Are We Still Missing the Point?
By Diane Ford Wood (interviewer)
This article originated as a review of Camouflage & Lace (Camo), an audio book about Diane Ford Wood's experiences with Willie Hager, VVAW and PTSD in the early 1970s. Vietnam vet Jerry Lembcke (The Spitting Image) also wrote about Hager related to the 1978 film Coming Home. This historical overlap revealed powerful ways that Vietnam veterans can support the post-traumatic struggles and understanding of today's returning veterans. The interview evolved from there.
Diane: What is your connection to the movie Coming Home?
Willie: As the VVAW regional coordinator in LA at the time, I was interviewed extensively for the movie. Screenwriter Waldo Salt asked me what was the hardest part of Vietnam. "Coming home," I told him. For me, that was far more painful than Vietnam itself. I was given a role as a technical advisor which wasn't a completely new experience. In 1976, I helped make Still at War, one of the earliest documentaries on PTSD and mistreatment of paraplegic veterans on film. After Salt got informally sidelined, the new writers revised Bruce Dern's character (loosely based on my life) in the same way society revised us. In an insightful and compelling way—and with the benefit of having reviewed the original UCLA interview transcripts—Lembcke got this.
Coming Home began as a story about how a career Marine turns into an anti-war veteran organizer. Dern's character and the script took a completely different turn from Salt's original story premise; it became a foil for the administration's reframing program. Go figure! It wasn't the movie I had signed on to make. I probably wouldn't have become involved had I known how it was all to come out.
Jerry: When I was writing The Spitting Image, I came across interviews that screenwriter Waldo Salt did with Willie and other veterans for the script of Coming Home. Speaking of what was then called "post-Vietnam syndrome" (PVS), Willie told Salt that their Vietnam experience had taught veterans that American society was a lie and that that same society did not want to deal with them. I wrote that, in effect, the raised consciousness that men like Willie came home with was pathologized, beginning with the way Salt used Willie's story to construct the prototypical whacked-out veteran played by Bruce Dern in the film and later canonized by psychiatrists as the mental health problem, PTSD.
Images of spat-upon veterans and traumatized veterans constituted portraits of victimization. These portraits displaced from public memory the fact that their time in Vietnam was one of empowerment and politicization for many GIs. Reading books like Alan Young's The Illusion of Harmony: Inventing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I became aware of how the diagnostic category PTSD also functioned as a political and cultural concept.
With the Vietnam-era "anti-war warrior" screened out by the "victim-veteran," it was no surprise that the current wars began with both the pro-war Right and anti-war Left pledging to support the troops. It was no surprise either when the film Sir! No Sir! (about the GI anti-war movement during Vietnam) pulled that piece of history back into view. It inaugurated a new anti-war coffee house near Fort Drum; a petition campaign against the war by military personnel; and new stories of spat-on veterans. This redirected public attention to the televised images of battered veterans images heretofore banned from public consumption.
Diane: The Spitting Image talks about how Willie's experiences were misunderstood by the VA, the military, Hollywood, society and even those closest to him. Camo describes living this nightmare from a woman's perspective. Were we all too caught up in the moment to have any kind of overview? How could so many caring people miss the point?
Willie: We were living history. We were blinded by the light.
Jerry: Hollywood was a major player in displacing the story of the war itself with the story of GIs coming home to the country that had betrayed them and their mission. Coming Home, for which Willie's interviews were used, had powerful feminist and anti-war messages and was heralded as a contribution to the disability-rights movement. For those who needed a different story, it also helped construct a mythical betrayal narrative for why we lost the war.
Diane: When producing Camo, we enlisted the help of Vietnam-era veteran/musician Russ Scheidler and Vietnam veterans Steve Sherlock (Aid to Southeast Asia) and Doug Drews (Vets For Peace) to read the parts on tape. Russ and Doug say that the new cycle of returning veterans with PTSD seriously rekindles their own depression. Do you have these feelings?
