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Winter Soldier

Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971

Sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc.

Part I

MODERATOR. Tonight, we have on our panel, "What We Are Doing to Ourselves," from Yale University, Dr. Robert J. Lifton; a Vietnamese veteran, Ron McSheffrey; and former Army psychiatrist with the 3rd Field Hospital, now practicing in Detroit, Dr. David Galicia; former Marine veteran, John Geymann; formerly with the Army 8th Field Hospital in Vietnam, psychiatrist Dr. John Bjornson; a lawyer who has dealt with the problems relating to the GIs, Ken Cloke from Los Angeles; and on the end nearest me, Dr. Sid Peck, professor of sociology at Case Western University, now visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tonight we are going to deal with the problem of the effects of the war in Vietnam upon the United States, dealing rather heavily with the problems of the veteran and how they relate in a total picture to the problems facing the United States. Dr. Lifton has spent quite a bit of time studying what is known as the post-Vietnamese syndrome and Dr. Lifton, I'd like you to begin by explaining what happens to these men after they return from Vietnam.

LIFTON. I think that I'd like to do in the few minutes I have is outline in a very broad and general way some of the things that those of us who have been working with Vietnam veterans have discovered. Personally, I've been talking to Vietnam veterans for the last 18 months or so, individually and in groups, and some of us have formed informal rap sessions, in New York, at which we've discussed in some detail and thoroughness, the emotions, feelings, difficulties, and possibilities that Vietnam veterans feel. Some of this I've discussed also before a senatorial subcommittee on veterans last year. I think the first point I'd like to make, and make very strongly, is the psychological difference of this war, for a veteran, as compared to other wars.

One way that the American public, or some of the American public, tries to slough off the depth of harm this war is doing to all of our society, is to say, well, war is _____, it happens in war, people become dehumanized, this is just the way it is with war. But I think one has to look at certain features of the experience in this war that are very special to Vietnam. I can name one or two of them and they are decisive, it seems to me.

There is no structure of fighting in this war that gives it any meaning or psychological satisfaction for the participants. In other words, in most wars, one suffers, one loses buddies, one becomes what we think of as a survivor. But then one has some means of finding the survivor's significance, which is the task of a survivor, getting over the guilt one feels about staying alive while one's buddy dies, by getting back at the enemy in some structure of warfare. Battle lines, a way of being brave, and so on. Here, as all of you know, much better than I do, there is no clear enemy; he's everywhere and nowhere. One can't find him and there are no battle lines, certainly.

There is no psychological satisfaction in any self-respecting form with which to cope with the enormous confusion and guilt that one experiences. One is under great danger in Vietnam, as an American GI, and one does undergo this guilt with the loss of buddies. Moreover, when one comes back to the society, it is quite clear that one does not return a hero, either in other's eyes or one's own eyes. It's more than just not being a hero. There's an overall sense, shared by the larger society, whatever its position about the war, and the vets themselves, that this is a dirty war.

It has no justification, no inner necessity. So the returning veteran, who has a psychological need, as he returns from any war, to make his difficult transition into civilian life by in some way giving significance to what he did in his war, has no such opportunity, because he can't, in any way, inwardly approve of what he has done in this war. Nor can the rest of society find sources of pride for him or acceptance or necessity about this war. Both the veteran and the larger society see him the taint of this filthy, unnecessary, immoral war. That aspect of the war itself has a lot to do with the way in which veterans experience their psychological difficulties just as the experiences in Vietnam leading to atrocities are directly related to the illusions of the political conduct and military conduct of the war.

Now, let me explain what I mean by that. If we think of the burdens that the Vietnam veteran brings back with him into society, inner burdens he carries, I think the most immediate and the one that everyone is aware of most, is a burden of convoluted guilt. It's been, in a sense, imposed upon the GI, the veterans who fought the war, because he cannot, in any sense, justify or give any rational or formulation for having fought the war. He comes back with a taint, that I mentioned. But beyond this burden of convoluted guilt, is the burden of atrocity. It's the sort of thing you've been hearing about all day and you'll hear about for the next couple of days.

There's a quality of atrocity in this war that goes beyond that of other wars in that the war itself is fought as a series of atrocities. There is no distinction between an enemy whom one can justifiably fire at and people whom one murders in less than military situations. It's all thrown together so that every day the distinction between every day activities and atrocities is almost nil. Now if one carries this sense of atrocity with one, one carries the sense of descent into evil. This is very strong in Vietnam vets. It's also strong in the rest of society, and this is what we mean by the primitive or brutalized behavior that there has been so much talk about. I think that this brutalization and the patterns that occur in the war again have to do with the nature of the war we are fighting and the people we've chosen to make our enemies.

