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International Socialism, July 1998


Jonathan Neale

Vietnam Veterans


From International Socialism 2:79, July 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


C. Appy
Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam
University of North Carolina Press 1993, £12.50

A. Young
The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Princeton University Press 1995, £14.99

Christian Appy’s Working Class War is an almost perfect socialist history of United States combat soldiers in Vietnam. Here is the story he tells. About 80 percent of soldiers came from blue collar families. About 20 percent had fathers in white collar jobs, but mostly routine ones. It was a working class war. These men were forced to go to Vietnam. The majority were drafted (conscripted). Many more joined the military because they were about to be drafted. And some joined to get steady work or because they were in trouble at home.

The government and the draft boards protected the sons of the rich. College students were not drafted until they finished their studies. And as the demand for men increased, the army began taking the young men who failed the army’s intelligence tests. At the time everybody knew the draft was discriminatory. Appy quotes a 1970 interview with a firefighter who lost his son Ralph in Vietnam:

I’m bitter. You bet your goddam dollar I’m bitter. It’s people like us who gave up our sons for the country. The business people, they run the country and make money from it. The college types, the professors, they go to Washington and tell the government what to do ... But their sons, they don’t end up in the swamps over there, in Vietnam. No sir. They’re deferred, because they’re in school. Or they get sent to safe places. Or they get out with all those letters they have from their doctors. Ralph told me. He told me what went on at his physical. He said most of the kids were from average homes; and the few rich kids there were, they all had big-deal letters saying they weren’t eligible ... Let’s face it: if you have a lot of money, or if you have the right connections, you don’t end up on a firing line in the jungle over there, not unless you want to. Ralph had no choice. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live. They just took him. [1]

Some 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. So did between 1.5 and 2 million Vietnamese – civilians and soldiers on both sides. As Appy says, to insist on the scale of Vietnamese dead does not belittle the suffering of US soldiers:

Without some awareness of the war’s full destructiveness we cannot begin to understand [the US veterans’] experience. As one veteran put it: ‘That’s what I can’t get out of my head – the bodies ... all those bodies. Back then we didn’t give a shit about the dead Vietnamese. It was like: "Hey, they’re just gooks, don’t mean nothin’." You got so cold you didn’t even blink. You could even joke about it, mess around with the bodies like they were rag dolls. And after a while we could even stack up our own KIAs [killed in action] without feeling much of anything. It’s not like that now. You can’t just put it out of your mind. Now I carry those bodies around every fucking day. It’s a heavy load, man, a heavy fucking load’. [2]

Why were there so many bodies? From 1945 to 1954 the Vietnamese fought the French colonialists. In 1954 the French gave in. The northern half of the country became a Stalinist dictatorship: North Vietnam. The southern half became a military dictatorship backed and funded by the US. Everybody knew that if there was an election in the South the Communists would win. There was no election.

From the late 1950s on the Communists in the South began a guerrilla war, against the orders of the Communist government in the North. In the end the North was morally obliged to support the movement in the South. But the great bulk of the fighting was always done by Southern guerrillas. Not everybody in the South supported the guerrillas, but the majority preferred them to the corrupt generals who ran the South. Then the US troops came: 11,300 in 1961, 185,300 in 1965, 536,000 in 1968. The more Americans came, the more it became a nationalist war and the less support the Southern government had.

So the US army and marines faced a population who mostly supported the guerrillas. They outnumbered the US forces. They had 200,000 to 300,000 full time combat troops. The US, with at least five support troops to every combat soldier, had 90,000 men at most in the field. [3] The US government, the CIA and the senior generals understood all this. But once they had thrown their support behind the South Vietnamese government they felt compelled not to lose.

