≡ Menu


moral painTwo years ago I was asked by a magazine editor to write an essay on the Vietnam films that were then beginning to appear. Searching for a way to measure the quality and accuracy of the films, I began to talk to Vietnam veterans. What I found both astonished and moved me: a world of moral pain and seriousness that put to shame not only the films in question but also the way most Americans deal with their moral relation to the world around them. The films I was supposedly concerned with ceased to concern me; what became important, and what I eventually wrote about, was the vets themselves. They absorbed me not only in themselves but also for the questions their difficulties raised about the capacity of our society to deal with the psychological and ethical problems that beset them.

Those questions are not easily exhausted, and I have found them again on my mind these days as America’s attention has turned back, grudgingly, to the vets. The veterans, still angered by the way they are treated, have grown increasingly vocal, increasingly visible, refusing to vanish into the past with the war.

Their public complaints are varied and familiar: the paucity of their benefits; the weakness in the programs designed for them; the ingratitude and indifference of their fellow citizens; the red tape and bureaucratic foul-ups in VA assistance; the unwillingness of the government to recognize its responsibility for many of their problems, including the effects of Agent Orange and what psychologists now label the “delayed-stress syndrome.”

All of those complaints have validity. But something about them, and about the response being made to them, seems to me as inadequate as the films I was asked to review. Time magazine’s cover story on the vets this past summer is typical of the response. It portrayed the vets as victims of the society that sent them to war, and said that the solution to their problems was increased acceptance and gratitude here at home. Left unsaid in such analyses are two crucial aspects of the vets’ suffering that no one seems to want to confront. The first seems to me to be the unacknowledged source of much of the vets’ pain and anger: profound moral distress, arising from the realization that one has committed acts with real and terrible consequences. And the second is the inadequacy of the prevailing cultural wisdom, models of human nature, and modes of therapy to explain moral pain or provide ways of dealing with it. Of course, many vets have problems directly traceable to other sources, and no doubt there are vets who are not disturbed in any way by their participation in the war.

Yet the fact remains that in private conversations with many disturbed vets, one begins to sense beneath the surface of their resentment the deep and unacknowledged roots of their anger. That is not only my experience. In the past several months a number of men and women who work with vets in clinics and rap groups have told me that both the war stories related by the vets and their explicit concerns have begun to change, revealing more and more clearly their moral distress.

Shad Meshad, western coordinator for the veterans’ Outreach Program, put it this way: “We aren’t just counselors; we’re almost priests. They come to us for absolution as well as help.”

A psychologist put it more explicitly: “Day in and day out, now, we hear stories about atrocities and slaughter, things we didn’t hear before. Why men were silent before and now speak remains a mystery to me. But something has changed, and sometimes you hear almost more than you can stand. It is, I swear, like being in Germany after World War II.”

It is no accident that the war in Vietnam, by far the most morally suspect war America has fought in modern times, has raised the most problems for those who fought it. Some of the problems can be ascribed to the vets’ youthfulness, to the unfamiliar horrors of a guerrilla war, and to the fact that the ambiguity of American attitudes toward the war has indeed denied the vets gratitude and help they feel they deserve.

But none of these considerations should obscure the fact that what they now suffer is essentially the result of the bitter reality that caused the schisms here at home—the very nature of the war: what the veterans saw and did in Vietnam, the war’s excessive brutality and cruelty, and the arbitrary violence with which we fought it. True, stories similar to those that have emerged from Vietnam occasionally surfaced after World War II and the Korean War. But one would probably have to go back to the American Indian wars to find something similar to the treatment of the civilian populations in Vietnam, and even then the extent of gratuitous violence might not be comparable.

