The Things They Carried

I met an older gentleman at church last Sunday who served in Vietnam. The conversation actually started with the current opiate epidemic in America. I said unfortunately thousands of young men came back from Southeast Asia hooked on heroin. He saw many soldiers smoking weed in order to cope with the horrors of what they were being asked to do, but did not personally see any servicemen using heroin. He was aware that it was going on. He related how he was able to avoid the hell of alcoholism and drug addiction that took hold of countless young men.

I became great friends with a minister who lived across the street from my parents for several years before he and his wife, also a minister, returned to Santa Barbara, California. He related to me the horrors of serving in the Vietnam war. He was a sergeant, and said several of his men died in his arms. In the interest of his traumatic experience and his privacy, I will not give any further details here. I will simply say I was shocked to see that he made it out alive, and is living a life of love and service, in full commitment to the Lord. My uncle also served in Vietnam. I know from family conversations that it was very hard on him. I never felt comfortable asking him to divulge the details. He died several years ago after fighting non-cancerous lumps in the back of his lungs, immune deficiency, and kidney failure. He’d been on dialysis for years. My aunt was told his death was due to exposure to Agent Orange. She receives an additional widow’s benefit specific to his exposure.

My conversation with the fellow churchgoer regarding heroin use among the troops in Vietnam made me think of Air America. Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline covertly owned by the United States government as a dummy corporation for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The National Security Agency farmed out the airline to various government agencies. Air America was used by the U.S. government covertly to conduct military operations, posing as a civilian air carrier, in areas the U.S. armed forces could not go due to treaty restraints contained in the Geneva Accords. Air America’s slogan was, “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.” The airline flew many types of cargo to countries such as the Republic of Vietnam, the Kingdom of Laos, and Cambodia. It operated from bases in those countries, and also from bases in Thailand, and as far afield as Taiwan and Japan. It also on occasion flew top secret missions into Burma and the People’s Republic of China.

Air America flew civilians, diplomats, spies, refugees, commandos, sabotage teams, doctors, war casualties, DEA officers, and even visiting VIPs like Richard Nixon. Air America moved tons of food, water and livestock into villages devastated  by Agent Orange, as well as ammunition and other materials for troop support. During the CIA’s secret war in Laos (you might remember Nixon’s secret bombings), the CIA used the Hmong population to fight local rebels. The Hmong happened to depend on poppy cultivation for hard currency. Amazingly, poppy has been used for trade in commerce for centuries. When rebels captured the Plain of Jars in 1964, the Laotian air force was unable to land their transport aircraft for opium transport. They had no light planes that could land near poppy fields to load opium. Consequently, the Hmong were facing economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. Air America began flying opium from mountain villages. How can we not think some of that opium smuggled out of Laos by the CIA ended up as heroin on the streets of America?

THE REASON I BROUGHT THIS UP

I have become captivated by the history of America’s war on drugs. Sometimes, during research, we get led down paths we never expected. This is what happened when I started looking into heroin and Southeast Asia. I found a wonderfully written, haunting, vitally important piece of literature written by Tim O’Brien called The Things They Carried. I began reading, and I was there, in the jungle, with my uncle. With the gentleman from my church. With the men in the story. This was no Full Metal Jacket experience. It was not like I was watching Platoon or Hamburger Hill. Please understand me: Those movies do a great job, as does Saving Private Ryan relative to World War II. This book, however, is literature. It’s like a living, breathing journal. I could not stop reading. It’s been several months since I’ve done a book review, and this is sort of like that, but it’s more like a peek inside a piece of literature that captures the daily life of soldiering in Vietnam. The scene where I pick up the action is graphic, so please be prepared. I don’t make political statements on this blog, and I will not do that in this post. This is more about heroism, service, dedication, obedience, fear, and the raw experience of hell on earth. It’s about literature. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.”

I know what I want you to think, to consider, to feel, about this issue. I would love to hear your feedback. Maybe you know someone who served in Southeast Asia. Perhaps you have a family member or loved one fighting ISIS in the Middle East or the Philippines. Don’t stay silent. If this post sparks an emotion, post your reply. Literature at its best provides us with a blueprint of human civilization. It should remind us of what we’re feeling inside. It should provoke us. Literature plays the vital role of preserving knowledge and experience and passing it on to our successors. Literature might even make us ask the big questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What are our responsibilities? In the instant case, The Things They Carried causes us to think about the idea of war. Is war ever just? What does it mean to be noble? When should we help another nation? When is it proper to back away?