Why? Appy does not say. I think the answer is this. Between 1945 and 1975 the US or the local armies it supported smashed mass movements in Greece, Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The ability to do this rested, in the end, on the threat of US intervention. The US did not, and does not, rule the world. But the US government does serve as the organising centre for local ruling classes in many places. After the defeat in Vietnam the US government could not send troops to fight anywhere for almost 20 years. [4]

To return to Appy’s argument: there was much at stake and the US government had few strategic alternatives. It decided to use its massive firepower in what General Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam, called ‘a war of attrition’. This meant killing so many of the enemy – civilians or soldiers – that they just gave up. The pressure for this was relentless. The Pentagon demanded statistics. In rear units the officers chalked the cumulative kills on a board. Officers knew their careers would depend on their numbers. And while the officers seldom said, ‘Kill all the civilians you can,’ they seldom criticised anybody for it and often praised them. This put the soldiers in a horrific position.

They arrived in Vietnam as individuals and were assigned to companies. They had no training for what they faced, because the army and marines could not admit what kind of a war they were fighting. So the slightly more experienced soldiers had to train the new men, and fast. One marine remembered his training at Khe Sanh:

That first patrol, we went to where some marines had ambushed a bunch of Vietcong. They had me moving dead bodies, VC and NVA (North Vietnamese Army). Push this body here out of the way. Flip a body over. See people’s guts and heads half blown off. I was throwing up all over the place.

’Keep doing. Drag this body over there.’

’For what?’

’You’re going to get used to death before you get in a firefight and get us all killed. You’re a [machine] gunner and gunners can’t panic on us.’

I moved some more bodies and after a while I stopped throwing up ...

[Then] they gave me about a ten-minute rest. They’re laughing and joking.

Next, I had to kick one dead body in the side of the head until part of his brain started coming out the other side. I said, ‘I just moved a dead body. What are y’all telling me?’ The logic, I didn’t see it then. I understood it later. At the time I thought, ‘These fuckers been up here too long. They are all insane.’ I’m going through my changes and the rest of these guys are laughing.

’Kick it,’ they said. ‘You are starting to feel what it is like to kill. That man is dead, but in your mind you’re killing him again. Man, it ain’t no big thing. Look-a-here.’ And they threw some bodies off the cliff ...

’So ... Kick.’ They meant it. The chant started, ‘Kick ... Kick ... Kick ...’

I’m kicking now. I’m kicking and I’m kicking and all of a sudden, the brains start coming out the other side ...

Later he understood:

They were serious men, dedicated to what they were doing. [They were] teaching me ... not to fall apart. I saw it happen. I saw guys get themselves killed and almost get an entire platoon wiped out, because they panicked or because they gave up or because they got wounded and they couldn’t deal with their own blood. They had this thing about teaching a boot [a new man] exactly what he’s got to deal with and how to accept the fact of where he really is. [5]

Where he really was at Khe Sanh was: he was bait. The population either supported the guerrillas or were too scared to tell on them. So the US generals could only find the guerrillas by sending the US soldiers and marines out on patrol. If and when the guerrillas chose to attack, the Americans on the ground would then call in artillery and bombers to blast them. This terrified the GIs: they were always waiting to get hit. Their enemy almost always chose the time and place of battle. And between 15 and 20 percent of Americans killed in Vietnam died from ‘friendly fire’: the artillery and bombs they called in.

Another 20 to 25 percent died when they stepped on mines. They could not see the enemy. But they had seen villagers a few minutes or hours before they stepped on the mines. The villagers knew where the mines were – the guerrillas told them or left warning marks. And the US soldiers learned: the villagers were their enemy.

They were fighting an enemy they could not see. They were constantly afraid. They felt helpless. They were losing. The officers were pushing them relentlessly to report dead Vietnamese. And they were on the wrong side. They knew it. Again and again returning veterans in the 1960s said that the other side were the only people in the country who knew what they were fighting for. But the GIs felt the choice was to fight or to die. They knew they were oppressing poor people, but that only made them angrier and more desperate.

With care and sympathy Appy lets the reader feel what those soldiers felt, so that by the time he gets to the atrocities you understand why they did them. This is a short article, so it will be harder for the reader to follow the process. But let us take one example.

The US soldiers were particularly angry with the Vietnamese children. The soldiers expected the children to like them. From their first moments in Vietnam they met children begging for food. The soldiers were appalled by the poverty, and their fathers had told them of giving food and candy to grateful children in Europe. But if they did not feed the Vietnamese children, the kids screamed abuse at them. If they did, the children fell on them, tearing at their clothes, going through their pockets, making clear their need and their hatred.

