Excerpts from “The Alchemy of Combat”
“All beliefs are simply degrees of clearness of vision.”
– Hazrat Inayat Khan
Our goal, as therapists, is to help veterans expand their belief systems, through the construction of an ideal self, to integrate the traumatic information of combat and discover new inspiration. Combat changed how veterans perceive the world. As a result of combat, veterans have new information regarding life’s possibilities and actualities. However, their belief systems often aren’t able to integrate the information. The new knowledge is too big; it won’t fit into their existing ways of understanding.
Jean Piaget, the great French psychologist, asserted that there are two primary ways we organize new information to form new beliefs—assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation occurs when our belief systems are adequate to incorporate the additional knowledge. We simply add the information to the existing beliefs. It is like discovering that our friend likes Chinese food as well as American food. This information does not challenge our concept of our friend. However, assimilation is not possible if belief systems can’t manage the new information. The suddenness of death in a combat assault is shocking. Soldiers are unable to grasp the reality of the sudden loss of a comrade. “He just wasn’t there any more. His body was there but he wasn’t in it. It was f—-ing awful. Death. I mean, what the f—-? But now I know I was just stupid. That’s just what happened. It got so it didn’t mean nothing. It couldn’t.”
The second method of organization, accommodation, works in one of two ways. One is that when the new information does not require too great a change in our beliefs, we simply change the beliefs. “You know,” one veteran told me, “I trusted officers. I thought they were better trained and smarter. That was bullshit. It only took one time for the lieutenant to give me a stupid order to know that he was a true dumb ass.”
But when we are not able to change the beliefs, then we change the information. As one veteran put it, “All that crap about how we tortured people in Iraq. I was at that prison. All I saw were terrorists who were damn lucky to have a place to sleep and something to eat.”
On Easter day of 1967, a squad of Marines was parked in their Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) along a swiftly flowing river. On the other side of the river was a valley of desiccated rice paddies. They were South East of Da Nang and were surrounded by steep mountains. The heat waves vibrated up across the valley.
In the far distance the Sergeant saw what appeared to be a herd of water buffalo moving rapidly across the valley. He pulled out his binoculars and looked more carefully. Now he suddenly saw that the herd was actually a large group of North Vietnamese soldiers. The soldiers were running across the open space but were burdened down with mortars, rockets, and heavy equipment. The Sergeant shouted, “F—- man it’s the NVA (North Vietnamese Army)! FIRE! FIRE!”
APCs have several different types of weapons including 05 Howitzers, 50 caliber and 30 caliber machine guns, and grenade launchers, and of course the troops had M-16 rifles. Marines are very good shots. The group of NVA was about 100 yards away.
The Sergeant, after accounting for several dead, watched through his binoculars as the remnants of the NVA force tried to get to the high ground to set up mortars, only to be killed by the machine guns. There were no survivors.
At one time
Good Friday meant the coming of the weekend
as did all those Fridays during Lent,
those premature hot afternoons
during the Stations of the Cross
when I held my breath in laughter
after Jimmy Mallard farted,
so as not to get drug out of the pew
by Sister Amadeus pinching my ear,
and the incense waved about the sanctuary
by Father O’Connor became the scent
Spring, heralding the coming of Summer,
the release from this tomb of the sixth grade.
At one time
Good Friday became a dried rice paddy
where the air rose in vibration
with heat and moisture and fear,
and those sixty men
across the river, moving over the field
so weighted down with mortars
and rockets and weapons
we first thought were water buffalo,
now caught, with no cover,
in our sights as we fired round after round
and watched them struggle
through their last moments.
At one time
Good Friday will become a day of atonement,
regardless of that mystical Jew crucified
for all our sins,
where in the premature summer heat
I will sit somewhere on a patio
telling stories to my grandchildren
and when they ask me about the war
I will not draw details in black and white,
or paint the colors of mutilation,
I will not try to describe the smell of death,
but I will speak in my kindest voice
about how cruel we can be to one another,
about how very sad war is.
—Sergeant Bruce Schmidt, USMC, 3/18/12
Veterans from Vietnam are in late middle-age and entering their senior years. Many of these veterans are still in turmoil, alternately experiencing falling apart and forcing themselves to hold it together. While they may still struggle with florid symptoms that interfere with their daily lives, they also may have adopted lifestyles that allow them to maintain at least a semblance of effective functioning.
When I and others first started the Vet Center in Santa Barbara, I would speak to the local veteran service groups, such as the VFW, American Legion, and Disabled Veterans of America. I would begin the talk with a short description of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and then would have a Vietnam veteran get up and talk about how the war had affected him. That is, I gave the psychological perspective, and the veteran gave a first-person account of PTSD.