There were two fundamental kinds of violence:

The first was programmatic, largescale, widespread, and intentional— policies established at various levels of command. It included the conscious and wholesale slaughter of civilian populations, something that other nations (and war critics at home) perceived as genocide. The precedent for this kind of violence was set decades ago, during the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, when civilian, not military sites became targets. In Vietnam, the policy was extended further; in the name of ending the war and protecting “innocent” soldiers, the administration punished “guilty” civilians, choosing as a conscious strategy the murder of noncombatants. Of course, that did not happen everywhere. Many of the U.S. commanders and troops attempted to distinguish between civilians and combatants— as difficult as such a task is in the midst of guerrilla warfare—and to observe the ordinary “rules” of war. But far more often than Americans like to realize, those rules were broken, and the war literature indicates they were broken more often by the Americans than by the Vietnamese; as a nation, we were guilty of acts that would have appeared to most Americans, had they been committed by others, as barbaric.

The second kind of violence was more sporadic, arbitrary, and individualized, ranging from large-scale but apparently spontaneous massacres, such as those at My Lai, to the kinds of “recreational” violence in which a GI, just for the fun of it, might gun down a woman crossing a field or a child at the side of the road. How much of that went on is not clear, and we will probably never have an accurate picture of it, but stories abound. One cannot read through books like Gloria Emerson’s Winners and Losers or the interviews in Mark Baker’s Nam without coming upon several examples every few pages. Most veterans have stories of this sort. Few of them talk about their own actions, but there is always something they have seen, something a buddy described. What the stories reveal is that many of our soldiers acted as if they had been granted an implicit permission to act out at will, upon an entire population, gratuitous acts of violence.

One cannot tell how many soldiers were involved, nor how many now suffer psychological and emotional disturbances from their involvement. Even the number of Americans who served in Vietnam remains in doubt. Whereas the figure was once estimated as 2.5 million, it has now been revised upward to 4 million. Studies suggest that one out of five veterans has been severely affected by stress, which would put the figure at 800,000, and researchers and therapists seem to agree that perhaps 50,000 need immediate help. But whatever the figures, no one who speaks to many distressed vets can doubt that their involvement in the excessive violence of Vietnam is a fundamental source of their inner turmoil, and that it expresses not just psychological stress but moral pain.

It is here that our collective wisdom fails the vets, here that our dominant approaches to human nature and our prevailing modes of therapy prove inadequate. We seem as a society to have few useful ways to approach moral pain or guilt; it remains for us a form of neurosis or a pathological symptom, something to escape rather than something to learn from, a disease rather than—as it may well be for the vets—an appropriate if painful response to the past. As if he were reading my thoughts, a VA psychologist told me that he and his colleagues never dealt with problems of guilt. Nor did they raise the question of what the vets did in the war: “We treat the vets’ difficulties as problems in adjustment.”

That is true, I suspect, of most of the help the vets receive, save for what they and the therapists closest to them have begun to develop in their own rap groups and clinics, where they have been struggling for a decade to discover and describe the nature of their problems. Yet even within that struggle there are difficulties.

By now, a rather extensive body of written work pertaining to the vets exists: at least 15 new papers were presented just at the American Psychological Association convention last August. Most of the literature hinges on the notion of what is called the delayed-stress syndrome, a term whose widespread use arose in connection with the Vietnam veterans: the psychological and emotional disturbances that, well after the war’s end, emerge in men who previously seemed unscathed. The concept is an important and useful one; no doubt there is a syndrome of symptoms and behaviors that appears several months or years after the war and that can be attributed, retrospectively, to its stresses. Such symptoms, all observers agree, include flashbacks, nightmares, uncontrollable anger, paranoia, anxiety, and depression.

But many researchers also extend the range of symptoms to include a variety of cither emotional states— among them, feelings of guilt, perception of oneself as a scapegoat, alienation from one’s feelings, an inability to trust or love. It is there that the trouble begins, for such symptoms are less persuasively attributable directly to the war, especially when they appear individually and not as a set of interrelated symptoms; one suspects that in many cases their classification as delayed stress obfuscates the real nature of the veterans’ experience.

