You Can Never Be Ordinary Again

“We did what we could but it was not enough because I found you here. All of you are not just names on the wall, you are alive. Your blood’s on my hands, your screams in my ears, your eyes in my soul. I told you you’d be alright but I lied. Please forgive me. I see your face in my son. I can’t bear the thought. You told me about your wife, your kids, your girl, your mother. Then you died. I should have done more. Your pain is ours. Please, God. I’ll never forget your faces. I can’t, you’re still alive.”

President Obama is right: of Major Hasan we should not “jump to conclusions.” But there is one thing we can know for certain: the horrors of war are not cabined to those who fight in them.

The centrality of war is the intentional killing of human beings: the healer is charged with preserving life, to “abstain from doing harm.” When these worlds collide, when a healer is tasked with applying the healing arts to those deliberately damaged by war, then, as one nurse learned, “you can never be ordinary again.”

The note quoted above, left by another nurse at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, speaks to that. Beyond the “furthur” are more such voices. Many more.

Pediatrician Ronald J. Glasser in 1968 was assigned as an Army major to a hospital at Zama, in Japan. He never got near Vietnam. His initial assignment was in fact to treat people clear out of the war: the children of Japan-based American officers, and of other high-ranking government officials living there. But with six to eight thousand wounded Americans flowing out of Vietnam each month, Glasser, like every other available physician, was soon called upon to treat them, too.

And so, there in Japan, every day, Glasser encountered the war: “the blind 17-year-olds stumbling down the hallway, the shattered high-school football player being wheeled to physical therapy.”

Glasser had trained to heal children; in Japan he found himself, in fact, treating children. Children sent to kill, returned mangled and maimed. Children broken, who would always be broken. As Glasser himself broke.

ronindex“At first, when it was all new,” Glasser wrote in his memoir, 365 Days, “I was glad I didn’t know them; I was relieved they were your children, not mine. After a while, I changed.”

Glasser’s children “trip over mines and are reduced to vegetables; after a night of grisly hand-to-hand murder they are enraged when the cook runs out of cornflakes; they nervously conspire to kill their swinish senior officers[.]“

Glasser’s children were erased from the earth in ways like this:

Graham was eighteen years old when a tracer round skidded off his flack vest and triggered a grenade in his webbing. He struggled for a moment to pull it off and then, according to the other medic working with him, he jumped out of the aid station, and kept running, with the grenade bouncing against his chest until it went off.

William Styron, in a review of Glasser’s work, recounts the last story in 365 Days:

Major Edwards, a doctor in the hospital burn unit, is faced with the hopeless task of saving a young soldier cruelly burned across 80 percent of his body. The tale is simple, the situation uncomplicated: a dedicated physician, through no other motive than that resulting from the mighty urge to hold back death, trying against all odds to salvage someone who himself is suffering, without complaint, ecstasies of pain. Two human beings, then, locked in the immemorial struggle against inexplicable fate. [T]he moment of the boy’s imminent death and his last cry to the doctor—”I don’t want to go home alone”—seem to rise to form a kind of unbearable epiphany to the inhuman waste and folly of war.

Glasser’s life was utterly changed. He is today, more than 40 years on, still wedded to those wounded in war: he recently wrote another book, Wounded: Vietnam To Iraq. Wherein we learn that there have been more amputations in Iraq than in any American conflict since the Civil War. That 30 percent of those wounded in Iraq suffer traumatic brain injuries. That physical injuries combined with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder place the number of Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan at well over 100,000. That “[d]eaths have traditionally been viewed as a measure of potential victory or personal danger in any military conflict . . . But in this war the use of death as a function of peril is not only deceptive, it’s delusional. Death in Iraq is no longer the real measure of risk. The story of this war cannot be told solely in the count of its dead. Whatever else may be said about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is more a war of cripples and disabilities than it is a war of death.”

