Burns and Novick: The Vietnam War (7)

The last portion of the last episode of the Burns-Novick series was, for me, the hardest to get through. It told of the human wreckage inflicted by the war. It described the ravages of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and the grieving of those left behind.

PTSI has a long and inglorious history. The ancient Greeks called it “divine madness.” During and after the U.S. Civil War, the term was “Solder’s heart.” In World War I, it was called “shell shock;” in World War II, “combat fatigue;” and these days the usage favored is “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” I call it an injury rather than a disorder because it is the result of an externally inflicted wound to the soul.

Those who suffer from PTSI are sometime accused of cowardice and weakness. That adds insult to ignorance. Only the brave weather combat, and only the healthy respond with horror to the devastation of the battlefield. The unenlightened about the malady believe that those affected by their combat experience are a danger to others—they are prone to violence. That’s foolishness. The only danger PTSI sufferers pose are to themselves. Sometimes the unbearable memories are so bad that death is preferable to continuous suffering.

The last section of the series touched on what so many of us felt: shame. Vietnam was a dirty war, and all those involved had forfeited their honor. We hid our irrational rages, panic attacks, flashbacks, and nightmares from others. So many, like me, never spoke of our time in Vietnam. We suffered alone because we were outcasts.

The series ended with the Wall, the Vietnam memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. I, like so many Vietnam veterans, avoided the wall for years. I couldn’t bring myself to face the memories it would spark. When I finally worked up the courage to visit it, I went alone—like Robert McNamara—to confront my past. I stood in the grass by the wall and wept.

More tomorrow.

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