Let me give an example. Imagine (as is often the case) a particular vet who has seen close up not only the horrors of war but forms of human desperation, suffering, and tenacity that are altogether different from what he had seen before. He comes home sensing a relation between the nation’s policies and the complex reality he has witnessed, between our privilege here and the suffering elsewhere in the world. Is it surprising that such a man, having seen his own comrades senselessly killed and reflecting upon the moral illegitimacy of the killing he himself has done, would find it increasingly difficult to come to terms with the “normal” life he left behind? How would the moral smugness and obliviousness of American life strike him? How would expensive restaurants strike him, the talk about interest rates, or even TV commercials?

No doubt such a man would be “irritable,” would be angry, would find himself at odds with things, unable to resume his previous job, pursuits, or relationships. But to call all such problems delayed stress or to see them as explicable only in terms of the war would be to misstate the condition entirely; it would in effect avoid the real significance of the vet’s condition, would void it in some way. Similarly, seemingly precise analytic terms for repressed guilt—”impacted grief,” for one—and theories about psychological denial become systems of denial, a massive, unconscious cover-up in which both those who fought and those who did not hide from themselves the true nature of the experience the terms are supposedly identifying.

Reading through the literature on the vets, one notices again and again the ways in which various phrases and terms are used to empty the vets’ experience of moral content, to defuse and bowdlerize it. Particularly in the early literature, one feels a kind of madness at work. Repugnance toward killing and the refusal to kill are routinely called “acute combat reaction,” and the effects of slaughter and atrocity are called “stress,” as if the clinicians describing the vets are talking about an executive’s overwork or a hysterical housewife’s blood pressure. Nowhere in the literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it. Much of this masking seems to have its root in the war itself, when the army psychiatrists charged with keeping the troops in the mood for killing treated as a pathology any rebellion against orders or the refusal to kill.

Such attitudes persist. Some VA therapists are now talking about the need to “deresponsibilize” their patients— that is, get the Vietnam vets to attribute their actions to external causes rather than moral choice. Those who mention guilt usually describe it as “survivor’s” guilt—shame not for what was done, but for having outlived one’s comrades—or hurriedly attribute guilt to “the expression of aggressive impulses,” by which one can only assume they mean the slaughter of innocents. Even a sympathetic observer like John A. Wilson, a psychologist whose perceptive and sensitive work on stress was put into my hands by vets who found it important, manages to render the moral aspect of the war less important than it is. Wilson ascribes most of the vets’ pain to the truncation of the “normal” development of the ego; drawing on the work of Erik Erikson, he uses a table that connects stressful experiences to “qualities of ego-development and personality integration,” listing 11 stress-producing events. The eighth reads, in its entirety, “Death of Buddies and Atrocities.” A single entry treats the death of one’s friends and performing or witnessing atrocities as if they were all more or less the same thing or had the same moral or psychological impact.

There are, of course, several worthy authors who go beyond such thinking. Robert Jay Lifton’s work comes first to mind, if only because his book Home From the War (1974), published relatively early, has had a more powerful impact on other therapists than any other work. Lifton has been largely responsible for the idea of the vets as victims, and there is no doubt that he radically changed the way others saw the veterans’ experiences.

There are others, too, who come to mind: Chaim Shatan, B. W. Gault, Arthur Egendorf, Arthur Blank, Bill Mahedy, Robert Laufer, and Jack Smith. These men have either written about the war or worked extensively with vets; often, they have done both. One can see in their work a moral deepening that seeks but has not yet found a completed form, a language and perception that will do justice to the realities of moral experience.

Why has most psychological thinking about Vietnam avoided the ‘issue of judgment? There are several reasons. Much of the research on Vietnam veterans has been funded by government agencies or by veterans’ organizations. Several psychiatrists who work with the vets have told me that in this area as in any other, researchers tend to look for results and frame findings that will keep their funding sources happy. Then, too, many of those writing about the vets are devoted to them; they want to see them get whatever they need from the government, and they feel that the best way to get such help is to portray the vets as victims, by locating the source of their troubles in the war itself. One also suspects that many shy away from the question of moral pain simply because it is likely to open up areas of pain for which there is really nothing like a “cure.” As one therapist told me regarding the atrocities and attendant shame that were sometimes discussed in his rap group: “That, my friend, is the hardest thing to deal with. When somebody brings it up, we all fall silent. Nobody knows how in hell to handle it.”