In his first book, Glasser wrote this about combat medics:

A tour of Nam is 12 months; it is like a law of nature. The medics, though, stay on line only seven months. It is not due to the good will of the Army, but to their discovery that seven months is about all these kids can take. After that, they start getting freaky, cutting down on their own water and food so they can carry more medical supplies; stealing plasma bottles and walking around on patrol with five or six pounds of glass in their rucksacks; writing parents and friends so they can buy their own endotracheal tubes; or quite simply refusing to leave their units when their time in Nam is over.

And so it goes, and the [North Vietnamese] know it. They will drop the point, trying not to kill him but to wound him, to get him screaming so they can get the medic too. He’ll come. They know he will.

Jack McCloskey was one of those men. He always came. Though already against the war, when he shipped to Vietnam as a combat medic in 1967; issued a .45, he stored it in his footlocker. In his holster he carried battle dressings.

In Strange Ground, McCloskey describes how he changed:

I remember the first guy I treated. A young guy, about eighteen or nineteen. He had stepped on a Bouncing Betty, and it literally blew him apart. I remember running up and him saying, “Doc, Doc, I’m going to live ain’t I?” photo by harry behretAnd me saying, “Sure, babe,” and then he died. I held his hand, and he died. I remember crying. I cried at the next one and cried at the next one and cried at the next one. But it got to the point where I stopped crying, because I thought I’d either kill myself or go crazy if I felt for these guys. I started thinking, I’m going to stand up next time in a firefight and expose myself and end it. So I started shutting down. Not having emotions. Steeling myself: You’ve gotta make it, therefore you can’t cry anymore. I put myself in a cage.

Sometimes rather than saving these young lives, McCloskey, when there was nothing more to be done, with morphine, ended them.

Nobody knew I did it. I think some of the guys knew I was going to. I had some guys beg me to do it: “Doc, don’t let me suffer like this.” I did it. And there’s always that thing that sticks in the back of my head—whether they would have made it or not. I don’t think any of them would’ve. But it still doesn’t sit good with me.

After McCloskey’s two best friends, both medics, were killed in action, he himself began using morphine. “I got to a point where I’d start shaking, there was so much shit going on in my head. When I wanted to scream, I’d do a Syrette. It would calm me down. I would lose the edge of all this horror. I didn’t like the bad memories. If I got high, I could think of Allen and Casey and remember the conversations and good times we had.” McCloskey took his morphine habit, and fifty-six smuggled Syrettes, with him back to the States. After hearing himself and his fellows denounced as “killers” at an anti-war rally in the fall of 1968, he threw his remaining Syrettes in the ocean.

I never did morphine again. But I had incredible nightmares. There’s one that always comes back when I get really depressed. I’m in combat. I reach in my medic bag to pull out a battle dressing. And as I open the battle dressing, it starts to turn into a body bag.

Jack McCloskey died in 1996 at the age of 53, of heart failure. He had never been well, since his return from Vietnam, suffering the lingering effects of two physical wounds, PTSD, and exposure to Agent Orange.

jack mccloskey, there on the leftStateside, he had become one of the people who patiently worked to awaken the Veteran’s Administration, and the nation, to the existence and effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, helped create Swords To Plowshares, founded Twice Born Men.

According to his friend, Jerry Nicosia, “The cause of veterans’ rights was his purpose. He never gained fame or made money from it, as some did. He lived a totally poor, destitute life, essentially hand to mouth. He was never famous in a national way, but he was famous among his friends. He was always there, always there for Vietnam vets.”

When wounded men left the care of medics like McCloskey, they often passed to clearing stations where they were treated by men like Dr. Dennis Greenbaum. These were soldiers too badly injured to survive the 30-minute helicopter trip to an evacuation hospital. Greenbaum found that the equipment needed to treat these men was not available, and that those treating them were too often underqualified for the task.

I remember the chest wounds. Here was I, with no surgical experience, operating on some guy’s chest, which in civilian practice is done by the most senior of surgeons. With no experience and no time to prepare a scrub for operating, I’d have to go in and isolate where the bleeding was, put in chest tubes, and actually do the operation, because there was nobody at the clearing station more qualified than me. There were people at the evacuation hospital, but that was sixty miles away.

