Sunday, September 18, 2005

Vietnam veterans and the "counterfeit universe"

Robert Jay Lifton's Home From the War - Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners (1973) was one of the earliest studies of the issues Vietnam veterans encountered both in the war and in reintegrating into civilian society.

Lifton is a psychiatrist who has done a broad range of work, much of it concerning people in unusual and extreme circumstances: America POWs subjected to Chinese "brainwashing"; survivors of the atomic bombing of Hirshima; participants in the My Lai massacre; Nazi doctors who conducted illegal experiements on humans; and, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult.

Home From the War is largely based on his work with Vietnam veterans while the war was still going on in quasi-therapeutic "rap groups." He discloses clearly that the veterans  with whom he worked were antiwar veterans, and many of them he ecountered through the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).  He also discusses his own critical stance toward the Vietnam War.

When you start looking more closely at the many factors operating on soldiers in their experiences in the field, it emphasizes how superficial and simplistic slogans about "honoring the soldiers" or "supporting the troops" really are.

Without using it to justify misconduct or needless killing, Lifton argues that the Vietnam War put American soldiers in an "atrocity-producing" situation:

What we find instead is best understood as an atrocity-producing situation. It is created by a special combination of elements that Jean-Paul Sartre has described [presumably based on France's experience in Algeria in particular] as inevitably genocidal: a counterinsurgency war undertaken by an advanced industrial society against a revolutionary movement of an underdeveloped country, in which the revolutionary guerrillas are inseparable from the rest of the population. Those elements in turn contribute greatly to the draconian American military policies in Vietnam: the "free-fire zone" (where every civilian is a target), and the "search-and-destroy mission" (on which everyone and everything can be killed, or as the expression has it, "wasted"); the extensive use of plant defoliants that not only destroy the overall ecology of Vietnam but, if encountered in sufficient concentration by pregnant women, human embryos as well; and the almost random saturation of a small country with an unprecedented level of technological destruction and firepower both from the air and on the ground. These external historical factors and military policies lead, in turn, to a compelling internal sequence that constitutes the psychological or experiential dimension of the atrocity-producing situation.

A large part of his analysis of soldiers in combat has to do with the survivor's mission.  This is a normal part of the grieving process, even when a close family member dies a "natural" death (if we recognize such a thing any more).  The survivors resolve their grief by taking on a goal or commitment of some kind that lets them give meaning to the death of the departed one.

Soldiers in combat experience loss when a member of their unit is killed or disabled and removed from combat.  And the usual survival mission would have to do with keeping on the effort, getting revenge on the enemy and fighting to protect each other in the surviving members of the unit.

War is a situation in which was is strictly forbidden in normal civilian life - deliberately killing other people - becomes not only acceptable but required.  So taking on a survivor's mission of killing the enemy in psychological terms is a healthy process.

But the survivor's mission can turn into what Lifton calls a "false witness," when the mission of revenge is turned on innocents.  Describing the gruesome scene at My Lai, where US soldiers lead by Lt. William Calley deliberately gunned down unarmed civilians in a village, most of them women and children, he shows how the survivor mission can turn into criminal killing.  He notes that some of the Americans went about the murders in a calm way, while others were in a frenzy.  (VC in the following quotation stands for "Vietcong," the guerrillas in South Vietnam.)

The businesslike demeanor of the men had to do with their advanced state of psychic numbing, a state enhanced by their (partial) sense of carrying out orders and of thereby being engaged in a 'professional' military endeavor. The wildness and craziness had to do not only with the actual nature of what was going on (and the capacity of an observer to separate himself sufficiently from the situation, then or later, to contrast it with normal behavior) but also with the passions that lay beneath the numbing: the force of the 'survivor mission,' propelled as it was by death anxiety and death guilt. Thus, as they killed, the men were said to have shouted such things as "VC bastards,you dirty VC bastards," and "that's for Bill Weber," and "Cry, you dirty gook bastards, cry like you made us cry." They were 'bearing witness' to the deaths of their buddies; only later could many come to understand that it had been false witness. Underneath the combination of numbness and passion in each man was the central or controlling image of slaughter energizing the actions of virtually all of them.

The "psychic numbing" he describes is necessary not only for soldiers to kill and to manage their feelings of guilt, rage, violence and fear.  Lifton describes why it is necessary, using a quotation from a Vietnam vet, Jeff Needle:

A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive.