Jerry: In Sir! No Sir! Bill Short recalls that one of his duties in Vietnam was to count the dead Viet Cong after a fight. The task revolted him and when he refused to do it any longer he was sent to the unit shrink for psychiatric evaluation. His resistance about to be pathologized as a mental health problem (he thinks), the psychiatrist turns instead and pulls from the shelf a copy of The New York Times with a full-page petition against the war signed by GIs. Bill needed a social movement, not treatment, and the same can be said for hundreds of troops and veterans today who are similarly disgusted with the war they've been sent to fight and depressed with the realization that there is no glory in inglorious war.
Willie: The devil is in the details: The more you know about PTSD, the more pissed you become. Sure I have those feelings, especially when it is all coming around again as a result of our combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to eliminate PTSD as a "mental" disorder and address it for what it is: A psycho-social anomie arising from our service on behalf of a power-mongering government out for political, personal, and capital gain.
Diane: Jerry, you are a Vietnam veteran, presumably with some level of disillusionment. Yet you found your way in society to become a college professor. How have you managed to survive in a society with which you have such issues?
Jerry: Janice Joplin sang "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." That was the mindset I returned with from Vietnam. One of the veterans in Gerald Gioglio's book, Days of Decision (about in-service conscientious objectors) says he never had more clarity about life than during his days of resistance. This is the kind of clarity that comes when you're stripped-down to the essentials of life. That's the way I felt. I vowed never again to be entrapped by this society's materialism or to be bonded to what Willie described to Salt as "little bullshit jobs that don't really count." At about that time, I read Neil Postman's book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I used it as a kind of playbook for a dialectical engagement with society—surviving within it while simultaneously working for its transformation into something beyond itself.
Diane: Willie, you and veterans like Calixto Cabrera ("Alfredo" in Camo) joined the military as patriots and believers. You turned down a presidential appointment to Annapolis to become a Marine. Yet ultimately, you chose the outlaw life after Vietnam. How do you feel about that choice now?
Willie: I am still a patriot and always will be. I joined the Marine Corps in 1959 as a result of patriotism. Ten years later, I left and joined VVAW in 1971 – also as a result of patriotism. It was a patriotic act to rally with the grassroots to maintain our Constitutional perspectives. We won. Nixon and his band of thugs were ousted from power and for a while, the government did the People's Business. Remember the Erich Fromm quote: "The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal"? Given the context, and using this history as a criterion, I consider "outlaw" an honorable definition of character synonymous with "patriot." Oh, yes; and I still believe.
Diane: In the '60s and '70s, VVAW trail-blazed post-traumatic stress research using their own lives as collateral. Can this make a difference to today's returning vets?
Jerry: The movement of in-service resisters and Vietnam veterans against the war called attention to the human costs of that war and mustered the political support for increased services for the mentally and physically wounded. The needs of the current wars' many victims will be best served not by public lamentations on the costs of war and pledges to support the troops but by an anti-war movement inclusive of the men and women sent to fight the war.
Willie: Absolutely! But only if we don't allow the government to divide and conquer us as they did after our initial victories back in The Day. There is always a cost for speaking truth to power. For us, it was being shunned as Communist agitators and told that Vietnam wasn't a real war. Our service was questioned. We were labeled cry-babies and sissies for calling attention to inferior conditions at the VA (See Camo, Still at War, Winter Soldier and more). Some older veterans worried that the surge of new combat veterans might infringe on their lock on Congress and the VA and minimize their priorities and benefits. And we often experienced non-acceptance at VFW and American Legion Posts throughout America.
Hopefully we can be more supportive to the men and women coming home today. Vietnam veterans have never been a quiet group. The counsel and experience we offer is practically unprecedented in American history. But I'm afraid the recognition of that fact might take a very long time.
Jerry Lembcke is a professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA.
The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (2000) is available nationwide.
Willie Hager and Diane Ford Wood are principal organizers of PTSD-centered VetSpeak.org.
Still at War will soon be available at Wisbooks.com. Camouflage & Lace (2005) is available at