Beyond those reasons lies perhaps the most significant one of all: that of the limits of the discipline itself, the inadequacy of psychological categories and language in describing the nature and pain of human conscience. The truth is, much of our confusion in regard to therapy and moral pain stems from the therapeutic tradition itself.

A strain of moral sensibility and conscience was always present in the work of Freud. But it is also true that two elements combined in his work to separate considerations of psychological health from moral or social concerns. The first was the need to isolate the self in the therapeutic process from its complex familial or social connections in order to see it clearly and deal effectively with it. What began as a useful fiction gradually hardened into a central motif or approach: the self in therapy is characteristically seen as separate and discrete from what surrounds it—an isolated unit complete in itself, relatively unaffected by anything but inner or familial experience. Secondly, morality itself was often treated in Freud’s work as a form of social intervention or outside imposition, something fundamentally alien to the individual ego. There were good reasons for his view, of course—most notably the heavy and oppressive German morality of the times and the obviously destructive dissonance between inner human life and the regulated social order established around it. Nonetheless, in its justifiable accent upon human need as opposed to social obligation, psychoanalysis established habits of thought that have now been honed in America into a morally vacuous view of human nature.

Our great therapeutic dream in America is that the past is escapable, that suffering can be avoided, that happiness is always possible, and that insight inevitably leads to joy. But life’s lessons—so much more apparent in literature than in therapy— teach us something else again, something that is both true of, and applicable to, the experience of the vets. Try as they do to escape it, the past pursues them; the closer they come to the truth of their acts, the more troubled they are, the more apart they find themselves, and the more tragic becomes their view of life.

The veterans’ situation is Oedipus’ situation—not for the reasons Freud chose, but because it reveals to us the irreversibility of certain kinds of knowledge, the power of certain actions and perceptions to change an individual’s life beyond any effort to change it back. Oedipus saw and was blinded, came close to the truth and lost the world of men, and once in exile he suffered not so much because of what he had done, but because of what he learned he had done: the terrible and tragic knowledge deprived him of the company both of men and of gods.

Such knowledge has come to many vets too. What they know is this: the world is real; the suffering of others is real; one’s actions can sometimes irrevocably determine the destiny of others; the mistakes one makes are often transmuted directly into others’ pain; there is sometimes no way to undo that pain—the dead remain dead, the maimed are forever maimed, and there is no way to deny one’s responsibility or culpability, for those mistakes are written, forever and as if in fire, in others’ flesh.

Though this is perhaps a terrible and demanding wisdom, it is no more and no less than what all men should know; it is the ethical lesson life teaches those who attend to the consequences of their actions. But because our age is what it is and because most Americans flee from such knowledge, this wisdom is especially hard for the vets to bear. Though it ought to bring them deeper into the human community, it isolates them instead, sets them irrevocably apart, locks them simultaneously into a seriousness and a silence that are as much a cause of pain as are their past actions. They become suffering pariahs not only because of what they have done but because of the questions it raises for them—questions that their countrymen do not want to confront, questions for which, as a society, we have no answers.

A few months ago, after I had talked about guilt and the war to a group of vets, professors, and students, a vet came up to me.

“I left in the middle of your talk,” he said angrily. “What you were saying didn’t make sense. I feel no guilt. There was no right or wrong over there. All of that is nonsense. It was a dream. That’s how I leave it behind. I don’t let it bother me. I couldn’t understand what you were saying.”