Greenbaum’s brigade medical commander had in civilian life “push[ed] diet pills to fat people. So the highest-ranking medical officer in our brigade was this major whose entire experience was running a fat farm.” There was no EKG machine at Greenbaum’s station—his civilian colleagues back at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York purchased one and had it delivered from Tokyo.

Greenbaum discovered that the military had placed a value on human life that depended upon what sort of clothing one wore. Even then, the life of an American dog was considered of more worth than that of any human being native to Vietnam.

The ARVN troops had the lowest priority for treatment on the list of all the casualties you could get. The highest was any US person. The second-highest was a US dog from the canine corps. The third was NVA. The fourth was VC. And the fifth was ARVN, because they had no particular value. The only thing below them was the civilians.

Sometimes men like Greenbaum were ordered first to save lives, and then to end them.

I had a friend who was in one of the smaller outlying landing zones, and he went out on a chopper to an area where some American soldiers had wounded a number of NVA. They asked him to maintain the NVA while they were being questioned, since these guys were too sick to be brought into the clearing station. He did that, and when it was over and he had all these IVs going and he had resuscitated them, the GIs said to him, “Okay, that’s all we need, thanks very much. Take the IVs out now.” He said, “C’mon, how can we do that? These guys are still alive.” “Well, they’re NVA, and we got all the information we needed.” And he stopped the IVs. I haven’t spoken to him very often in the last ten years, but I can tell you he talks about it every time. It’s bothering him.

If Greenbaum operated on men with no surgical experience, he was at least a doctor. James Hagenzeiker, shipped to Vietnam as a surgical assistant, was no such creature. He had trained to “just pass a lot of instruments to the surgeon, hold the clamps, stuff like that.” But when he arrived at Phu Bai, “the first case I scrubbed on was a guy who got fragged in the leg and the back”; he was told by the surgeon, “you do the ass and I’ll do the leg.” Hagenzeiker protested that he had no experience in treating wounded men. “Don’t they send you guys to a dog lab or something?” responded the surgeon. “Well, this is as good as a dog lab here.” And the surgeon talked him through the procedure. Hagenzeiker was soon routinely performing debribements and amputations.

The work went to Hagenzeiker’s head: “I thought that once somebody got to the OR, we could save him. I thought we were miracle workers.”

But not always could they work miracles.

I remember one guy who came in after some kind of mortar fragment went into his armpit area. He was in the pre-op ward and he was really happy because he figured he’d have this thing fixed and then he’d be out of it because he’d be going home. He was real short. He even wrote his wife a letter, told her what happened, that he was in the hospital and they were going to operate and he’d be home in a month or two. He gave the letter to an orderly to mail, went into the OR, and he died. I don’t even know if they figured out what he had died from. I guess it was from shock. They couldn’t control the bleeding. They went all over the place trying to find out what the hell we was bleeding from, but it was a real complicated area and the more they went looking around the more he would bleed.

And so Hagenzeiker became practiced in preparing the dead.

Then I had to put him in a shroud. You tie the hands together, tie the feet together, take the penis and tie a piece of cord around it real tight. Because everything goes, they lose their muscle control, and if there’s urine there he’ll urinate all over everything. So you tie it off like it was a hose. You take cotton and stuff it down his throat. Take cotton and stuff it up the nose. Stuff cotton in the anus, because immediately they start to ferment, to bloat out. Then you put them in a sheet, and you have to wrap them up real tight so they can’t flop around.

Medic Jack McCloskey began his tour crying over the men that were lost. Nurse Jane Piper never stopped.

photo by harry behretI got there in March. Around July, I started to cry myself to sleep at night. My older sister died in August, so I went home on emergency leave. I didn’t realize until I got home that I had been crying for a long time. It was just the despair of the injuries on the unit and having to go back the next morning. I didn’t want to change units, but it was getting to me. Taking guys on a stretcher to the back of the hospital, under the canopy, to wash the mud out of their hair. Scraping the mud off all these young bodies that would never be whole again. I didn’t even notice I was crying every night.

