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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 V

QUESTION. I was with the 4th Infantry and 9th Infantry in 1967 as a rifleman. Ever since I got back, I've been working in the peace movement, mainly with veterans. I want to direct this question to Mr. Lifton. I skimmed over his book on Hiroshima and I kind of get the picture that you're not sure of what's going to happen with those of us who've returned and have this feeling of wanting to die, that you mention, or wanting to kill. And there's 2 1/2 million veterans and I don't know what percentage involved in the peace movement, I was just wondering if you could comment on that? Secondly, I know that we've been trying to get work within the government to try to get help and make the problems of the Vietnam veteran known. How are you coming along with this?

LIFTON. The first question has to with really the fate of millions of Vietnam veterans. Will they take a direction of violence and chauvinism and really tie themselves to reactionary and chauvinistic political movements in this country and tendencies? I think there's a real danger of that and I think we should be aware of it. We were discussing informally and we don't know how large an issue this is, but it may be a very large one indeed.

There is a tendency of a number of GIs to get out of service earlier by showing a willingness to join the police force. Now it's very possible, we can't prejudge it, but it's very possible that the most chauvinistic of the GIs, those who want to keep on a violent pattern that they learned in Vietnam or they learned before that but had intensified enormously in Vietnam, that they'll simply maintain that. I think there is an important psychological point here. Anybody who comes back from Vietnam, just as anybody who underwent an atomic bomb in Hiroshima, in fact, anybody who undergoes any extreme experience involving massive death, becomes a survivor of that experience and in Vietnam one has the added element of having been, as I suggested before, an executioner as well as a victim in many ways.

Now the survivor can fundamentally go one of two directions. He must, no matter what direction he takes, find significance and meaning in his life, because he's struggling to, in some way, reintegrate himself, find integrity in his life in a very personal way and in his overall world view and his general, larger political and ethical position. He can, in the traditional way of veterans, as veterans usually have in this country, take the direction of more chauvinism, more war, defending war and fighting as you saw in those little demonstrations outside today, objecting to anybody who wants to take peaceful direction or direction of fundamental change and transformation. There's a very real danger that a large number of veterans in this country will follow that. What I think is encouraging, on the other hand, is the enormous number of veterans who are struggling against very great odds, but with considerable success, to take the other direction, that is, finding meaning and exposing the very meaninglessness of the Vietnam war. But not only that, but finding what led to the war, giving form to the experience. That's more difficult, but a much more profound and a much more beneficial and noble direction that veterans are taking. And I think that it may be that if all of us work hard enough, we can swing the thing for the great majority of Vietnam veterans to move in that direction. Because there are large and important ties between veterans and youth culture and between veterans and militant political groups of a number of kinds.

The thing I would add to that is that it's a complicated personal transition and I think it's all too easy to reverse the NL paradigm I mentioned before, the cold war ideology; that America possesses all and total virtue and America's alleged enemies, the Communists, reflect total depravity. It's easy to reverse that, to see all too easily, I think, America as possessing total evil, the only evil that's ever been felt in the world. Clearly that's not true. But it happens that America is perhaps the most destructive force, given our technological and social structure, that the world now faces. If that's so, what we have to do is draw upon whatever positive and humane traditions, and there are some, the fact that we meet here in this way perhaps attests to this, that exist in American life, and strengthen them and deepen them and transform the rest of American life into that positive direction. Not sink in a mire of breast-beating about total evil. I want to say another word about the second question that he raised because that's important, too. I did testify before the Cranston Subcommittee. I do believe that veterans need much better facilities at all the veterans hospitals. That they've been a scandal; everybody knows that. In fact, the administration has apparently blocked whatever efforts Cranston's group has made to increase facilities for veterans. But I confess that my appearing before that committee, as I made very clear to the people when I went there, was not for the purpose of getting better facilities primarily, although that would be fine if that happened, but rather for the sake of publicizing the full breadth of the problem that we've been discussing tonight about brutalization of our whole society as reflected in the veterans' problems. And I guess what I really believe in (it's a small thing but lots can grow from it) are, as some of you in the audience know, informal rap sessions in offices of peace-minded veterans groups. They help vets to really come to terms with themselves and find their bearings along the lines we've been discussing, but also they help again gain information and publicize and spread over various media some of the things that we've been talking about tonight. I think that can grow in various ways that are unpredictable; along with many other movement efforts.

