First Kill documentary

PTSD, Veterans, Vietnam

Recently, I watched the Dutch documentary “First Kill” about the experiences of veterans and reporters during the Vietnam War. The film delves into the complex psychology of killing and the American military’s obsession with “body count” during the war. In a war where territory acquisition was difficult, the military measured its success by the number of enemies its soldiers killed.

As Nick Turse so compellingly argues in his book “Kill Anything That Moves,” the body count obsession led to the killing of countless non-combatants, including the elderly, women, and children. Each corpse was added to a unit’s tally and military leaders rarely investigated whether the corpses were actually those of Viet Cong.

What caused so many young American men to act so viciously in Vietnam? While Turse blames the military’s efforts to dehumanize Vietnamese (for instance, using racial slurs), the documentary “First Kill” suggests that the answer has more to do with crossing a moral line. After being told your whole life that murder is wrong, soldiers were put in a situation where they were expected to not only kill, but kill lots of people. Under those conditions, murder becomes normal.

As veteran Billy Heflin in “First Kill” recalls,

When I was in America I was called a baby killer, because we killed kids. It was easy to pull the trigger. Just another trigger out there. It was the enemy. They had to be killed. You didn’t think about. You didn’t say, man, I killed a little kid. You didn’t think about that.

Later in the film, Billy talks about how difficult it was for him to come back to the United States after being trained as a killer. He says he misses killing and the good feeling that came from shooting the enemy.

How does one go back to a society where killing is immoral after being told by your government to kill? Certainly, some veterans have an easier time at it than others. But for vets like Billy, it is something that they will struggle with for a long time.

For Vietnam veterans suffering from “soldier’s heart,” I recommend checking out psychotherapist Ed Tick. He and his wife lead healing journeys back to Vietnam each year with a focus on forgiveness and reconciliation.

Restoring honor to the enemy

Photograph, PTSD, Veterans, Vietnam
US and Vietnamese veterans meet at Friendship Village near Hanoi

US and Vietnamese veterans meet at Friendship Village near Hanoi

Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD. While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy.

– Jonathan Shay in “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character”

Shadows of Vietnam in the suburbs

Art, Chicago, PTSD, Rotary, Talks, USA, Vietnam
Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

I visited Palatine, Illinois today to speak to the local Rotary club about my research on Vietnam veterans. After the talk, one of the club members told me about a man in his woodworking group who was greatly affected by the US-Vietnam War.

Binh Pho is a Vietnamese artist who was imprisoned in a re-education camp for refusing to accept the Communist government after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent a year in the camp, as he writes, “to supposedly get my brain-washed.” After four failed attempts to escape Vietnam, he and 38 other “boat people” made it to Malaysia on September 29, 1978. It wasn’t until another eight months that he was reunited with his family, who had successfully escaped Vietnam and were living in the United States.

Binh Pho now lives in Maple Park, 60 miles west of Chicago, where he creates wooden sculptures and furniture. His artwork is heavily influenced by his experiences in Vietnam and as a refugee. In one piece the Rotarian told me about, Binh Pho recreates the view he saw from his prison cell to the outside world. Four seasons pass; the weather changes, but the landscape stays the same. The artist writes:

There was a period of time that I looked through the window and asked myself the question,”What is it like on the other side of that window?” I then just let my imagination go.

The shadows of the Vietnam War stretch far. They reach well beyond the families suffering from dioxin poisoning in Vietnam to the shores of this country and into its quietest of suburbs.

An investigation conducted by the Orange County Register found that 1 million people were imprisoned without formal trials after the fall of Saigon, with one in three South Vietnamese families having a relative in a re-education camp. The US State Department reports that 34,641 former prisoners found a new home in America after leaving the camps. Others were not so lucky. Studies have estimated that 165,000 people died in the camps.

Who are veterans?

Art, Chicago, PTSD, Veterans, Vietnam

I’m often asked what Vietnam veterans are like. Are they angry? Are they proud of their service? Are they stronger for their time at war? Or haunted by what they did and saw?

The answer is yes. Over 2.7 million American men and women went to Vietnam in the years the US fought there, and their personalities are as diverse as their experiences. The war will have affected a man who fought in the jungles very differently from one who sat in an office in Saigon or loaded artillery onto planes. Even among men who held similar positions or fought in the same area of Vietnam, individuals will perceive what they did there differently.

Earlier this month, Army veteran David Eisler advocated in The New York Times’ “At War” column for a more nuanced conversation about the identity of veterans. He wrote:

If you listen closely to the national conversation about today’s veterans, you will hear two stories that seem to be at odds with each other.

One story is about healthy, hard-working, disciplined, well-trained and experienced veterans who would be an asset to any business or organization. The other tells of broken, disabled, traumatized veterans who have physical and behavioral health issues and require constant care and supervision.

Eisler served in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 20012, and his argument is  geared more toward victims of these new conflicts — who are now searching for civilian jobs — rather than the often-retired Vietnam veterans. But his point is a good one. You needn’t look very far to see these mixed messages about who veterans are in advertisements, the media or even our city boulevards.

Amidst the usual panhandlers on State Street, I was struck by an unusual trio outside a cosmetics store on Friday night. Two teenage boys and an older bearded man sat in matching military fatigues, heckling passersby. They held a cardboard sign, on which, I assumed, was scrawled descriptions of their war service and tragedies faced since returning. While veterans make up 7% of the US population, they represent 13% of homeless people. The majority of those homeless veterans live in urban areas like Chicago.

Yet, when I got closer I saw that their handmade sign had only one word: SMILE. The men called to the shoppers, the tourists, the secretaries and bankers trudging home after a week’s work: “Be happy.”

It was a simple message coming from a complex group.

Head Spirit by Gregory Van Maanen

“Head Spirit” by Gregory Van Maanen (1986). Gregory served in the Vietnam War as a rifleman between 1968 and 1969. This piece is shown at the NVAM alongside a letter he wrote: “I guess I’ve been hiding for 18 years since I got out of the Army. But I’ve put it to good use — Art. I’ve given it my all, and I’m still going. How, I don’t know, I don’t question it. After that Vietnam experience, there’s nothing else that makes sense. Again, that’s a long involved story.”