There seemed to be so little reason. I couldn’t understand why we were there. I have never understood how people can hurt each other so.

Some now find it strange, that something wasn’t done, when it became apparent that Major Hasan was against Operation Enduring Fiefdom and Operation Iraqi Fiefdom.

It is not strange at all. It is common that men and women in and around wars despise those wars. Jack McCloskey served in Vietnam, while against the war; so did Jane Piper. Pat Tillman, about whose death at the hands of fellow Americans, BushCo and the military lied and lied and lied and lied, had spoken bitterly against Operation Iraqi Fiefdom. In 1973 active-duty Air Force officers serving in Asia joined Congressmember Elizabeth Holtzman in suing the federal government to halt the bombing of Cambodia. Soldiers have refused deployment to and hectored Congress about Operation Iraqi Fiefdom.lewis puller Lewis Puller Jr., son of Marine legend Chesty Puller, writing in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Fortunate Son, wondered of the Corps how he could “love and despise it with equal ardor”; horribly wounded in Vietnam, Puller sought a seat in Congress campaigning against “the monstrousness of war.” Former Marine captain Matthew Hoh, who “drank myself blind” upon his return from Iraq, and who was installed by the Obama administration as the senior civilian in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, resigned his post last month in protest, a resignation “based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”

And when Dr. John Talbott, a psychiatrist, arrived in Vietnam in 1967, he found that nearly the entire hospital staff opposed the war.

When I got there I expected to get into arguments, but the amazing thing was you could say in the mess hall, “Jesus Christ, Lyndon Johnson is an asshole,” and you wouldn’t get an argument. I remember listening to Johnson’s speech when he said he wouldn’t run again. I heard it on Armed Forces Radio up in my office. He said, “I will not seek election or the nomination of my party,” and in the hospital this cheer went up. I went out the door and there were corpsmen and doctors yelling their lungs out. They thought the war was over, that Johnson had admitted he was wrong.

On his first day in Vietnam, Talbott discovered that his superior, the chief of psychiatry in Saigon, was physically and mentally incapacitated.

The first thing that happened was that I found my commanding officer in his bed. This was the head of psychiatry. [H]ere’s this guy lying in bed, blanket up over his head. It was ten or eleven in the morning, maybe noon. I said, “Hello, sir, Captain Talbott reporting for duty, sir.” He just rolled over. I don’t think I saw him more than a day or two after that. He probably had a month or two left on his tour, but he was a basket case. He was a casualty. This was my boss, lying in bed. I thought, Shit, I’m going to wind up like that. And the funny thing was that no one treated him. They just protected him. They were marvelous in protecting people. I think the feeling was, Well, what the fuck, he’s going to get out anyway, and we’ll just hold the fort.

Talbott’s CO was not some anomalous head-case. As mental health specialist Charles Figley recently stated: “Exposure to case after case of combat-related stress injuries often has negative effects for the caregivers who handle these cases . . . My research on secondary traumatic stress—defined as the consequent stress and emotions caused by helping a traumatized and suffering person—has found that the negative effects can be similar to those of primary exposure.”

The Kossack murrayewz has spoken of this:

My spouse is a vet center readjustment counselor working with PTSD clients . . . Hasan undoubtedly learned horrible things working with clients—my spouse works with many counselors who haven’t had combat experience and they agree hearing the sorts of war stories that result in real PTSD is traumatic. Spouse has had reactivation of bad dreams and PTSD problems from his own combat experience in Viet Nam since becoming a counselor of vets.

The military has been aware of this effect since at least WWI. During that conflict, the British, forever emeshed in their pernicious class system, decided that shellshocked officers would often be seized by spasms of stuttering, while enlisted men would be afflicted with “hysterical mutism.” And then found that among the doctors—officers—treating these men, some began developing stutters of their own.

over the topThe treatment of British soldiers felled by shell-shock is artfully and wrenchingly depicted in the 1997 film Behind the Lines, an occasionally fictionalized account of the wartime psychiatric facility Craiglockhart Hospital. It was there that the “war poets” Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were treated: Owen after suffering a breakdown, Sassoon after authoring a pamphlet against the war, which the brass concluded must be evidence of a breakdown. Both were eventually pronounced “cured,” both returned to the front.