Lifton argues that the national Cold War ideology as it was presented and perceived by many contributed to the conditions making for an atrocity-producing situation:

By extending the analysis outward in a psychohistorical direction, we recognize that the murderous false witness of GIs in the Vietnamese countryside results directly from a more extensive false witness on a national scale. Propelling that false witness is a totalistic cosmology - reaching its height during the post-World War II Cold War years but persisting even now - that contrasts absolute American purity with absolute communist depravity. Joining that cosmology, indeed becoming part of it, is an equally pervasive technicism that leads Americans to view Vietnam as no more than a "problem," a "job to be done" by applying "American know-how" - and to ignore psychological and historical forces surrounding the long-standing Vietnamese struggle against Western invaders, and Chinese invaders before that. When the "problem" persistently resists the American "solution," when the job will not get done, the assumption is that still more "know-now" is needed - greater fire-power, more "scientific" computerized studies of "safe hamlets," better "techniques" for improving the always-inadequate South Vietnamese military "leadership."This marriage of totalistic cosmology and all-pervasive technicism, amply documented in the Pentagon Papers, has prevented fundamental questions from being raised, while perpetuating ... psychological illusions around which the war has been pursued.

Lifton uses the concept of "counterfeit universe" to describe the temporary conditions in which combat soldiers in Vietnam were placed.  So much of the war was based on false assumptions and pretences that were such drastic contrast to what the soldiers were seeing and experiencing on the ground, that functioning in the Army in particular meant to some extent pretending that situation was something they also knew it wasn't.

He discusses that concept in the context of the ethical dilemmas and double-bind positions of military chaplains and psychiatrists:

The men sought out chaplains and shrinks because of a spiritual-psychological crisis growing out of what they perceived to be irreconcilable demands in their situation. They sought either escape from absurd evil, or, at the very least, a measure of inner separation from it. Instead, spiritual-psychological authority was employed to seal off any such inner alternative. Chaplains and psychiatrists then formed unholy alliances not only with military command, but with the more corruptible elements of the soldier's individual psyche. We may then speak of the existence of a counterfeit universe, in which all-pervasive, spiritually-reinforced inner corruption becomes the price of survival. In such an inverted moral universe, whatever residual ethical sensitivity impels the individual against adjusting to evil is under constant external and internal assault.

He quotes another Vietnam vet on how the feeling of absurdity manifested itself:

Back there they were playing silly games and we had to be somehow involved in their silly games. ... I realized the absurdity of all this electronic warfare ... this giant technolgical element that we had that was rendered entirely impotent by a few little Vietnamese running around and throwing landmines here and there.

This experience of the "counterfeit universe" created practical problems for many returning veterans, who found themselves unable to stay at a job for long, in part because they were suspicious of and impatient with the phoniness they experienced in the companies for which they worked.  Rejecting this counterfeit universe made many of them give particular important to "authenticity."

And Lifton makes a valuable observation about protest symbolism, with particular reference to the VVAW protest in which veterans tossed their medals and ribbons over the White House fence:

Indeed, the public casting away of medals by antiwar veterans has had such mythic power because it represents a symbolic rejection of this entire counterfeit universe - a rejection of being rewarded for participating in absurd evil and of the personal corrupton associated with any such recognition. Animating guilt was clearly in evidence as, in the act of throwing the medals away, men shouted such things as: "This is for Corporal William B. Jones, killed outside of Hue, for no [Cheney]in' reason at all." They, in effect, dedicated their act to dead buddies, thereby renouncing previous false witness in favor of a more authentic survivor mission of combatting the war itself.

Acknowloging that, "Something of thiskind of counterfeit universe is probably inherent in any system of social authority," he nevertheless found it important to understand some of the more extreme instances of this phenomenon. And he also describes a larger social aspect of it:

But one can say that, with the Vietnam War, a vast, previously hidden American potential for the counterfeit has become manifest. From the atrocity-producing situation in Vietnam; to the military-political arrangements responsible for it; to the system of law confronted by militant opponents of the war; to the preexisting but war-exacerbated antagonisms around race, class, ethnicity, and age; to the war-linked economic recession; to collusion in the war's corruption by virtually all of the professions and occupations - what is there left that we can call authentic?

The postmodern Bush administration has embraced this kind of phoniness with enthusiasm and taken it to levels never seen during the Vietnam War, from the non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq to Potemkin political events.

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