At one such presentation, something unusual—but perhaps to-be-expected—happened. Santa Barbara has a beautiful waterfront, with the Veterans’ Memorial Building on the beach, a gorgeous setting, with blue sky and a sparkling ocean. My talk, given in a large hall, was well attended by many older veterans stretching back to WWII. These men were obviously used to each other and showed a lot of camaraderie as they settled into their lunch. After their meal, the president of the group introduced me. The men grew silent and seemed to be attentive. However, throughout my talk they became increasingly restless and showed some real signs of uneasiness.
When I had finished, I introduced the Vietnam veteran who had accompanied me—a former Marine who had received a Combat Action Ribbon and a Purple Heart. He took the podium and began to speak. Now the room was very quiet as he began to describe some of the conflicts he had experienced.
Suddenly, in the back of the room, an older man stood up and said, “Hey, I think that’s just about enough of that. Okay. You saw some action. So what? Some of our battles probably lasted longer than your tour of duty. And we don’t talk about it and you shouldn’t either!” With that, he turned and left.
Now the room was completely still. The marine at the podium looked at the other veterans and said, “That’s why I am here today. I don’t want to be like that. When I get to your age I don’t want to have these memories continue to destroy me.” The marine went on to describe his combat and his symptoms of PTSD. When he finished, the audience rose almost as one and gave him a thundering standing ovation.
Younger, more outspoken Vietnam veterans seemed to offend the older generation. That offense resulted in further rejection of Vietnam veterans, and for many years, they were not allowed in the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Now, with an aging population and a realization of past mistakes, those organizations welcome Vietnam veterans and even actively solicit their membership.
Every Iraq veteran who has come for treatment with me wants to return to Iraq. Why? At first, it seems very odd that veteran soldiers would want to return to a place of danger and stress.
And yet there are several reasons for this. The most commonly given one is that the job has been left undone and comrades have been left behind. However, another, perhaps more important, reason is veterans’ need for meaning.
In the brilliant book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges focuses on the meaningfulness that takes place in war. Most civilians think of war as a horrible, nightmarish experience. However, the meaning available in ordinary life tends to pale next to the meaning of being one of several thousand men and women who are heavily armed with immense firepower in a foreign country, with the task of subduing a resilient and resourceful enemy.
When American soldiers left Kuwait and headed across the desert to Iraq, the endless nothingness of the desert began to attack the soldiers’ psyches, which were used to quickly changing screens of commercials and video games. To replicate this kind of external stimulation, some soldiers pasted large pictures of nude women in provocative poses inside the tanks. Other soldiers would play music, attempting to distract themselves from what they experienced as interminable silence.
The convoy was part of the early invasion. The majority of the invading force had already pushed through the highway, leaving behind the remnants of the Iraq Army. The Iraqi soldiers quickly discarded their uniforms, but not their weapons. This made them indistinguishable from civilians.
When the first town of any size suddenly appeared, the convoy slowed down as crowds of people surged onto the street. The convoy commander ordered the troops to keep moving. There were about 6-8 miles still to negotiate before they would be through the town.
Jim was riding in a Humvee in the front of the column of mostly Bradley fighting machines. Then an Iraqi man stepped out from the crowd with an apparatus on his shoulder that Jim recognized as a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. He shouted to the driver, who immediately steered the Humvee off to the side of the road.
The man fired the RPG, but because it was poorly aimed, it went over the soldiers’ heads. The convoy came to a stop and was immediately surrounded by the crowd. The commander yelled at the soldiers, “Keep driving, don’t stop!” Then they began to receive fire from the roofs of the buildings. The Bradleys returned the fire, which allowed the convoy to begin moving. But the civilians blocked the way and wouldn’t move.
The commander gave the order to shoot anyone in the way. American machine guns opened up on the crowd, quickly killing many civilians and causing a complete panic, as everyone ran for cover. The soldiers again began to receive fire from the roofs, as well as from assorted doorways.
The commander gave the command for the scouts to dismount and begin the work of clearing the streets. The infantry, including Jim, began to fight their way along the streets, quickly killing the enemy that stayed to fight. Most of the fire from the roofs ceased.
The commander ordered the infantry to secure (i.e., clear out any “hostiles”) the houses along the street. These infantry, such as Jim, were young soldiers, untrained in kicking down doors and clearing houses. But they set about their work methodically, going to houses, knocking, then kicking down doors, and killing whoever opposed them. It took two days of steady fighting before the convoy was able to completely move through the town.
Experiences like this can overwhelm soldiers’ ability to assimilate and integrate, creating the beginnings of PTSD, while at the same time, these experiences have the potential to expand belief systems and deepen the sense of purpose.
Our lives are brief in terms of history, and endless in terms of creation. I don’t know what awaits, but I have faith that is strengthened as I breathe my life. I see veterans and I know that they have been granted a great wisdom. They are like the giant who is unaware of his strength. That strength becomes alive with the integration of the traumatic experiences.