The film concludes with one of those scenes that is more “true” than any mere factual depiction. The armistice has been declared, and the Craiglockhart psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers, shellshocked with a stutter he has contracted treating shellshocked stutterers, sits at his desk reading a letter from Owen. In it is Owen’s poem “The Parable Of The Old Man And The Young.” As Owen’s voice sounds the poem, the camera moves from Rivers at his desk, to Owen’s corpse on a canal bank, where he was machine-gunned a week before the end of the war.

The realization moves across Rivers, as it moves across us, that all Rivers’ well-meaning, compassionate efforts at treatment, at healing, at “a cure,” were all a failure. Because, in the end, he cured no one. All that he had done, was enable more killing, ceaseless carnage, pointless death.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The world is much the same now, as when Owens wrote that poem. The difference is that, now, it is not just the seed of Europe that is being slain, one by one.

Private Arthur Hubbard in 1917 was treated for shell-shock, but though he had been buried alive by a shell, it was not that which had really shocked him. It was instead what he himself had done. He wrote from the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital to his mother of “a terrible sight that I shall never forget as long as I live.”

we had strict orders not to take prisoners, no matter if wounded my first job was when I had finished cutting some of their wire away, to empty my magazine on 3 Germans that came out of one of their deep dugouts, bleeding badly, and put them out of misery. They cried for mercy, but I had my orders[.]

shockAs Joanna Bourke states in her pitiless account of Anglo-American men at war in the 20th Century, An Intimate History of Killing, “[t]here is little to differentiate Arthur Hubbard’s letters to his family from those written by hundreds of other privates around the time of the Battle of the Somme.”

In the next war, men were still being ordered to kill prisoners, and this time military psychologists and psychiatrists were enrolled to enable such killing, by assuring men that over such atrocities they should feel no guilt.

A lecture entitled “Reactions to Killing,” which was circulated by psychologists during the Second World War, provides a good example of their ethical function. In this lecture, the killing of prisoners was taken for granted; military psychologists and other officers were simply told that if men expressed reservations about killing prisoners, they were to be advised to alleviate their guilty consciences by transferring moral responsibility to a higher authority; “obeying orders,” in other words. Guilt-ridden men were to be reminded that the act of slaughtering prisoners was “shared by the group” and was necessary to safeguard not only the individual and his comrades, but also “civilized ideals.” Above all, any hint that killing prisoners was an “expression of blood-lust” had to be removed. For military psychologists, then, the killing of non-combatants was merely a fact of modern warfare rather than a moral problem.

As Siegfried Sassoon, when he spoke out against the slaughter of WWI, was branded by his superiors a victim of “shell shock,” so too was a young man admitted to the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital, who confessed to participating in the slaughter at My Lai, diagnosed as a “paranoid schizophrenic.” One Sarah Haley:

“voiced concerns. The staff told me that the patient was obviously delusional, obviously in full-blown psychosis. I argued that there were no other signs of this if one took him seriously. I was laughed out of the room.

“These professionals denied the reality of combat!” she exclaimed. “They were calling reality insanity!” Haley fought the diagnosis, confident in her own judgement since her father had told her about similar atrocities carried out while he was serving in North Africa during the Second World War.

It is a lie that American atrocities in Vietnam were cabined to My Lai. It is another lie that American atrocities in war have been delimited to Vietnam. It is a further lie that American atrocities are not condoned by the US military.