The old soldiers told the new soldiers the truth: those children hate us. They know where the mines are. They want us to die. The hardest thing was: the US soldiers saw themselves in those children. They had grown up poor. Many of them knew what it was to go to bed hungry. Most of them had been laughed at in high school because they didn’t have the right clothes. And now, suddenly, they were unimaginably rich compared to those children. But they would still be poor when they went home. So they hated it when the children begged. Soldiers who served in different parts of Vietnam remember throwing full cans of combat rations at children from trucks: throwing them as hard as they could. Appy quotes an army combat engineer:

We threw full C-ration cans at the kids on the side of the road. They’d be yelling out, ‘Chop, chop; chop, chop,’ and they wanted food. They knew we carried C-rations. Well, just for a joke, these guys would take a full can ... and throw it as hard as they could at a kid’s head. I saw several kids’ heads split wide open, knocked off the road, knocked into the tires of the vehicle behind. [6]

Appy then quotes a marine who ‘served at the opposite end of South Vietnam’:

When they originally get in country [Americans] feel very friendly toward the Vietnamese and they like to toss candy at the kids. But as they become hardened to it and kind of embittered against the war, as you drive through the ville you take the cans of C-rats and the cases and you peg ‘em at the kids; you try to belt them over the head. And one of the fun games that always went was you dropped the C-rats cans or the candy off the back of your truck so that the kid will have time to dash out, grab the candy and get run over by the next truck. [7]

Appy comments:

This is not easy to understand, and veterans who are plagued with guilt for incidents like this do not themselves fully understand what led them to behave so cruelly or how they might have found in it a ‘joke’ or a ‘fun game’. Somehow those roadside children became the emblems and the targets of the war’s contradictions. [8]

The soldiers saw the children’s hatred and need, and could not bear it. And then the soldiers went home.

Away from the war, veterans found it difficult to numb themselves to the suffering they endured, witnessed and inflicted ... [One] soldier, just a long plane flight away from the war, was met by his parents at the airport:

’They drove home in silence and then sat together in the kitchen, and his mother, in passing, apologised for there being ‘nothing in the house to eat’. That did it; he broke. Raging, he went from cupboard to cupboard, shelf to shelf, flinging doors open, pulling down cans and boxes and bags, piling them higher and higher on the table until they spilled over onto the floor and everything edible in the house was spread out in front of them.

’I couldn’t believe it,’ he said, shaking his head as he told me. ‘I’d been over there ... killing those poor bastards who were living in their tunnels like rats and had nothing to eat but mud and a few goddamn mouldy grains of rice, and who watched their kids starve to death or go up in smoke, and she said nothing to eat, and I ended up in the kitchen crying and shouting: nothing to eat, nothing to eat!’ [9]

As Appy comments, ‘Beyond this veteran’s rage one can imagine the hurt and confusion of his parents.’ But how could a man in this situation make sense of his experience? The GIs came home to a mass anti-war movement. But they saw it as movement against them. Over and over, they told each other stories of being spat on by anti-war hippies upon their return. They saw the protesters as college students. They had learned in Vietnam that the officers and the professionals were their enemies. Learned it the hardest way possible, and learned it forever. Earlier I quoted a firefighter who lost his son Ralph in Vietnam. His wife said:

I told (my husband) I thought (the anti-war demonstrators) want the war to end, so no more Ralphs will die, but he says no, they never stop and think about Ralph and his kind of people, and I’m inclined to agree. They say they do, but I listen to them, I watch them; since Ralph died I listen and I watch as carefully as I can. Their hearts are with other people, not their own American people, the ordinary kind of person in this country ... Those people, a lot of them are rich women from the suburbs, the rich suburbs. Those kids, they are in college ... I’m against this war, too – the way a mother is, whose sons are in the army, who has lost a son fighting in it. The world hears those demonstrators making their noise. The world doesn’t hear me, and it doesn’t hear a single person I know. [10]

This woman does not support the protesters, but she opposes the war. All the public opinion surveys at the time showed that blue collar workers opposed the war as much as or more than professionals. A larger proportion of blue collar workers than professionals voted for George McGovern, the anti-war candidate in 1972. [11] And the great majority of veterans were clear: the US should not be in Vietnam.

