That's Vietnam, Jake | The Nation


That's Vietnam, Jake

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Nicosia not only fails to improve the verisimilitude of his story line by consulting publications like those suggested above but inexplicably ignores a work that liberates the ageless condition of war madness from the private obscurity of psychiatric research and places the issue of postwar readjustment for veterans solidly on both the sociological and public agenda: Paul Starr's The Discarded Army: Veterans After Vietnam. Also overlooked, perhaps for being too openly progressive, are more recent works of high academic quality, like Hunt's The Turning, in which the Vietnam veteran experience is never separated from the war or the other conditions that shaped it. Another such indispensable source would be Christian Appy's Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (North Carolina), which correlates lower socioeconomic status with the high risk of dying in combat, thus contextualizing in class terms the apparent contradiction underlying widespread support for the war within blue-collar communities, as distinguished from the more impersonal interests of the war's managers and their corporate backers, whose ambitions and bottom lines could only be fertilized with cannon fodder from the most dispensable stocks.

About the Author

Michael Uhl
Michael Uhl served with the 11th Infantry in Vietnam, co-founded Citizen Soldier and is a charter member of Veterans...

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Will the "unpredictable" nature of this war lead to the kind of malaise in the military that was so costly to troop morale and discipline during Vietnam?

Indeed, there is much evidence in his text to suggest that Nicosia is somewhat spooked by things progressive--say, the presence of the left throughout the early episodes of veteran activism. Many Nation readers, I imagine, might find the author of Home to War a bit too quick on the draw to identify--with no leavening gloss or commentary--"Communist" and "Trotskyist" influences in the antiwar movement. The fact that Nicosia expresses many liberal sentiments and is a self-described pacifist makes it all the more curious that the red-scare atmospherics of the cold war seem to exercise such influence over his critical capacities.

When Nicosia's text is left unclouded by such underexamined anxieties, it is at its most valuable. The chapter and verse account in Home to War of the protracted campaign on the fringes of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to establish and legitimize the diagnostic criteria for PTSD will be of interest to veterans and specialists alike. The author correctly locates the genesis of this campaign within the antiwar movement. It started when many vets who had already testified publicly about the heinous war crimes they or their units had committed sought relief from tormented memories through some form of group-oriented therapeutic intervention. Through their antiwar activities in 1970-71, the vets came into contact with psychiatrist and postwar trauma expert Robert Lifton, an active opponent of the war who worked to expose its atrocity-producing nature (a characterization understood fully by anyone who'd fought in Vietnam). Joined by his colleague Chaim Shatan, the two psychiatrists helped organize therapy sessions known as "rap groups" in the New York offices of VVAW.

Exploiting this radical initiative, several Vietnam-vets-turned-psychologists laid siege to the psychiatric establishment, energetically guided by Shatan and aided by the collaboration of a small but empathic cadre of mental health professionals working throughout the VA. Only by the end of the decade, when the clinical data had become so overwhelmingly unavoidable, did these advocates for treatment of what was initially termed PVS--Post-Vietnam Syndrome--finally see their unstinting efforts rewarded by the insertion of paragraph 309.89 establishing PTSD as a recognized illness in the revised edition of the APA's diagnostic manual, the DSM III. A subsequent manual would describe as the "essential features" of this disorder "the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury...or witnessing an event that involves death, injury or a threat to the physical integrity of another person."

A most bizarre spin was put on PTSD and the history of its eventual acceptance within the world of establishment psychiatry by Holy Cross College sociologist and Vietnam vet Jerry Lembcke, in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU). It's an interesting sidebar, and one that Nicosia might have profitably addressed, but doesn't, in Home to War. Professor Lembcke holds that the concern of doctors Lifton and Shatan with the postwar emotions of Vietnam veterans was, wittingly or otherwise, aimed at the depoliticization of the radical veterans' movement. The two PTSD advocates are accused of no less than "the construction of a mental health discourse that would displace the political discourse that had, up to that point, framed interpretations of Vietnam veterans' experiences." Apparently Lembcke's sociopolitical vision does not permit the "bad"--politically radical--and the "mad"--clinically neurotic, borderline or psychotic--to coexist within the same human actor. Thus he marks the inevitable demobilization of the radical Vietnam veterans' movement as the outcome of a conscious conspiracy by meddling liberals, rather than as a function of the limited possibilities for expansion provided by an American culture so rapidly turning rightward. A much stripped down but still effective VVAW continues to exist, but then again, so does the IWW.

In drawing his account to a close, Nicosia devotes many pages to--though by no means provides the whole picture of--the legal and political wrangling that drove and energized the product-liability suits against Dow and other manufacturers of Agent Orange well into the mid-1980s. There is much as well on the protracted lobbying and legislative intrigues that endured the 1980s into the 1990s--and that are as yet unsettled--to win care and compensation from Congress through the VA for the many medical conditions that are now at least statistically associated with exposure to herbicides.

Omitted from Nicosia's recasting of the Agent Orange story, among other things, is the political alchemy of a handful of New Left activists, some around Citizen Soldier, the organization founded by Tod Ensign and myself, that transformed a local exposé televised in Chicago into a national crusade. The feature distinguishing those players whose efforts are central to Nicosia's reportage from those whose historically critical activities he ignores is the political agenda of the latter, who insisted that responsibility for Agent Orange-related illnesses could not be separated from responsibility for the war itself. Those vets, myself included, were struggling to keep Vietnam alive as the best means of preventing future Vietnams. We were--and continue--fighting for a historical interpretation that applies the word "aggression" to the US intervention in Vietnam, not the word "mistake." But as Nicosia's narrative quite accurately reveals, the potential for the Agent Orange controversy to embody that political objective for long was pre-empted by a litigation strategy against Dow and the major herbicide manufacturers. When settled, the class action did not come close to providing adequate compensation for those who required care, but the effort was by no means without value for political education on the effects of commercial toxins on human health. Nor did it lack historical significance, for attacking corporate prestige.

Home to War is voluminous and contains at least one version of everything you've ever wanted know about Vietnam veterans, and their/our high-profile exposure over the past thirty years. One would like to think that many of these accounts are more accurately reported than the ones of which I have, and have signaled, firsthand knowledge here. While Nicosia is clearly full of sympathy for his subject (if perhaps a trifle overfascinated), Vietnam veterans in this portrayal only rarely transcend their ambiguous status as tabloid curiosities or hallowed icons of patriotism: vets who act by acting out. As for a deeper probe into the explanatory realms of postwar readjustment and the veteran culture of entitlements in America--and the place of Vietnam veterans therein--the reader will have to look elsewhere.

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