QUESTION. (not audible)

LIFTON. I was asked whether the process of basic training can be compared to a so-called thought reform process that I described in an earlier work on Communist China, or so-called brainwashing. Let me make clear that when I described that process in an earlier study, what I tried to do was take a specific series of examples and then apply them universally. The issue there was not even the nature of the political movement so much as the process by which men's minds could be molded and narrowed. The McCarthy movement in America at that time, which was then rampant, was another very vivid example that I spoke of and developed. The problem then became not Chinese thought reform so much as a general tendency anywhere, in any society, toward totalistic thought, toward an absolute point of view which totally taints with guilt and even non-existence, the threat of non-existence, whether through murder or some other form of the equivalent of non-existence by being tossed out of society, as in the case of certain Russian writers now who are protesting that that pattern of totalism, or ideological totalism, has to be defined. And I tried to set up certain criteria for it. Getting back to basic training in American military units; I think it falls into most of those categories and a colleague of mine, who I hope will be here tomorrow and the next day, Peter Bourne, who has studied basic training and also studied combat, has actually used examples and quoted work that I and others have done about thought reform or totalism and demonstrated their existence in American military basic training procedures. You must remember that what is characteristic of this kind of process is that a man is made to feel extremely guilty, as if he doesn't exist at all, can't exist, and is threatened with terrible harm unless he takes a very narrow, and in this case, very brutalized pattern, adopts it as his own, internalizes it, and then expresses it. I think basic training has to be looked at very severely in this light.

MODERATOR. I had a question passed up to me. It says, you speak of racism. Why is there no representative of black GIs on the panel when more blacks, per capita, are sent to Vietnam--and it's signed, "A White Canadian." If the gentleman hadn't run off to supper, he would have seen a very interesting discussion on racism with a black vet, a Chicano, an Indian veteran, an Oriental veteran and a white veteran. We have quite a few black veterans who are going to testify. Let me say one thing else on the subject of racism. Blacks have been talking about racism for years; they've been trying to get it across to white people. I think it's important that we whites are understanding it now; that we're talking about it, too. And the fact that these veterans who are predominantly white, understand that it's racism that's screwing up the works is very important step in building a new America.

QUESTION. Not much of the panel is along these lines true because if we need a total solution, we have to understand that there's a total problem. When we're talking about genocide I don't think we want to think only about the genocidal acts in Southeast Asia, but the genocide of 25 million blacks in America. I'm not talking about the repression of the Panthers. I'm not talking about Angela Davis. We expect intellectuals to be repressed and to be killed off. I'm talking about the people in the ghettos. Five years after the Hough fires those houses are still standing, gutted, homes for rats and for other things which are not good or healthy for babies and other living things. I would like the panel to discuss for a moment the effects of having two-thirds of our national budget being spent in Vietnam and what this does to genocide of 25 million blacks.

MODERATOR. I'd like to open that with just one thought. The war in Vietnam and racism are so closely related that now the National Guard has M-16s in my home state, which is Ohio, and you know Detroit and lots of other places, that are inner-city areas, have been subjected to the concept of free fire zones, which were developed in Vietnam. So I think there's definitely a close tie. Ken, would you like to talk on this point?

CLOKE. Sure. I think that one of the things that needs to be said about that problem is the way in which the United States creates, intentionally creates, categories which allow racism to foster and to develop. The primary category is poverty. The ways in which that happens in terms of the international relations of the United States and the ways in which it happens at home are very nearly identical. I think that part of the discussion has to deal with a question of the economics of racism in terms of the way in which poverty is reinforced by a social system which, I think everyone will recognize, can be called capitalism in which there are large numbers of people who own the major instruments of production and distribution in the society and who, by virtue of that ownership, force other people to sell their labor power and work for a wage. That fact ought to be clear to people here in Detroit more than maybe in other places in the country.

But the creation of a whole class of people, a whole category of people who are incapable, rendered incapable, not by virtue of their own activity but by virtue of the activity of the social system in which they operate, of participating in that society as equals, is part of a total historical process and I think that it has to be dealt with in that way. I don't think that it's possible to look only at the United States of America in the 1970's and to examine the question of racism and to think that it has to be examined on an historical scale. For example, the ways in which the United States forced Cuba to produce sugar cane. The ways in which the United States forced other countries of the world to produce items which would be economically beneficial to it. And all in the name of what some people have referred to as the multi-national corporate scheme of world development.