Yet he had returned to register his complaint, and as he spoke to me, his eyes filled with tears. There was a grief revealed by his gaze that he could not admit to me, nor perhaps even to himself, possibly because he had little hope of finding a useful way to deal with it. I suspect that its release, or at least its acknowledgment, would have radically changed him, radically changed his relation to the world; but it made itself felt instead as a refusal to consider the past in any moral way at all. I have now talked to enough vets to know that for many of them— though by no means for all—hopelessness lay behind the tears that neither one of us mentioned.

So, in responding, I chose to broaden the question of responsibility, arguing that, yes, the vets were guilty, but many of us had been guilty also, and that we were guilty not only for the war, but for countless public and private acts whose consequences had been pain or suffering for others. It was all of us, I tried to say, who ought to struggle to come to terms with human fallibility and culpability. The vets were not alone in that, or ought not to be alone in that. It was a struggle all men should share. At that, he relaxed. The tears were still there, but more obvious now, less masked. His voice was softer and less truculent.

“I see what you mean,” he said, “But you didn’t say that before. I can understand what you’re saying now.” I had said it before, but I had said it in a way that made it impossible for him to listen, for in making the guilt his alone, or in making it sound as if it were his alone, I had deprived him of precisely the kind of community and good company that make it possible for people to see themselves clearly. What he needed, as do all the vets, was not only a way of thinking and speaking about his life, but the willingness of others to consider their lives in the same way.

This is precisely the point at which the failure of therapy becomes tragic, and it is at this point that the future task of therapy becomes clear: to see life once again in a context that includes the reality of moral experience and assigns a moral significance to human action. It may be that certain acts and certain kinds of guilt set men irrevocably apart from their fellows: Oedipus, after all, entered a realm in which the common wisdom was of no use to him. But one cannot help feeling that this is not the case with the vets, and that the isolation they feel has as much to do with our corrupt view of human nature as it does with their past actions. The moral anguish they feel, as intense as it gets, is in many cases simply an extreme form of certain painful experiences that would be entirely familiar to us if we paid as much attention to moral life in our therapies as we do to other forms of behavior.

What the problems of the vets ought to point toward are several categories of moral experience ignored in therapy but applicable to all men and women, and familiar to many of them. Those categories, if we could bring them to bear on the problems of the vets, would be of immense use in illuminating their torment. Beyond that, it would educate us all about the psychological consequences of the moral pain that their problems reveal.

The first category of moral pain is the common notion of “bad conscience,” a person’s reaction to past actions he or she finds inexcusable or inexplicable. Bad conscience causes the individual pain, shame, and guilt, and demands a way of setting right what has been done. But it goes beyond this reaction, approximating what Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, called “bad faith”: the underlying and general sense of having betrayed what you feel you ought to have been.

We are familiar with that feeling in the emotional realm; we know how those who settle for emotional or sexual lives that do not satisfy them, or those who sacrifice desire to fear, can feel humiliated and depleted or experience an almost organic shame. In some way, at some level, they know their lives to be a lie. The same apprehension can be true in the moral realm; we can experience in the present a pain engendered by past actions that seem to us reprehensible, and to the extent that we merely try to outlive such events, forgetting or ignoring them, we may indeed feel ourselves to be guilty of a kind of bad faith—of breaking a covenant not only with others or with God, but with our own nature.

It seems to me that is the experience of many Americans who cannot help measuring in their minds their privileged condition and the way they choose to spend their lives against the varieties of need, deprivation, and pain they see around them. Many of us suffer a vague, inchoate sense of betrayal, of having somehow taken a wrong turning, of having somehow said yes or no at the wrong time and to the wrong things, of having somehow taken upon ourselves a peculiar and general kind of guilt, having two coats while others have none, or just having too much while others have too little—and yet proceeding, nonetheless, with our lives as they are.

How much more painful, then, are such feelings for the vets, for in Vietnam, the consequences of their actions were irreversible and concrete suffering or death. Any response to those events save one that arises from an individual’s deepest sense of debt or justice is likely to leave a person mired in bad faith.