This has to do with the atrocities characterizing the war, as often happens in a counterinsurgency of war, we intervene in a civil war or in a revolution in a far-away alien place that you don't understand historically or psychologically, but also with the technological disparity. It's of great psychological significance that Americans go around with such enormous fire power in a technologically under-developed country and develop a kind of uneasy sense of power around their technological fire power, which they then use very loosely, and often with the spirit of a hunter, as we've again heard much about. In all this way, I would stress very strongly, the GI in Vietnam becomes both victim and executioner.

In addition to the burden of atrocity, or in keeping with it, the veteran becomes enormously sensitive to the way in which he's probed or questioned by others in the society at large. And when we talked about this in rap sessions, a lot of vets said, "Well, I just can't stand it when people ask me what I did over there, whether I killed anybody." It turned out that the reason why vets can't stand being asked this question is because they see themselves being accused of having been a monster in some way over there, of having been something less than human. The problem is so great because they inwardly tend to accuse themselves of having been this, and it's one reason why it's so important for vets in making their recovery and undergoing their process of renewal (and I see this kind of meeting as being in the service of that kind of process), that they understand how they were forced by the situation to act in a way that could have led virtually anyone to act in the same way. It has to do with military training that others will talk about; it also has to do with the extreme situation of Vietnam which itself creates the aberrant behavior, rather than with some particular trait that particular vets have in order to then lend them to do these things. They carried with them also a tremendous burden of violence, and every session we have with vets has, at its center, the issue of violence.

Many vets feel that they are ready to murder the first person who crosses them when they come back into society. This has partly to do with the course of the reflex of violence. It's a very simple and direct way to solve all problems. It renders them simple, and it's the way one is taught to solve them in Vietnam. But it also has to do with residual rage over having been victimized in the way I've described by the society in being asked to fight this immoral, tainted, and unnecessary war; therefore the sense of being betrayed. Perhaps the greatest violence, or some of the most violent impulses that vets feel, are towards those who don't respond, who won't believe what happened over there, who, as the vets say, just don't give a damn. Because those people who resist the information or the truths of American atrocities and the details of the war, who resist knowing what the war is all about, are preventing the veteran himself from reaffirming or confirming the truth that he has learned and sharing it with a larger society. In other words, they are impairing his renewal, his return, as the vets themselves put it, to becoming a human being. They carry also a burden of numbing, desensitization, sometimes called dehumanization. When we talk about the issue of numbing or desensitization, some vets resent, and quite understandably, the term "dehumanization." What they really want to convey is the idea that what they went through in Vietnam was a temporary, desensitized state, where they could then commit or witness or not stop these atrocities, and that the desensitization is reversible; that there are ways to become human again.

Of course, they're right. But the problem of numbing, or withdrawal, of not feeling, can stay with them and linger with them for a very long time and is one they must cope with in this process of recovery and renewal. Now what about this general struggle for rehumanization? I want to say a word about that and then stop. Becoming human again means, of course, forming new relationships in society here and new views of society, independent, and independent of and alternative to, those more narrow and brutal ones they knew and lived in in Vietnam. This means that they simultaneously--and I think this has to do with the whole process of the peace-minded vet--the kind that are gathered here and that I see in these rap sessions--they must simultaneously change their life style, their sense of themselves as men, on the one hand, and their sense of society or their world view on the other.

Briefly, the life style change is a very significant shift, I think, from the old-fashioned American ethos on the warrior-hero, the belligerent, intrusive, domineering John Wayne type of hero, to a person who can be equally or more courageous but in ethical and moral terms, who can be softer, gentler, can reject the idea of killing and of violence. In this change in life style and sense of what, indeed, can be termed manly behavior, I think vets are helped very much by their identification with many respects of youth culture which have been making the same important psychological shift for the last five or ten years in this country. Similarly, they've got to change their view of society because once you've questioned the war in a fundamental way, you've questioned that American society has done in creating the war, what has led to that war in deficiencies of a fundamental kind in American institutions.

You've questioned very basic issues of war and peace in a very general way and of one's own relationship to a society that imposes war-making on one. This is a very basic kind of change and not an easy one, but my point is that the change in the self and the change in the world view, including political and ethical world view, have to be simultaneous for this renewal and rehumanizing process. Well, all this has helped, I think.

Interestingly enough by positive memories, many vets call forth of having lived on a double level in Vietnam because some humanizing emotions were retained through all this dehumanizing process that I've been describing. Especially at times, for some, in relationship to Vietnamese--Vietnamese children, Vietnamese families, and it's interesting how much veterans in these rap sessions want to focus on these positive relationships, with Vietnamese people as a way of reinforcing a human aspect of themselves that, so to speak, never did die. I think that's terribly important in this process. I think finally, I want to say in closing, two things. One is that the process is difficult. The process of recovery that I'm talking about is very problematic because of resistance in society, because of psychological difficulties that one has to face in all of this, along the lines I've described. It's a very moving process to see and to help along. There are all kinds of backsliding, all kinds of impulses toward violence, understandably.

