Disaster Fatigue

Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself why the reported atrocities he reads about hourly in his intelligence job, as the fall of Vietnam nears, no longer spark emotion in him. The passage reads:

“The North Vietnamese had turned the Xuan Loc battle into a meat grinder. They were willing to sacrifice unit after unit to drive out the South Vietnamese 18th Division and seize the town. Somehow the endless reports of gore and annihilation no longer moved Chuck. Was there such a thing as disaster fatigue?”

Bruce Curley, in his review of Annamese, confirms that there is such a thing. It happens when a human being has to confront too much carnage and his ability to respond with horror is numbed. Sometimes called “compassion fatigue,” it takes over to protect our psyches from going out of sync. But it has its symptoms, all similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, including nightmares and irrational rages. That similarity gave birth to another name for the malady: “secondary traumatic stress.”

I suffered from it during the waning days of Vietnam. As we were flooded day after day by reports of grisly death and destruction, I stopped feeling revulsion and horror. Narratives about bloody deaths and ghastly dismemberment became routine. I was no longer sickened. I felt nothing.

My full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) didn’t kick in until May of 1975, when I was back in the states. I had amoebic dysentery, ear damage, and pneumonia. But the worst was the spate of flashbacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and panic attacks. I was a walking wound. I don’t how much of my PTSI was aggravated by disaster fatigue—my own unspeakable memories of things I witnessed first-hand during combat and the fall of Saigon were the principal causes. I still can’t speak of some of those experiences. But my recollections of the disasters that befell so many still make me grieve.

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