I thought you should know that this book is as much memoir as it is literature. O’Brien served in the 23rd Infantry Division.

From The Things They Carried.

The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed 4 ounces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. They’d found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition. “You want my opinion,” Mitchell Sanders said, “There’s a definite moral here.” He put his hand on the dead boy’s wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa’s hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.

Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.

“Moral?”

“You know.”

Moral.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, “It’s like with that old TV show, Paladin. ‘Have gun, will travel.'”

Henry Dobbins thought about it.

“Yeah, well,” he finally said. “I don’t see no moral.”

“There it is, man.”

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes , fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity. Mitchell Sanders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion. Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.

They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological. They had no sense of strategy or mission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same. They carried their own lives.

The pressures were enormous. In the heat of early afternoon, they would remove their helmets and flak jackets, walking bare, which was dangerous but which helped ease the strain. They would often discard things along the route of march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or two later still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters — the resources were stunning — sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter — it was the great American war chest — the fruits of science, the smoke stacks, the canneries, the arsenals at Hartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of corn and wheat— they carried it like freight trains; they carried it on their backs and shoulders — and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.

References

O’Brien, Tim. (1990). The Things They Carried. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Of Modern Poetry

Ask ten different educated, well-read people to define modernism, or the “modern” era [you know, the one right before our total disillusionment and our adoption of post-modern thinking] and you’ll likely get ten different definitions; or at least ten different sentiments about that period in our history as a nation, as a people. Certainly, going in to the modern era, we thought (or were at least were hopeful) that science would solve all our problems. There would be vast improvements in industrialization, medicine, peacetime, reduction in world hunger, and the advancement of the rights of man, woman and child. Then came World War I, the stock market crash, and World War II. We dropped a nuclear warhead on a Japanese city, instantly killing 80,000 people. The shock wave was felt for over 18 kilometers.

Novelists, poets, painters, and many other artists put their angst on display through the medium of their choice. I found the following poem by Wallace Stevens. Try reading it as if you were living in the early 1900s. Feel his emotion, his worry, his outrage, quiet as it may be in this piece. He comments that the poem of the mind had not always had to try so hard to find its scene. Its place. Things usually didn’t change so fast, so drastically. Stevens wrote this poem three years before the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Many more horrific and inexplicable changes were yet to come…

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
©1942 Wallace Stevens

Moral Injury

My uncle served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He was boots on the ground in country, getting shot at and exposed to hellish conditions. He was exposed to the horrific compound Agent Orange, which ultimately led to non-cancerous masses on the back of his lungs, diabetes, and kidney failure. He was unable to recover. That, of course, was only the physical aspect of his injuries. Certainly, we are all familiar with psychological injuries. We’re particularly acquainted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What you might not be familiar with is the extent to which combat veterans are making the fatal decision to end their own lives.

6,500 former military personnel killed themselves in 2012. In 2013, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010, which showed that roughly 22 veterans were committing suicide per day, or one every 65 minutes. Some sources suggest that this rate may be under-counting suicides. A recent analysis found a suicide rate among veterans of about 30 per 100,000 population per year, compared with the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000. However, the comparison was not adjusted for age and sex.

A study published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine found that combat veterans are not only more likely to have suicidal ideation, often associated with PTSD and depression, but they are more likely to act on a suicidal plan. Especially since veterans may be less likely to seek help from a mental health professional, non-mental-health physicians are in a key position to screen for PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation in these patients. The same study also found that in veterans with PTSD related to combat experience, combat-related guilt may be a significant predictor of suicidal ideation and attempts.

The statistics are grim, to say the least. Veterans commit one-fifth of all suicides in America today, at the rate of about 8,000 suicides per year. In 2012, the United States lost more active-duty soldiers to suicide than to combat in Afghanistan. It was the highest number in a year (349) since the Pentagon began tracking numbers in 2001.