The fact is that at present the United States is, and American ruling interests are, deeply involved in the extraction of the wealth of the world from different parts of the world. That wealth exists not only in the form of natural commodities, that is, items for sale, but in the form of the human commodity also, labor and labor power. And it's important for us, I think, to see the question of racism in those terms. In addition to that, there develops alongside of that, and with that, a kind of social psychology of racism. A kind of social psychology of oppression which, I'd recommend a book which I'm involved in reading right now, which is a book by E. Meme called Dominated Man, which talks about the problems of racism, the problems of colonialism, the problems of sexism in terms not of one country at a given historical period in time, but it attempts to extrapolate from that experience and to generalize in the experience. And the conclusion, I think, that you come to is a conclusion which Sartre reached in his introduction to Franz Fanon's book, The Wretched of the Earth, where he says, at one point, that the engine of colonialism turns in a circle and that you can hardly distinguish its daily practice from its own objective necessity. In other words, you can hardly distinguish what is done on a daily basis from the necessities of that system in operation.

The most important thing I think which we've been trying to develop here is the idea that all of this is part of the system. That is, that there are not just isolated individual sources of oppression that exist within the society as a whole, here is not just on the one hand, the oppression of blacks and on the other hand, the oppression of women, on the other hand, the oppression of Vietnamese. But that all these dovetail; come together and integrate and that part of the process of our political awakening is discovering ways in which these things are integrated. When I spoke earlier about total solution, that was what I meant. That the only way in which you can begin to reach the fundamental problems of oppression first particular groups of people is to see the general oppression that exists throughout the society; to understand some of its general features, its historical evolution; the ways in which it originated and grew.

The difficulty in terms of dealing with questions of racism and sexism and imperialism, I think, are primarily, at this point, problems in how we organize ourselves in such a way that we understand that even though we're against this process in some kind of total sense, the ways in which we exemplify and participate in this process on a day-to-day level. This is particularly coming to the fore right now with the women's organizations that are growing and multiplying around the country. But it's a problem that exists for Vietnam veterans also. It's a problem that exists for everybody in the society. The ways in which the process that you go through, the political process that you go through, tends not to be critical of the society that you operate in. It tends to assume all kinds of things and to take things for granted. The ways in which, for example, in the early phases of the civil rights movement that whites moved into the South and essentially, in many respects, ran the civil rights movement.

These kinds of problems I think lead to one general thought in terms of a solution and that is, the integration of united and separate organization. The integration of, on the one hand, the right to complete total self-determination, the right to complete total separation at the same time as demonstrating in some concrete ways the ways in which our interests are all united. The ways in which we have to get together in order to solve the fundamental problems. And it's not just a question of eliminating racism, or sexism or the various forms in which we've been brutalized by this society. It's also a question of complete and total necessity on our part to recognize the ways in which we act and the ways in which we oppress other people in order to be able to reach a point, a level of development, where they can provide a real basis for a voluntary agreement between people; where we can unite women, blacks, white working class intellectuals, mental workers, people from towns, people from counties, people who are in the military, people who are civilians.

What I think we have to keep in mind is this dynamic that exists in terms of separateness and unity. The only other thing that I'd like to say about it is that there is no clearcut solution to any of those problems. The part of the process that we're going through right now is the discovery of the fact that even revolution, in places where revolutions have taken place, has not solved those fundamental problems. That what is required is some form of revolution inside the revolution. That process is not something that takes place at one appointed period in time, but it's a process that takes place throughout that period in time. So, therefore, I think that attention should be called to the use of the word "boy" in terms of black people; the use of the term "girls" in relationship to women; these have occurred right here in this panel and have been part of this very presentation. The absence of black people and women on the panel, I think, is something that illustrates that basic point. And what we have to be conscious of is the fact that as Vietnam veterans can tell us--Vietnam veterans who came into the war effort believing in all of the ways in which this country is oppressive and manifesting that oppression in their own relationships with other people--we have to realize that we're in the same boat. That we have to begin to deal with those problems also in order to be able to do anything about it.

MODERATOR. We have time for one more question.

