faced readjustment problems. The newer generation of veterans does not speak as one, of course, but there are eloquent commonalities in their stories. They don’t downplay the devastation and moral ambiguities of their experience as they seek to connect through writing, teaching, and work. Instead of being told “you couldn’t understand, you weren’t there,” a time-honored way of keeping others at a distance, we’re more apt to hear from people like Gade, Eisler, and Gomez, “let us tell you.” The telling, it turns out, is important.

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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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