The second category of moral pain has to do with what might be called “the world’s pain”—the way we internalize and experience as our own the disorder, suffering, and brutality around us. Some people take on the pain of others as a personal burden; external suffering mixes with their own immediate emotional experience in a way that often makes it difficult to sort out what has been produced by one and what by the other. We can call it empathy if we want to, but it goes well beyond a specific response to a particular person’s particular misfortune. It can take the form of a pervasive sense of suffering, injustice, and evil—a response to the world’s condition that produces a feeling of despair, disgust, or even a sort of radical species-shame, in which one is simultaneously ashamed of oneself and one’s kind.

Who can forget the images of John F. Kennedy falling in the open car or of the young female student at Kent State kneeling above her fallen comrade, her mouth open in a scream? And who cannot remember the televised images from Saigon of South Vietnamese soldiers crowding into the last planes to leave, the women and children clinging to them and falling through the air as they took off? The horror one feels in relation to such sights can be traumatic and perhaps permanent; it works in ways we do not understand, depriving us not of self-esteem but of something equally important to the ego’s health: a sense of a habitable world and of trustworthy human connections.

Often this response to suffering is hidden away, repressed, or ignored; it eats at people from the inside out, but because they feel helpless in the face of what causes it, they try as best they can to ignore it or try to solve it in ways that have nothing to do with its causes. Much of the apparent “selfishness” at work in America, the tendency to turn inward toward self, is not a function of greed; it is instead an attempt to alleviate pain and guilt by turning away, by giving up the world— at least in terms of conscience.

Time and again one hears vets say about the war and its issues: “It don’t mean nothin’.” They struggle to empty the past of meaning—not because they are hardened to what happened or because it does mean nothing, but because it is the only way they can preserve sanity in its shadow.

The veterans have seen in themselves and in their comrades behavior that visits upon them truths about human nature and human suffering that will (and should) remain with them for the rest of their lives, calling into question the thin surface of orderliness they see around them. They suffer now, in a bitter way for which we have no words, the brute condition of the human world, which is for them neither an abstraction nor an idea; it is, rather, what they know, how they feel, who they are. Their grief, akin to Oedipus’, or to Buddha’s at the sight of suffering, or to Christ’s at human evil, is far more than a therapeutic problem; it raises instead, for each of them, the fundamental questions of how to live, who to be.

Here we come to the third category of moral pain: the way most of us suffer when we cannot act out in the world our response to the suffering we have seen in it.

In the past several decades, therapy has concentrated on analyzing individual pain or frustration in terms of loss and deprivation: how needs for warmth or love have gone unanswered. The therapeutic answer to that condition, which makes a certain sense, has been to teach us how to get what we want.

But in concentrating on that aspect of pain we have underestimated the ways in which we suffer when we cannot find how to express our love, to give back to the world in some generous way what it is we feel toward it. Morality, argued Kropotkin, is simply “an overflow of vitality.” He meant that it is a natural and unconscious response to the world, a sort of natural gratitude engendered by the interplay of private energies and the surrounding reality. In such a view, there is no such thing as feeling separate from action; each response to the world naturally becomes and demands a gesture. But when the process is not fully completed, when it is truncated, we experience a sense of loss and humiliation, a sense of depletion akin to what we feel when rejected in love or frustrated in desire.

A few months ago, I attended a meeting of vets, academics, and therapists in which we were supposedly discussing “the healing process.” The discussion had been rather dry and constrained until one vet began to speak. He had been in the war, he said, though not in combat. Coming back from it had been hard, and his feelings about it had grown stronger since its end; nothing had seemed right, he was unable to settle down or come to terms with life, but he seemed unable to explain why.

“I’m an artist,” he said. “A sculptor. At least that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Coming home from the war, I saw huge piles of shell-casings. And a couple of years ago I realized that I wanted to use them to make a gigantic sculpture. Something to commemorate the dead, to let people know what the war had been like. For years I tried to get those casings. But they wouldn’t let me have them. They were being recycled, they said, to make new shells. . . .”

And suddenly he was shaking and weeping, unable to go on, crying, as vets will, at the impossibility of explaining to others what drives them.