Only a minority of veterans supported the organised Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But more important, under the pressure of their own experience and the anti-war movement at home, the soldiers and marines in Vietnam began to act against the war. During the war roughly 500,000 people deserted from the US forces, many to avoid going to Vietnam. [12] Think about that: half a million deserters.

In Vietnam many units began refusing patrols they thought were too dangerous. Some of these mutinies were televised back home. Throughout the war small units of enlisted men had ‘sandbagged’ night patrols – they went and hid somewhere and simply called in false reports on the radio. Now more and more junior officers joined in sandbagging.

Officers who forced men into patrols were killed by their men. I remember a friend in 1967, just returned from combat in Vietnam, telling me that killing officers was common but never reported. By 1969 there was a name for it – ‘fragging’, from the fragmentation grenades commonly used. And the army was collecting statistics: 126 fraggings in 1969, 271 in 1970 and 333 in 1971. About 80 percent of these were killings of officers and NCOs, but these figures do not include officers and sergeants simply shot in the back on patrol.

By 1971, under pressure from the anti-war movement, US forces were down to 200,000. [13] Killing 300 or more gung-ho officers and NCOs from among that number was enough for the rest to get the message. The US forces were withdrawn from Vietnam because they had ceased to fight. The courage and endurance of the Vietnamese peasants won the war. The anti-war movement in the US mattered, and so did the fragging of officers by US enlisted men.

Post-traumatic stress

But that was forgotten. The men who killed their officers didn’t talk about it much when they came back. There was nobody who celebrated their resistance. The half a million deserters kept quiet. In one way, almost everybody who fought in Vietnam knew that their lives had been damaged, and sometimes ruined, by the US class system. They returned with a hatred of that system. But at the same time they heard no voice that explained their suffering in class terms. They were alone. And they returned to a generation of recession, and employers who discriminated against them. Most of them coped, as people do, and got on with building lives.

But the more they thought about the war, the more desperate some of them felt. ‘No one knows how many veterans have committed suicide ... but most specialists who have worked closely with veterans believe the number of suicides far exceeds the number of men who died in the war itself.’ [14] Many more drugged themselves, or drank hard, or woke up screaming or exploded in rage or went mad.

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War, however, left a legacy of political organisation. The veterans were able to insist that something must be done. The Veterans Administration (VA), part of the federal government, was already responsible for medical care of all veterans. In the 1980s they began to offer psychiatric help to people suffering from what the psychiatrists now called ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’.

Allen Young’s The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder includes a study of staff and resident patients in one such VA psychiatric centre in 1986–1987. Young is an anthropologist, and he spent a year in the centre watching and listening.

One man was both manager of the centre staff and director of the treatment offered. He had a model of post-traumatic stress the staff had to use. It went as follows: Men with post-traumatic stress disorder are split between their aggressive and sexual sides. At a moment in the past they did one wrong thing, and they did it because they enjoyed it. After they enjoyed that thing, they were overwhelmed with guilt. So they split their desire from their aggression. The cure is for them to recall that moment in detail in group therapy. When they have returned to that moment, and accepted that they wanted to do evil, they then can leave the guilt behind and become whole people.

Note carefully: they did one wrong thing. Terrible things that were done to them don’t really count. Terrible things they saw don’t really count. It has to be an atrocity they wanted to commit. And only one atrocity. A lot of time in therapy is spent trying to find that one time.

It’s all nonsense, as Young shows clearly. But it serves a function. This centre treats men wounded by the war. But it’s a government centre. It cannot say, ‘The officers and the government are to blame.’ It cannot say, ‘What was done to you in Vietnam is of a piece with what has been done to you since.’ And it cannot allow the patients to say these things. So the psychiatric theory blames the men: they wanted to kill. The men keep trying to say what was done to them. In group therapy ‘Henry’ explains some of why he is upset:

Henry: Well, the word gutting has a special meaning for me. It makes me think of a time when a guy in my outfit threw some ears on the lieutenant’s table. The ears were still wet with blood, and the lieutenant got pissed off, because he had to begin his report over again: his paper was bloody. In our outfit, it was policy to bring in ears as proof of confirmed kills, for body counts. And when we’d do this, it reminded me of hunting. You know, you go out, track your deer, shoot it, and then you gut the carcass.