In his review of Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, William Styron wrote:

As a young Marine lieutenant I knew a regular gunnery sergeant, a mortar specialist, who carried in his dungaree pocket two small shriveled dark objects about the size of peach pits. When I asked him what they were he told me they were “Jap’s nuts.” I was struck nearly dumb with a queasy horror, but managed to ask him how he had obtained such a pair of souvenirs. Simple, he explained; he had removed them with a bayonet from an enemy corpse on Tarawa—that most hellish of battles—and had set them out at the end of a dock under the blazing sun where they quickly became dried like prunes. The sergeant was highly regarded in the company and I soon got used to seeing him fondle his keepsakes whenever he got nervous or pissed off, stroking them like worry beads.

This is what in the United States Marines Corp was considered a sane person. A valuable, “highly regarded” member of the American armed forces. Semper fi.

Four-fifths of the men afflicted with shell-shock in WWI were never able to return to duty. As Bourke notes, this to the military was unacceptable. Thus, by WWII, “shell-shock” had morphed into “combat fatigue,” and it was most often considered a form of either exhaustion, or cowardice.

Further:

By the Second World War, the inability to act aggressively was itself regarded as a psychiatric disorder. It was believed that men who were unable to kill were “dull and backward.” They were men who “lacked the ability to understand complex ideas,” such as “patriotism, appreciation of the alternative to winning the war, tradition,” and, having been brought up with the “Christian attitude,” did not possess “the capacity to adjust to what was the antithesis of this attitude.” Men who experienced emotional conflicts in killing were “psychologically inadequate individuals” or were “ineffectives” who required “salvaging.” If they broke under the strain, they were “childish,” “narcissistic,” and “feminine.”

Mental-health professionals were encouraged to not only subscribe to and promote such views, but to make judgements of a broken soldier’s mental state based on economic considerations. Psychoanalyst William Needles recalls that during WWII he was pressured to diagnose men as “constitutional psychopaths,” which ruled out government compensation. “Fear of the national debt,” he recalled, “was uppermost.” As Bourke observes, “military psychiatrists made their diagnoses with economic and administrative repercussions firmly in mind.”

My father was presented with the choice of being diagnosed as a “constitutional psychopath,” or being discharged as “ordinary.” black is blackIn more than three years in the South Pacific, he had, as Rickie Lee Jones puts it, “seen things no man should have ever seen.” These ranged from having his best friend’s face splattered in slimy dripping chunks onto his own, to a night driving a doctor around an island where a storm had felled nearly as many Americans as had the Japanese; everywhere were men impaled by twigs and branches blown off trees. He concluded that there was not and could not be a God, that the war was unacceptable amoral barbarism, and that nature cared not a whit for human beings. He spent several months in a psychiatric facility, and was ultimately released as “normal.” None of us knew any of this until after he was dead, when we went through his things, and came upon his journals from that time. It made sense of what he had been. He had been a good and decent man, and he had tried to have a life, but it had all been taken from him, many years before, many thousands of miles away. My father was a ghost. He has been dead now many years, but there are still many such ghosts, all around us. The Kossack akdude6016 wrote of one yesterday:

The ghosts of WWII still haunts our family. My 94 year old uncle was placed in a nursing home a few years ago after my aunt found him hysterical on their front yard “fighting” the Japanese. He fought in the South Pacific and has never talked to any of us about what happened. The VA wouldn’t pay for it, so my aunt has been forced to use their dwindling savings to keep her husband in a safe and controlled environment.

By the time Vietnam was upon us, the psychiatric enabling of war-induced mental illness had become so sophisticated that the military could boast that less than 2 percent of men in service suffered psychiatric breakdown. This was accomplished through complete denial, by kicking the human can down the road. Psychiatric sufferers were confronted with the doctrine of “immediacy, expectancy, simplicity, and centrality”; this is the same doctrine Major Hasan was instructed in, the same doctrine that is forced upon troops today. Dr. Talbott explains how this works:

In the army training, they start off the lectures by saying, “The purpose of the Army Medical Corps is to maintain the fighting force.” So you learn from the start that your purpose is not to help people grow or feel better about themselves, your purpose is to allow them to fight the best they can.