Later he came over to talk to me. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “I keep thinking that if I could do this one thing, if I could just get it, if I could make this one thing, then somehow it would be all right, they’d see, they’d know, and then it wouldn’t happen again.”

This impulse, is, in essence, what one finds unacknowledged in many of the vets, and the inability to act upon it drives them deeper into distress than they were when they first emerged from the war. We know how imprisonment affects animals, how they are affected by the loss of space and freedom. Often they sicken and die. The same things happen to men and women, but we are far more complicated creatures, inhabiting history as well as nature. When we cannot act in history, when our response to the world around us cannot be spoken or acted on, we suffer inside—as do the vets—a set of experiences for which we have no psychological name.

Most good therapy, Paul Goodman once said, cutting pragmatically to the heart of the matter, is a combination of a whorehouse and an employment agency. What he meant is that if it did not teach people how to make lives for themselves embracing useful work and good loving, it did no one much good. The same thing can be said in relation to the vets. Somewhere along the line, therapy must enter those areas in which the therapist and patient become comrades, where what has been discovered about one’s own experience and its related pain raises questions not only about psychological wholeness but also about moral responsibility: what to do, what to be, how to love? Though no one can solve these problems for another, it is safe to say that no one will be much use to the vets without taking these questions seriously and understanding that at the heart of each life and satisfaction lie fundamental moral questions about choice, responsibility, and the doing of good that must be answered with action that comes from one’s deepest commitments.

There is one last point that must be made not only about the encounter between therapists and patients but also about any contemporary “helping” relationship (teacher and student, for example) that involves the shared redefinition of reality. For decades now, we have considered Buber’s “I-thou” relationship the ideal model: a respectful intimacy in which the integrity of the other is not violated as the other’s nature is fully perceived, understood, and embraced. No doubt all of that is necessary and good. But it is also morally insufficient. It is incomplete. For it does not fully take into account the inevitable presence of the invisible others, the distant witnesses: those who have suffered our past acts and those who may suffer them in the future.

The proper consideration for therapists and vets, for all therapists and all Americans, is “I-thou-they”: the recognition that whatever we do or do not do in our encounters, whatever we forget or remember, whatever truths we keep alive or lies we fabricate will help form a world inhabited by others. Our actions will play a significant part in defining not only the social and moral life of our own people, but the future of countless and distant others as well, whose names we will not know and whose faces we will not see until perhaps, a decade from now, other American children view them through the sights of guns. The responsibility of the therapist, then, neither begins nor ends with the individual client; and the client’s responsibility neither begins nor ends with himself or herself. Both extend far outward, from the past into the future, to countless other lives.

Whether a consideration of all these elements will make a difference to the vets is not at all clear. It may well be that many of them will be forced to live with certain kinds of pain and regret for the rest of their lives, though one can hope that they will be successful enough to turn the truths of the past to some use, becoming the keepers and bearers of those truths rather than the victims. What is clear is that their psychic well-being will depend in large part upon their capacity to resolve the issues of conscience that haunt them. Whatever skills or comfort they manage to salvage from traditional therapy, they will have to see through to the end, and largely on their own, the moral journey that they began in Vietnam.

One can hope that the rest of us will accompany them when we can and follow them when we should; and that perhaps out on the edges of acknowledged experience, in those regions of the self into which the vets have been led and for which we have few words and little wisdom, therapy will regain a part of the seriousness that has so far eluded it and move a bit closer to coming of age.

Peter Marin

Originally published in Psychology Today, November, 1981

  • David Marchesi 15/07/2013, 22:03

    I would advise reading the recent book by Nick Turse: “Kill Everything that moves”. It is sad that the estimate that the Vietnam war was one of the most morally etc questionable has lost some of its punch, since the “right to intervene” doctrine of Messrs. Bush and Blair – one could easily name twenty more “morally questionable” wars ( sorry, I meant “actions”, “interventions”, “humanitarian missions”…)