Lewis [a psychologist, co-leader of the group]: But yesterday you used this word toward the group.

Henry: Yes, I know. I don’t like feeling that way. I don’t feel that I’m too tightly wrapped. Maybe I am crazy. I was raised a Baptist. I went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, and I went to Bible camp. By the time I was 18, I was in Vietnam. After I was in country for only three days, I killed a 16 year old boy. I began questioning my religion. I was asking myself what kind of god would put me in a position like this and let me do this. At first, I felt sad. But then people started telling me, ‘Way to go,’ and the captain and the sergeant congratulated me for having a kill after such a short time. After a while, I fell into the programme. I’d see guys lose legs and other shit happen, and it didn’t bother me any more. I began to enjoy it and went back for a second tour [a second year]. I wanted to get revenge, and I wanted to do as much destruction as possible. [15]

Here is part of group therapy a week earlier. Lewis the psychologist explains the theory. Henry listens for a while. Then he speaks, and Lewis immediately shuts him up:

Lewis: Forgetting traumatic events originates in a conflict. You don’t want to remember. Your conflict is always driving you back to the original event, but you don’t want to go back to it. Stress responses do two things for you. First, you don’t have to face your conflict, and second, you punish yourself ... One of the jobs of combat training is to remove some of the conflict over aggression, so that you can be aggressive ...

Martin [another patient]: Well, I can tell you we had no problem being aggressive in Vietnam.

Lewis: Okay, Martin. Give us an example, but use the word ‘I’ instead of ‘we’.

Martin: Well, you get orders to burn a village, and a gook tries to put the fire out while you’re trying to burn his hootch [house]. He fucks with you, and you show him that you can fuck with him. You can push him away, or you can kick his ass, or you can do what we usually did: you can shoot him.

Lewis: The word ‘gook’ is a good example of how we depersonalise people, turn them into objects. It’s how we make it easier to –

Martin: I wasn’t even conscious that I was using this word.

Henry: My aggression is against Americans: against the smug, sanctimonious, hypocritical, silent majority of Americans. My fantasy is to release the black plague on them. If I could do that, then maybe I’d have some satisfaction.

Lewis: OK, Henry, what you need to do now is examine what you’ve said and ask yourself why you said it when you did. It was what we call a ‘displacement’. The real target of your aggression is somewhere else. You may have a legitimate complaint about these people, the silent majority. But you’re using them as a target for your anger. The real source of the conflict is hidden in these feelings against the silent majority. If you take the time to think about it, you’ll discover two things at the bottom of it. First, there’s the intent to do harm, and second, there’s the intent to punish yourself. You need to stop trying to see what makes sense ‘logically’ – whether or not the majority of Americans earned the negative feelings you have for them. You need to see what makes sense emotionally and psychologically. [16]

Lewis, the psychologist, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. So he has to acknowledge there was something wrong with the war. It is not clear if he really believes the ‘American people’ are at fault. But if he regularly told the group, ‘Look, why don’t you just blame the rich,’ he would lose his job. Two weeks later Carol, a counsellor, shuts Henry up again in group therapy:

Carol: Yesterday you were wearing all black, Henry, a black shirt, black jeans. And what was Paul’s response? He said the clients are like troops being shot at by people [Vietnamese] in black pyjamas.

Henry: Listen, the people who were shooting at me in Vietnam weren’t wearing black uniforms. Black clothes don’t mean anything to me. There was no aggressive intent. After the session, when I realised that my clothes produced a stress response, I went to my room and changed, and I came to lunch in different clothes.

Carol: Even if it’s not your conscious experience right now, its meaning will come to realisation. Same thing about the meaning of your remark yesterday, about the Vietcong not being your enemy.