[T]here were three principles of preventive psychiatry in the army. One was immediacy: You’ve got to treat everything right off the bat. The second is proximity: You’ve got to treat it right near where it occurred. And the third is expectancy. You say, “You will get better, and you will go back to work.”

There in Saigon, Talbott would take men broken in the field, allow them to rest a bit, then load them up with drugs—tranquilizers, sedatives, pentobarbital. “I might even go so far as to play sounds of machine guns or bombs to bring the person back to it.” Most of these people Talbott would soon pronounce “cured,” and they would be sent back into the war.

When Talbott’s appendix burst halfway through his tour, and he found himself in an intensive-care unit, he was forced to finally, really confront the war.

Kids all around me dying. It was horrible lying in that ward. When you lie there for twenty-four hours, immobile, while all around you eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids are screaming, moaning, blown apart . . . Awful. Awful.

It was hard for me to go back [to work]. I came back much more cynical about the war. I’d really seen it rip people apart, and it wasn’t nice.

As Bourke illustrates, by forcing men back into the war whose minds had taken them right out of it, mental-health professionals created and enabled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which it took men like Jack McCloskey to force the government, and even the mental-health field, to first just recognize, much less begin to treat. Today the military knows it has a monster on its hands. Just days before Major Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood, the base commander there issued a memo urging unit commanders to “actively encourage soldiers to seek professional care for any behavioral health related issues that could affect their well-being.”

Bourke ends her chapter on “Medics and the Military” with a merciless judgement:

photo by harry behretEmotionally “stitching up” men so that they could return to the frontlines as soon as possible had its civilian counterpart in some areas of civilian psychiatry (particularly in industry where the psychiatrist was in the service of the employer rather than the patient). In wartime, the position of social scientists was even more ambivalent. They spoke of peace while providing statistics for the war-mongers; they healed men in order to return them to combat to be killed; and they were in conflict with the military while at the same time exploiting its research possibilities. The medical corps, however, was a fully integrated part of the military establishment and one which accepted that “the customer” was the commanding officer and not the patient; military psychiatrists and psychologists were therefore “captive professionals.” In time of war, clinical psychology and psychiatry took on a distinctive kind of practice: inciting the urge to kill rather than controlling people’s violent urges. The role of the psychiatrist with the military was thus scarcely veiled: to stimulate men to commit violent acts without remorse.

There is of course a way to end all this. And Harry Behret knows what it is.

Harry Behret in the late 1960s was the president of the College Conservative Club at Queens College, vice-president of the Young Republicans. Unlike the chickenhawks who today so infest the national Republican Party, Behret acted on his beliefs. He wrote his draft board telling it he no longer wished to avail himself of his student deferment. Once drafted, he enlisted for three years, rather than two. And he asked to be sent to Vietnam.

Behret was assigned first to a base at Dau Tieng, next to the Michelin rubber plantation, twenty miles from the Cambodian border. He was an artillery meteorologist, tasked with sending up weather balloons packed with flammable hydrogen gas. Sited right behind the base ammunition dump.

Behret learned early that the war in Vietnam—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—was lost.

Some VC mortar team lobbed three mortar rounds on us. Only three rounds—that means they’re out there with one mortar tube. And one mortar tube—that means two Viet Cong, each maybe five feet two in height, 110 pounds, between sixteen and eighty years of age. With a rusty piece of metal, popping three rounds on the base. Pop-pop-pop. The helicopter gunships go off and strafe the area, the jets come in and napalm, the eight-inchers and the 175s and the 105s go off, and the .50-calibers are strafing. more than we've gotThen everything dies down. And you hear pop-pop-pop—they fire three more rounds at us. At that point I knew there was no way we could win that fucking war. You had these two guys in sandals with a rusty piece of metal, and they take on these gunships and these batteries and all this technology. We’ve just blasted the surrounding countryside all to hell, and what do they do? They shoot back. I was awed. It was one of those incredible moments when a human being does something you think is just impossible. I was kind of proud. I said, “There’s no way we’re going to beat them.” I could see them firing the first three rounds and di-di mau-ing, which means getting the hell out of there. But to stay there, take it, and then shoot back! Forget it. They’ve got more than we’ve got.