QUESTION. I'd like to ask Mr. Lifton a question about violence. I'm a Vietnam veteran. Other veterans have come back from other wars expressing a certain intense hatred or dissatisfaction, perhaps not based on quite the same kinds of things that we base ours, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris and others, perhaps more respected than they, have written about territorial imperative, basic instincts of man towards violence. I wonder if you'd comment on this as it might pertain or if it does pertain, to Vietnam, and our participation, or anybody's participation there? And beyond that, whether or not youth culture, or youth consciousness is any kind of solution?

LIFTON. It's a big question for the last one. But I'll try to answer in a few sentences. The question, of course, is about violence, and how much of it is kind of instinctual and inevitable producing, Vietnam, and even after Vietnam in other wars. I'll make two simple points; one, that I think that violence always follows upon war, because there is such a thing as a habit of violence, and there are lots of other psychological and other patterns that perpetuate violence after war. But I think that there are degrees of violence, and there's an unusual or unique extent to which the Vietnam veteran feels used, betrayed, victimized, and therefore his violence, his potential for violence, may be considerably greater. It doesn't mean that that's inevitable, returning to that word. I don't believe in the Ardrey and other--Konrad Lorenz' theories about instinctual violence. I think that those are old 19th century, biological visions, that most thoughtful people in this realm don't accept, even though they've received a great deal of publicity. It doesn't mean that human beings aren't a violent race or violent species. Indeed, we seem to be among the most violent. But I don't think one can simply explain that away by biology. What you must say is that human beings, in a combination of history and upbringing or socializing or civilizing, call it what you will, have an enormous potential for violence, but that there's an enormous variation depending on the way in which it's symbolized, and the symbolizing patterns, the principles of relationships between people, and that's why, yes, male-female issues are very pertinent to all this. Relationships in families, domination and suppression, all these perpetuate, or make the maximum potential for violence emerge. So, I don't think violence is inevitable and instinctual. I think it's always there as a possibility. I think one has to work terribly hard to create new forms, in which youth culture, as you say, is a beginning. Youth culture is at the beginning of an idea; it's not the end of an idea. And it has a magnificent kind of idea about moving beyond violent solutions. But it's just the beginnings of that, and there's an enormous amount of work that must be built from there and from other sources.

CLOKE. I'd like to add just one short comment to that. I think that one of the sources of violence within the society is contradiction, is irreconcilable contradiction among people. That contradiction can be of many different sorts and varieties, but the basic problem of violence, I think, is not resolvable without dealing with the problem of where the violence came from to begin with. And how you can eliminate that violence is the most important aspect of that. For example again I think that we have to go back to the Vietnamese and the reason why that's so important is because that superficially it's quite possible to compare the violence of the Vietnamese and the Americans. But, in fact, the violence of people fighting for their own right to survival is of a whole different category from the violence of people who are attempting to prevent them from surviving in any viable way. I think the same thing is true in the United States again, and that only eventually can you speak about the elimination of violence. And only in terms of the eventual elimination of violence, can you begin to get a grip on it, if you begin to see where that violence comes from in this society as a whole.

There's also a kind of logic that works in modern society, which inverts the real cause of the relationship, and makes the effect seem like the cause. For example, I can analogize from law. The law that says "Thou shalt not steal" originates at a certain period in time. There is an attitude among lawyers in the society that that law exists for all periods in time and describes all relationships. But it's just an elementary thought that leads you to conclude that the law "Thou shalt not steal" arises at a particular point in time, and that particular point in time is when on the one hand, there is movable private property, and on the other hand there is a need to steal. That is, scarcity, poverty, and, therefore the law "Thou shalt not steal" in fact indirectly reflects a social need to steal on the part of the society. And that's true with a number of different laws. A law which says that thou shalt not drink is illustrative of a society that has created inside of it a need to drink. A law that, or a society that promulgates laws against possessing weapons, has created a need to shoot, etc. In all of these areas there's not a simple one-to-one correlation, but someone mentioned the question of inevitability, and while it's true that there is not absolute inevitability, there is relative inevitability. And those are the kinds of things that are relatively inevitable. Perhaps the major source of violence in the society as a whole is that contradiction between people that we've been speaking about, and the only way of eliminating that even at its most basic levels, is to eliminate that source of aggravation of it.

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