Henry: Well, that’s right. The Vietcong were acting the same way we would have acted in their place. I had no anger against them. My anger’s against the people who sponsored the war.

Carol: Which is equivalent to saying, ‘My anger is against all Americans’. [17]

Which shuts him up and forces him to blame himself. Again and again in Young’s book you can hear the class struggle in therapy. It goes on all day every, every day in this clinic. The therapists, controlled by the managing psychiatrist, try to make the veterans responsible for the war. The veterans fight back.

Carol: Say to yourself, I’ve been punishing myself and people around me for 20 years. Say, Jack, you can choose to stop!

Jack: Listen, Carol. On some nights, I feel anxiety going through my body like it’s electricity. It started in Vietnam. It wasn’t just a feeling. It was anxiety together with terrible chest pains and difficulty breathing. Just like having a heart attack. They sent me over to the field hospital to get an ECG. The doctors told me there was nothing wrong. They said I was just hyperventilating. They told me to breathe into a paper bag when I got those feelings, and they gave me a supply of Valium to take back. But I got those attacks anyway. And I’m still getting them.

Carol: What would you call it?

Jack: Well, I know that it’s called a ‘panic attack’. But I didn’t know it then.

Carol: No, I mean what would you call it using the terms of the model – the model that you learned about during orientation phase?

Jack: I don’t really know, Carol. My mind is confused right now.

Carol: The model says that we’re dominated by two drives, aggression and sex, and that –

Jack: Listen, Carol. When I got those attacks, I sure didn’t want to get fucked, and I can’t believe it was my aggression. [18]


Gary: What’s your success rate?

Carol: It’s normal to doubt, but –

Gary: I’m not doubting. I just want to know the name of one graduate: someone who has no flashbacks, bad dreams, etcetera.

Carl: You can go to the alcohol ward, and they’ll give you the name of a reformed alcoholic they’ve treated. Will this program allow us to get back on the street? I came here all the way from North Carolina, and I spent 41 days on the alcohol ward – that was the condition you people set for me to get into this programme. I put a lot into getting here; now I want to get some answers.

Flip: The programme won’t change anything. We have to change ourselves. But I’m in a state of confusion now. My mood changes from minute to minute. You can get something from this programme, Carl, and you can just reject the rest.

Carl: There’s a difference between you and me, Flip. I’ve been going to the VA [Veterans Administration] for years – long before PSTD. They browbeat you at the VA, and then they send you out on the street. [To the therapists] When I ask if you have answers, don’t fuck with me. Everywhere in the VA, it’s the same. Patients against staff. We don’t need their rules. They’ve got to treat us like men. We don’t need to take their bullshit any more. All over the country you get the same bullshit. [19]

The staff have a way of explaining away the patients’ anger. They say: anger is a defence. The patient gets angry so he doesn’t have to get in touch with his feelings of guilt about what he did. He seems to be angry with me. Actually, he’s angry with me because I’m pushing him to reveal his guilt.

Sometimes patients test the ‘limits’ set by the staff. Maybe they become violent. Maybe they leave the room during group therapy to have a piss. Maybe they wear dark glasses in group. Maybe they disagree with the therapists too effectively. If they break these limits, they face a ‘panel’. This panel is made of all the staff the patient has told his intimate secrets to. They discuss everything about him behind his back. Sometimes they throw him out of the hospital. The other patients regard this as a punishment – just like the army. The staff disagree. They feel they are only setting limits.

The centre Young studied is one of the best in the Veterans Administration. It is Freudian, progressive. The patients are encouraged to talk. Many of these men have been to other hospitals, where they were drugged to the eyeballs, shot full of thorazine, strapped to tables for weeks, given electric shocks over and over, given electric shocks while they were awake.


These are men whose median income – except for Veterans Administration disability benefits – is less than $1,000 a year. If they don’t get a good report from the staff, they could lose those benefits. If the staff decide they have ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, they could get $40,000 to $60,000 in back benefits. So there’s a lot of pressure to be good. But not too good – if you’re cured, you might lost your benefits, and still not have a job.