Behret was sent next to a small base in Ninh Hua. There, the American artillery went off every day, as it had at Dau Tieng, but this time it was aimed at no one at all. There was no enemy. The guns were firing at ghosts. “They hadn’t seen a Viet Cong in ages . . . [I]t wasn’t really a war. You were getting combat pay, and the guns were going off and blowing up monkeys and trees and whatever they were blowing up. But it was meaningless. The psychological toll on you was incredible. For me it was worse than Dau Tieng. At least there you were getting shot at, there was some rationale behind the insanity. This was just plain insanity.”

An alcoholic American soldier was assigned to drive the base rations truck to Nha Trang to pick up perishables. He kept getting into accidents; it was determined he could no longer be trusted to ferry food. Instead, he was assigned to drive to and from a nearby village to transport the Vietnamese workers who labored at the base.

“He had an accident and killed twelve people,” Behret recalled. “I was selected to ride shotgun for the medics down at the accident site. The first thing I saw is somebody’s brains lying in the roadside. Bits and pieces of people all over the place. When I got back to the base, somebody was upset because there was a big inspection that day and we didn’t have the Vietnamese to clean up for us. It was a real inconvenience.”

After that, Behret signed out of the war. He began drinking heavily. With his poker winnings, he lent money. He dealt dope. “In rifle inspection, they would pick up my rifle and find cobwebs in it.” Behret piled up the Article 15s; with one more, he could be sent “to Long Binh jail with a bad discharge home.” It was then that he was ordered to shoot his dog.

They said, “We have too many dogs on the base, we’ve got to get rid of some. Behret, we’re gonna get rid of your dog.” I was supposed to take it out and shoot it. What they wanted me to do was refuse to shoot the dog, so they could bust me and send me to jail. I shot the dog.

Like Major Hasan, like Glasser’s children, Behret then resolved to kill fellow Americans.

Five or six of us got together, and each of us had a man among the lifers that we were going to kill if the base ever got hit. And I would have killed him. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have blown him away. But the opportunity never came.

Behret’s time ran out, and he was shipped home. Back in the States, at the airport bar, he was unable to order a beer, because he coudn’t produce an ID.

harry behretForty years on, Harry Behret lives in south Florida, where he has developed into a fine photographer, and is active in Democratic politics. He works with and honors veterans, but neither enables nor honors the wars they are veterans of.

Wise Harry Behret has said this:

The thing that hurt me the most was that I put myself to the test and I failed. I felt responsible for the things that were done and the people who were killed. I never protested that this alcoholic was put in charge of driving people. I laughed on the sidelines like everybody else. I saw twelve people die, just out of a racist mentality. And it was something I subscribed to, or at least I went along with it. You always have an image of what you would do in a situation like that. You think you won’t let it happen. And you let it happen. Then you know that if you had been with Lieutenant Calley, you would have been shooting people, too. You realize you’re a human being. And in the proper place, and the proper time, with a gun in your hand, you will act like the animal a human being can be. It took me a long time to accept that I was a shylocker, that I dealt drugs, that I saw people as gooks. That I let myself be put in a position where I shot a dog. Every test I had to face, I didn’t do what I should have done. I went along with the military. I resisted to the point where they were going to chop my neck off, and then I went along.

The only thing I got out of it is that I have a five-year-old son, and he ain’t gonna do what I did. My experience will help in that respect. I think there’s been a Behret in every fucking war in this country’s history, but there ain’t gonna be no more Behrets in no more wars.

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1 Response to “You Can Never Be Ordinary Again”


  1. 1 Jean November 14, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    After reading this piece I now know why my husband never talked about his time in the Navy in World War II. He was a good husband and was great to our three children. I am sure he did not want to bother us with the horrible things he saw and lived through. I have many happy memories that will last me till the end. Thanks for bringing this information to lite.


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