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Unseen Scars from Fifty Years Ago
By Doug Mason
I always have nightmares around the holidays—usually recurrent dreams related to "The Christmas Bombings" of North Vietnam conducted for twelve days beginning on December 18, 1972. Bearing witness from Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base's 388th Combat Support Group, I was not physically in harm's way, but the takeoff of each aircraft signaled one of the most savage phases of the Vietnam War.
Over fifty years ago, Operation Linebacker II was a "maximum effort" bombing campaign that saw the largest bomber strikes launched by US military forces since World War II. Besides nighttime raids by strategic forces, tactical aircraft such as the F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs at Korat would continue to press daytime attacks. The roar of jets lifting off the Thailand runway was seemingly continuous.
History shows that Linebacker II was unjustified politically or militarily, except to serve the partisan purposes of President Richard Nixon. While US Air Force planners carefully shaped a list of "lawful" targets in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas, there was significant civilian collateral damage. Every time I left the base for my hooch in town, I saw human scenes in Nakhon Ratchasima province that mirrored life in nearby embattled Vietnam. It was impossible to avoid thinking of the innocent victims of terror from the sky and the part I played in supporting that horror. Self-medication with marijuana, opiates, and alcohol seemed the only way to ease my spiritual pain short of suicide (a religious retreat provided little relief to my "soul wounds").
My troubles were compounded when I was honorably discharged after my year in the Indochina Theater of War (while American hostilities in Vietnam ceased in January 1973, the air war continued in Laos through April and Cambodia until August). My experiences in Southeast Asia led to high levels of anguish, anger, and alienation. Reflecting on perceived transgressions filled me with sorrow and bitterness. I now take responsibility for inappropriate behaviors leading to failed marriages and other shattered relationships. When I was fired in 1989 from a dream job, the boss suggested psychological counseling, and I have been in therapy since taking that advice.
I was misdiagnosed with clinical depression for years, and though I was, thankfully, still alive, internally, things were in turmoil. Then I read the 1994 book, Achilles in Vietnam. Author Jonathan Shay coined the term "moral injury" to define the damage done to one's conscience or moral compass when a person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one's moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. Philosopher Nancy Sherman, journalist David Wood, and Vietnam veteran/peace activist Camillo "Mac" Bica, among others, have further focused on this issue in multiple books on war and moral injury.
Though the publications of the US Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) recognize the existence of moral injury, it is not a currently accepted diagnostic category. One can receive compensation from the VA for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but not for moral injury. Shame, guilt, and anger at the self or others' betrayal of basic human values are central to moral injury. These emotions may occur with PTSD, but they are not key to its definition. PTSD is generally regarded as a fear-based disorder. Moral injury is guilt and shame-based. And PTSD fails to account for despair responses, while moral injury does.
War is not the only thing that can cause moral injury—abuse, rape, and violence lead to similar damage. The VA has begun to take the concept seriously. Last year, I joined a moral injury support group convened by a team from the Altoona VA Hospital. I am grateful and am moving steadily on the path of self-forgiveness. I have forgiven those who called Vietnam vets baby killers or cry babies. I have pardoned the enemy in the jungles and presidential administrations in Washington, DC (although I remain critical of their political legacies).
I hope this column helps someone else who may be afflicted with moral injury. I am especially concerned for veterans of the Middle Eastern Forever Wars. Healing builds bridges over scarred chasms.
Doug Mason served at Korat RTAFB in 1972-73. He is a native of Philadelphia, a retired soil scientist and lives with his wife Sonja in central Pennsylvania.