Defined as an anxiety disorder, PTSD is believed to be driven by intense fear, helplessness, or horror, following a traumatic event, resulting in a variety of symptoms. Perhaps the toughest group to treat for PTSD are Vietnam vets. Many complained for decades of insomnia. Many also suffered from nightmares and hypervigilance, avoided crowds, and had marital difficulties. Psychiatrists learned to give a quick PTSD diagnosis to these vets and apply the usual formula for treatment. That is, prescribe medication to blunt the fear response, recommend social support, and refer the patient for talk therapy.

A psychiatrist by the name of Jonathan Shay, also a combat veteran, began treating Vietnam vets in the 1980s. Shay said “psychological and moral injury” sustained in combat destroys trust. He also said that when the capacity for social trust is destroyed, all possibility of a flourishing human life is lost. In Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, he said he was struck by one veteran’s description of himself as a “typical young American boy,” an eighteen-year-old virgin with “strong religious beliefs.” When he went to Vietnam, “I wasn’t prepared for it all.” He found that it was “all evil…I look back, I look back today, and I’m horrified at what I turned in to. What I was. What I did.”

Treatment personnel noted that they had been trained to focus on the soldier’s fear. But these veterans were not talking about fear. They were talking about right and wrong. For those with severe long-standing PTSD, the problem was often a combination of fear and guilt and shame. Those potent emotions came not only from what they had witnessed, but also from their own actions in the morally confusing situations of modern combat. Michael Yandell, a veteran, wrote for The Christian Century earlier this year. He said, “For me, moral injury describes my disillusionment, the erosion of my sense of place in the world. The spiritual and emotional foundations of the world disappeared and made it impossible to sleep the sleep of the just. Even though I was part of a war that was much bigger than me, I still feel personally responsible for its consequences. I have a feeling of intense betrayal, and the betrayer and the betrayed are the same person: my very self.”

Soldiers face impossible moral situations in combat, of “the real stakes for people having to make these decisions.” Interestingly, a group of psychiatrists at Duke University coined the term “post-Vietnam syndrome” in 1972. The syndrome was marked by alienation, rage, feelings of betrayal by military leadership and the country itself, and an inability to give and accept love. These are all “deeply moral categories.” But their moral resonance had been lost in the systemization of PTSD and the nearly thirty years of research that followed.

Eventually, moral injury became another way of understanding combat trauma. Moral injury occurs when a soldier is exposed to or partakes in acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. While traumatic events and atrocities can cause moral injury, so too can more subtle acts that transgress a moral code.

Here’s the exciting part. At the heart of the Gospel is a narrative of creation, brokenness, redemption and reconciliation, a “new creation.” In Jesus Christ, we have a paradigm of mental health and flourishing. After all, Jesus was once rumored to suffer from mental illness. Mark 3:21 says, “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’” Christ certainly endured physical and mental anguish. The Church has language and practices to foster healing for veterans, such as lament, confession, and reconciliation. All of these allow us to “listen, reflect, bear, and grieve” with our veterans.

War, even when justified, is always a tragic manifestation of human brokenness. Churches and faith-related organizations have launched programs in recent years to better care for veterans’ mental and spiritual health. It is an important finding that our veterans are suffering from moral injury. Just on its face, it seems such an injury cannot solely be treated with medication and talk therapy. One thing though: moral injury is really a rediscovery of an older set of truths. The Church has a long history of ministry to and by veterans. Now the Church needs to find “creative and faithful ways” to walk with people suffering from a range of mental health issues.

So, in the meantime, what can we do when we encounter a veteran who has returned from combat and is struggling? If there’s one thing combat veterans hate, it’s the question, “Did you kill anyone?” It’s best simply to ask a veteran what their deployments were like, keeping in mind that people feel differently about their time in the service. The most effective approach is to be human and work on friendship. The Church has the opportunity to dress the wounds of each war-torn soul among us. Good mental healthcare is a necessary and valuable part of that work. But if we seek the full flourishing of those who have been impacted by war, the Church has an irreplaceable role to play. It is time to realize that combat veterans suffer not only on an emotional and physical level, but also on a spiritual and moral level. It would seem to me that this is the piece that has been missing from our therapeutic work with soldiers suffering from PTSD.

May God bless the men and women of our armed forces.