After many interruptions and distractions, I’ve finished reading On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen (Warrior Science Publications, 2008). I read the book because I wanted to understand my own reaction to being in combat in Vietnam.
Background: As I’ve reported here before, between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months each year. I had two complete tours there and so many shorter trips that I lost count. I kept getting sent back to Vietnam for several reasons. First, as a National Security Agency (NSA) employee, I knew North Vietnamese communications as well as I knew my own body. I’d been exploiting them since 1960. Second, I spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. Third, and most important, I was willing to go into combat with the army and Marine units I was supporting. That made me very popular with the military—no sooner would I get back to “the world,” what we called the U.S., than a message would from Vietnam asking for me to be sent back, and back I’d go.
Readers have asked me if I had a choice. Could I have refused to return to the war in Vietnam? Yes. All my time in Vietnam was voluntary. First of all, I loved the work itself. Second, there weren’t many like me, with the skills and training needed to do the job. And third, I saw it as my duty. I knew I could be a great help to U.S. combat forces. I had proven, again and again, that letting U.S. forces know what the enemy was doing, where he was, and what his plans were saved lives. How could I say no?
But that work cost me. It deprived my children of my presence while they were growing up. It hurt me to be away from them. Worst of all, it wounded my soul. I observed and participated in actions so grisly that my psyche was damaged. I had nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and irrational rages—all symptoms of a disease we didn’t have a name for back then. Now we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I use the term “injury” rather than “disorder” because it is so clear to me that the malady is the result of an externally inflicted wound to the spirit, not the consequence of the mind’s internal functioning going awry.
To cope with PTSI, I need all the information I can get about what causes the condition and how to deal with it. So I turned to Grossman’s book.