In this situation it’s hard to be honest and open in therapy. Yet these men often are. They try desperately. They have suffered for years. This is the only help available. And so they wait, days or weeks, for each man to gather the courage to say what he did, what was done to him. As each man tells his worst ‘event’, they sit silent, leaning forward, willing him on to tell the truth. They want to tell and hear the truth. They have seen enough lies. But they also hope the therapists are right – this will cleanse him.

The man tells the truth. It does not cure him. The therapists say once a man has returned to that moment and owned his responsibility, he will be whole. He is not. He is ashamed. And in the eyes of the men who were there too, he is right to be ashamed. The therapists say he can put the guilt behind him. He can’t. Somebody has to bear the guilt. It should be the guilty – not the working class boys sent to hell, but the rich and powerful men who sent them there.

It would help these veterans in pain if they could be angry with the men who sent them there – titanically angry, encouraged in their anger, supported in their anger, honoured for their rage. Instead they are silenced, so those who ruled the US then can still rule the US today.

Academic writing

That’s all I have to say about the war. Now I want to use these two books to talk about writing socialist books. Socialists need books about class struggle because we want to fight. So we need to know what our rulers are doing, how and why they rule us, both in the corridors of power and day by day in the clinic and the workplace. We need to understand how the class struggle structures our lives. We need to understand how we can win and why we might lose. And we need books ordinary socialists and workers can understand.

Appy has written such a book. It’s a book working class veterans can read. Their children, many of them students in US colleges, can read it too. It does justice to the veterans’ experience. It also shows what the ruling class and the officers did to them. It does not tell us fairy stories about people making their own lives. It shows us how the soldiers were brutalised and brutalised others. But it also shows us how the same men fought back: the half a million deserters, the sandbaggers, the men who refused patrols, the mutineers and the fraggers.

There are two things missing. Appy’s book is clearly based on Marxist ideas of class. But he does not mention Marxism. And he does not explain why the US ruling class felt they had to stay in Vietnam. I think in both cases Appy is worried about losing the veterans for whom he is writing. He might lose the readers who do not agree with his analysis of US foreign policy. And the veterans fought people who were called Marxists.

The way round this problem is to say that the Vietnamese Communists were no more Marxist than the US government is freedom loving. The Vietnamese government now is a state capitalist regime, not a socialist one. But I suspect Appy is confused about this, so he avoids the subject.

Young’s book is also about the class struggle. He shows us in detail, in conversation after conversation, how the manager makes the junior therapists oppress the patients. He shows us how the patients argue back and how they support each other. In that way, it’s a brilliant book. It made me shout out loud and made me cry. But it’s written so veterans won’t read it. Before we get to life in the veterans’ clinic there are 144 pages of a history of psychiatric ideas about trauma and stress. Much of it is very insightful, but I had a lot of difficulty following it. And I have 13 years experience as a counsellor and a PhD in social history. Those first 144 pages make quite sure veterans won’t read the book.

The next 120 pages describe the clinic. The transcripts of therapy are electrifying and the analysis is spot on. But here again the reader needs more explanation and more signposts. Why did Young write in this way? I don’t know his individual circumstances, but I can guess.

Academics move in a world suffused with the ideas of the rich and powerful. It’s in the air they breathe, the seminar papers they listen to and the reading lists they assign. They depend upon senior professors for job security, promotion and even personal and intellectual approval. When academics write in opposition to the prevailing ideas, they feel vulnerable. They often try to protect themselves. One way to do that is to begin the book with a chapter which reviews other academic books in the field. Unfortunately, this chapter acts as a barrier to ordinary people reading the book. [20]

Another way is to write in a language which only other academics can read. (Some write in a language even other academics have great difficulty understanding.) I am not saying that academics should simplify their ideas for a working class audience. The more complex the ideas, the simpler the language needs to be. In Appy’s book, for instance, the ideas are complex. The writing is not. In fact, clear language helps a writer think through complex ideas.

