30 August 2012


I'm a veteran of the Vietnam War.  I served from March 1968 to March1969, during the height of our military presence, when half a million Americans were in-country at any given time.  I saw my share of carnage (though not as much as many veterans did), and experienced terror, boredom, rage, confusion.  I was the target of rockets, mortar rounds, and sniper fire.  Due to the nature of my job (high security communications), I had a bounty on my head.  Within two weeks I became radicalized against the war, and deeply cynical toward anyone who espouses war without a compelling reason.  Most of the reasons we hear are not adequately compelling.

When I came home, there was no counseling, no time spent sharing experiences or venting feelings, no adjustment period.  One day I was in a jungle war, and twenty-four hours later I was discharged and released into civilian society in San Francisco.  "Turn in your gear, sign here and here and here, take your pay, see ya."

Like many returning veterans, I was reviled by strangers who learned I'd been in Vietnam ~ a far cry from the honor shown to World War II veterans.  I quickly learned to trust no one, to stuff my feelings, to blend in.  And feelings I had in abundance.  The concerns of American society seemed completely alien, shallow, irrelevant to what I'd just been through.  It took ten years before I (or the nation) mustered the courage to begin to read about, think about, remember Vietnam.  By then, unaware, I'd developed chronic PTSD.  I was superficially functional, but couldn't understand why certain stimuli created instant fear or anger, nor why relationships were so difficult to maintain.  I tried to compensate through hedonism, but that only masked the deeper struggle within.

Over time, my reading, counseling, and thinking have given me insights into the shadows which haunted me.  The process is ongoing.  Recently I came across two resources which share the most evolved thinking about war and its effects on warriors.  One is a piece written by Nan Levinson called Mad, bad, sad ~ what really happens to U.S. soldiers.  She introduces the concept of moral injury ~

"It's a concept in progress, defined as the result of taking part in or witnessing something of consequence that you find wrong, something which violates your deeply held beliefs about yourself and your role in the world.  For a moment, at least, you become what you never wanted to be.  While the symptoms and causes may overlap with PTSD, moral injury arises from what you did or failed to do, rather than from what was done to you.  It's a sickness of the heart more than the head.  Or, possibly, moral injury is what comes first and, if left unattended, can congeal into PTSD.

" .... Of course, to have a moral injury, you have to have a moral code, and to have a moral code, you have to believe, on some level, that the world is a place where justice will ultimately prevail.  Faith in a rightly ordered world must be hard for anyone who has been through war.  It's particularly elusive for soldiers mired in a war that makes little sense to them, one they've come, actively or passively, to resent and oppose.

" .... In trying to heal from a moral injury, people struggle to restore a sense of themselves as decent human beings, but the stumbling block for many veterans of recent U.S. wars is that their judgment about the immorality of their actions may be correct.  Obviously, suffering which can be avoided should be, but it's not clear what's gained by robbing soldiers of a moral compass, save [as] a salve to civilian conscience.  And despite all the gauzy glory we swathe soldiers in when we wave them off to battle, nations need their veterans to remember how horrible war is, if only to remind us not to launch them as heedlessly as the U.S. has done over these past years.

" .... Recognizing moral injury isn't a panacea, but it opens up multiple possibilities.  it offers veterans a way to understand themselves, not as mad or bad, but as justifiably sad, and it allows the rest of us a way to avoid reducing their wartime experience to a sickness or a smiley face.  Most important, moral repair is linked to moral restitution.  In an effort to waste neither their past nor their future, many veterans work to help heal their fellow veterans or the civilians in the countries they once occupied.  Others work for peace so the next generation of soldiers won't have to know the heartache of moral injury."

This narrative resonates deeply in me.  In the 43 years since I returned from Vietnam, I've learned to anticipate and avoid situations likely to induce PTSD panic attacks ~ like Fourth of July celebrations, which are little more than stylized warfare seen from a safe, festive distance.  But I've never found a way to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between the standards for ethical behavior I learned growing up, and the abandonment of those standards by those who wage war.

I think I may have found a way toward reconciliation in the second resource I discovered, a book titled What It Is Like to Go to War, written by Karl Marlantes, author of the Vietnam novel Matterhorn.  From the book jacket ~

"In 1969, at the age of twenty-three, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced second lieutenant in command of a company of forty Marines who would live or die by his decisions.  Marlantes was a bright young man who was well trained for the task at hand but, as he was soon to discover, far from mentally prepared for what he was about to experience. In his thirteen-month tour he saw intense combat.  He killed the enemy and he watched friends die.  Marlantes survived, but like many of his  brothers in arms, he has spent the last forty years dealing with his experiences.

"In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes takes a deeply personal and candid look at what it is like to experience the ordeal of combat, critically examining how we might better prepare our soldiers for war.  War is as old as humankind, but in the past, warriors were prepared for battle by ritual, religion, and literature ~ which also helped bring them home.  Marlantes weaves riveting accounts of his combat experiences with thoughtful analysis, self-examination, and his readings .... He makes it clear just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors ~ mainly men but increasingly women ~ are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey."

I've read scores, possibly hundred of memoirs, histories, and novels about war in general and Vietnam in particular.  If I had to recommend one book to anyone, military or civilian, to provide insight and provoke introspection about the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual disconnects which soldiers endure, this book would be my choice.  He specifically explores the spiritual (not to be confused with religious) conflict characterized earlier as moral injury, with penetrating insight and gentle care.

Here are the chapter headings, which give an idea of the breadth and depth of Marlantes' exploration ~

  • Temple of Mars
  • Killing
  • Guilt
  • Numbness and Violence
  • The Enemy Within
  • Lying
  • Loyalty
  • Heroism
  • Home
  • The Club
  • Relating to Mars
The tone of Marlantes' text is conversational, sharing.  He invites the reader into his train of thought without lecturing, and he asks questions which our culture has forgotten need answers.  His recognition of the duality of human nature, the capacity of every human to commit unspeakable acts of violence, and luminous acts of humanity, is central to the journey each of us travels.  Each of us carries a shadow self.  The act of recognizing the shadow, understanding it, thus transcending its influence over us, is an act of grace.

For a taste of conversation, here is an interview Bill Moyers conducted with Karl Marlantes.

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