I think one has to understand them in this context that I've set forth. But the last thing I want to say is that the problem is not simply that of the vets. I mean clearly, on the one hand, there are hundreds of thousands of vets--it's going to be millions--coming back into American society so in numbers alone it's a problem for American society, and especially a problem where the vet chooses the more chauvinistic and belligerent, violence-prone posture than the one that I'm describing as a way of defending himself against these psychological problems. But it also is a problem for American society at large which is now struggling with the overall and excruciating issue of learning and recognizing, very gradually and very grudgingly that we have been, as a society, immersed in evil, that we are responsible for one long, criminal act of behavior in our project in Vietnam; so, in this sense the veteran's problem and quest for rehumanization is simply a crucible, an intensification of the problem of the whole society, and I think it should be understood as such.

MODERATOR. Dr. Bjornson, you worked with GIs in Vietnam at the 8th Field Hospital. There have been many questions raised here today on the subject of war crimes and people, especially from the press, have asked, "Why did you do it? Why didn't you refuse to do it?" In your conversations and sessions with men on active duty and with veterans, what have you found to be their justification?

BJORNSON. Well, in the first place, I was in Vietnam in 1964 to '65. This has been a rapidly changing five years in terms of my very close acquaintance with the war in Vietnam. I think that our attitudes have changed from advising to frustration to violence to atrocities, and now it's as if we are attempting to develop a conscience. I don't think we have developed enough of a conscience, I think that My Lais can still take place in Vietnam, but I think because of the My Lai exposure, it's going to be less likely. In terms of why, the whys involve a lot of things. In the first place probably the main thing is Army training, and I'm going to have John talk about this in a minute, but Army training is dehumanizing. The Army knows how to train soldiers, and so do the Marines, and so do the Navy. Most of you experienced basic training, and one of the things that happens in basic training is you don't get much sleep. When you don't get much sleep, you become an automaton. When you become an automaton, you begin to follow orders--the idea of killing and sticking bayonets into the model soldiers, the whole business of the gooks, the Vietnamese are inferior, which is constantly drummed into your heads. It's a kind of programming. Also the Army knows that a squad of nine men is probably the most cohesive group of human beings you can get in terms of numbers. The likelihood is good that this group will support each other, will fight to save each other's lives, and that this is more important than what they're fighting for or why they're fighting or why they're there. They know this. And this is why you have a nine-man group. Most GIs in combat situations, and this goes back to the Revolutionary War, don't usually fight for a cause or for patriotism or for much else. They do acquiesce to a system and the system tells you what to do. Because of the consequences of not doing it, you go into the military and do what they say. A few other things I'm sure happened. It's a tremendous change going from an affluent country to an extremely poor country like any country in Southeast Asia. I think we have some sense of guilt. There's a tremendous kind of racist unconscious that I guess we all have, and again this is programmed; it's reinforced. The Vietnamese are inferior, and this has been mentioned many times. And it's also a kind of a strange attraction.

As I'm sure you know, many Occidentals become very attracted to the Orient and stay there. I'm sure many of the vets here have been involved with Vietnamese girls. So, it was one thing one day to call a Vietnamese soldier a gook, and that night to sleep with a Vietnamese girl. We did it. That causes a lot of ambiguity, a lot of confusion in one's mind. Furthermore, and applicable to any war, the whole concept, sort of licenses what we would call psychological regression. It licenses us to act out impulses. We all have a certain sense of sadism, and this licenses violence. You've got a programmed soldier in combat with a gun and then you've got a hierarchy in the military. When I was in Vietnam, the generals and the colonels would say, "If we can only get some American soldiers here, they would react. The Vietnamese, these ARVN, they just won't fight." Well, the Vietnamese are very patient. You can't hustle the East. We got our own troops there, because the generals wanted it. But the generals were wrong, as we all know. It's beginning to look like we don't want to fight any more than the ARVN. So, I would say, probably the main thing is the training. When you say to a man, as we said in the Nuremburg trials, that the defense of obeying an order isn't good enough, I would question this. The American GI has a great deal of difficulty disobeying an order after the kind of training he goes through. I'd like to ask John to tell us a little bit about what Marine training is like.

GEYMANN. Well, Marine training starts from the first day you get into Boot Camp and doesn't end till the day you're discharged. When you're told something to do, whether to go to the bathroom or ha

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