Appy’s strength comes partly from his topic and circumstances. He is writing about an old and discredited war. He is writing about the military for liberal academics. His book comes from a thesis at Harvard supervised and defended by Robert Coles, a left winger of great moral and intellectual stature. Young is more exposed. He is writing about now. He is writing about how a liberal, professional institution attacks workers. He is writing about a psychiatrist he knows who allowed him to do the fieldwork. And, like Appy, he is writing about class struggle.

Most academics don’t write about the oppressed. Those who do, usually write about the oppressed for the professors, not about the class struggle for the oppressed. In other words, they write about the feelings, families, gender, rituals, networks, work and culture of the oppressed. They do not focus on the class struggle: strikes, demonstrations, unions, parties, the state and the daily battle at work.

So Young was vulnerable. I suspect he decided to write a book which would be professionally bombproof, because he could show he knew more about psychiatric history and ideas than the psychiatrists themselves. He didn’t have to. He could have put the hospital stuff first and the history afterwards. Then veterans could have read the first half and left the rest. And when he wrote the first half he could have said to himself: I must write this so veterans will understand it.

Does this matter? Yes. Here’s more group therapy. ‘Henry’ is the man we met before, remembering the severed ears and being silenced by the therapists:

Peter: In Vietnam we didn’t have an objective. We weren’t allowed to accomplish anything. They just sent people there to fart around and to die.

Carol: And the centre – is it like this too?

Peter: Well, I wonder if there is a cure for PATS [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Lewis [another therapist] says that what we’re into here is ‘a recovery on the way to a cure’.

Henry: Everything I’ve read before coming here says that PATS can’t be cured. [21]

’Everything I’ve read ...’ Here is a man who reads everything he can to understand his life. He’s still out there somewhere. There are many like him. They need a book by Young. He knows what they know, but are constantly forced to doubt. Reading it in a book will confirm them, strengthen them. And in some ways Young understands more clearly than they do what happened to them. They keep feeling they should blame the American people. Young can show them it was the officers who did it to them there, and the manager who did it to them in the hospital.

For Young shows clearly how the frontline therapists struggle, caught between the managing psychiatrist and the patients. These therapists, counsellors and nurses are at the bottom of the profession, without graduate degrees. They know that what the patients say is true. You can hear them bending to the patients in group therapy. You can see them arguing among themselves, angry with the ‘model’ they are forced to use. And you can read how the psychiatrist fired one therapist who disagreed with him and reduced another to tears.

These frontline therapists are confused. In one way, they know what’s happening. In another way, they are afraid of losing their jobs. And they have no alternative politics for understanding and helping the patients. They could use a book which explained what happened in clinics like theirs. They would read it. As it is, this book is presented in such a way that mental nurses and junior counsellors won’t read it. Young can and should write the book the therapists, mental nurses and veterans need. I hope it’s his next book.


1. R. Coles, The Middle Americans (Boston 1971), quoted in C. Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (University of North Carolina Press 1993), p. 42.

2. C. Appy, op. cit., pp. 16–17.

3. Ibid., pp. 166–167.

4. See J. Neale, Imperialism, in Socialist Review 137, 1990, pp. 20–21 and A. Callinicos et al., Marxism and the New Imperialism (Bookmarks 1994).

5. M. Baker, Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There (New York 1981), quoted in C. Appy, op. cit., pp. 143–144.

6. Vietnam Veterans Against the War, The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes (Boston 1972), quoted in C. Appy, op. cit., p. 294.

7. Ibid., pp. 294–295.

8. C. Appy, op. cit., p. 295.

9. P. Marin, Coming to terms with Vietnam, Harpers 1980, quoted in C. Appy, op. cit., p. 296.

10. R. Coles, op. cit., quoted in C Appy, op. cit., pp. 42–43.

11. C. Appy, op. cit., pp. 38–43.

12. Ibid., p. 95.

13. Ibid., p. 246.

14. Ibid., p. 9.

15. Ibid., p. 247.

16. Ibid., pp. 244–245.

17. Ibid., p. 251.

18. Ibid., p. 245.

19. Ibid., p. 235.

20. If you find yourself pressed by an editor or publisher to write such a chapter, write a bibliographic essay for the end instead. It looks classier and it’s more use to the reader.

21. A. Young, op. cit., p. 254.

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