Citizen Reality Avoidance Syndrome by Bill Distler

Phuoc Binh Province - 1968
Phuoc Binh Province – 1968

At a workshop on preventing veteran suicide I found myself extremely uncomfortable with the idea behind PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)  But I’m grateful to the presenters because it helped clarify my thoughts about what I consider the real problem.  It should be called CRAS (Citizen Reality Avoidance Syndrome, pronounced “crass”.)

PTSD needs a name change.  I’m suggesting VSCRAS (Veterans Stressed by Citizen Reality Avoidance Syndrome).
Instead of the usual image of veterans needing to find their way back home, the new image would be of citizens realizing that they have sent their nation’s young people into hell, and it is unrealistic to expect them to come back and return to normal.  Instead of asking veterans to do all the work and return themselves to pre-war normal, citizens should be sharing the work by trying to understand veterans’ newly discovered truths.But instead of veterans being encouraged to describe the reality of war, there are all sorts of well-meaning family members, friends, and not so well-meaning politicians, who want to tell the story for you.  Without being aware of it, their intention is not to take the burden off veterans (they can’t); it is to take the burden off themselves.  In other words, veterans are asked to come back to a society that is delusional, and their mental health is judged by how well they re-integrate themselves into the delusion.

The problem should not be seen as an attempt to return war veterans and survivors of war to a trouble-free, back to normal, unburdened way of thinking.  The whole idea of veterans re-adjusting to everyday society seems to be more for the ease of mind of those who sent them than for the veterans themselves.   Do you want veterans to spare you the trouble of coming to grips with what you’ve sent them to do?

When my daughter was five years old, we often played tag on the front lawn.  Whenever I stopped to catch my breath I’d stare off into the distance.  My daughter would say, “Dad, are you mad?”  I’d always say, “No, I’m not mad.”  About the tenth time this happened I finally realized that she might need some reassurance.  “I’m not mad at you.  Is that what you think?”  “No”, she said.  “What do you think I’m mad about?”  “Oh-h-h, the war,” she said.

At five years old my daughter had noticed something that I hadn’t.  Every time I stopped for a breather, scenes from Vietnam would start playing in my head.  I wasn’t mad, I was sad.

About a year later I was being evaluated for PTSD.  The psychologist asked how much time I spent thinking about the war.  I thought for a second and started crying.  I realized I spent all my waking hours thinking about the war.

A few months ago, 47 years after returning from Vietnam, I became aware that there is always a film playing in the back of my mind.  It is a wide screen surrounded by black.  I see a line of children sitting on the ground, crying.  Behind them, from the knees down, I see their parents standing there, helpless.  They cannot comfort their children.  They have nothing to comfort them with.  Their countries are being destroyed by war.

It is our job as adults to stop these wars.

This film has been playing in my head for years.  When it started the children were Vietnamese.  In the 1980s they were children from El Salvador.  Lately, they are Afghan children.  The faces of the children change, but the film keeps playing.

We need to confront our national spiritual disorder.  This disorder tells us that God doesn’t mind if we kill some children, as long as it is for a good cause.  It tells us that we always use war as a last resort, then we immediately go to war.  The debate, if there is one, is not about how to save lives but about how to take lives more efficiently.  The media presents the voice of war, currently represented by Senator John McCain and others, but there is no voice of peace.

I am willing to dig down and tell you every detail of every incident that I took part in or witnessed in Vietnam, if it would help the cause of peace.  But I’ve gotten the impression over the years that you, the citizens, don’t want to hear it.  I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked what it was like in Vietnam and as I start to form an answer, someone who wasn’t there jumps in and sidesteps the question.  “Oh, yes, those were really crazy times.”  This happens so often that it should have a name, something like “Citizen Reality Avoidance Syndrome” (CRAS).  The reason that people who don’t know war tell combat veterans what war is like is that they don’t want to hear the reality; they need to superimpose their own fantasy over it.  That makes it easier to cheerlead or remain silent during the next war.  It’s as if they are saying, “Oh sure, we all know war is very bad, so you don’t need to tell us how bad.  We’re all adults here.”

Unfortunately, we are not all adults here.

There are some Americans (maybe a majority) who can recognize the suffering of war without actually being in it.  This is called empathy.  Empathy may be a prerequisite for maturity, and maturity about war is surely in short supply.

The average veteran is not a poet or a great writer.  Thank God for the few who are.  But too many books have been written by people who are not troubled by war, or who think that their story is the whole story. People who are not profoundly disturbed by war should not be taken seriously.

To make a long story short, some of us who have been in war can’t stand the casual way that some people advocate for more war.  Veterans who are troubled by war are not disordered.  We have things in the right order.  We have become mature about war, if not about all the other things in life.

The real disorder lies in that part of the population that calls for war and then doesn’t think anymore about it.  They don’t take responsibility for what they have done.  This is the definition of immaturity.

CRAS (Citizen Reality Avoidance Syndrome), it turns out, is much more widespread than VSCRAS (Veterans Stressed by Citizen Reality Avoidance Syndrome), and much more deadly, to other people’s children.

Bill Distler served in Vietnam, he is a member of VFP Chapter 111, Bellingham


  1. Rod Bales says:

    When I was in Nam, the popular saying about going home was “getting back to the “real world”. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We were living in the “real” world. The one we returned to was the confusion. The America we had left was nowhere in sight. What replaced it seemed to have grown out of some draft dodging hippy’s “bad trip”.

  2. Diane Rejman says:

    Bill – are you going to be able to make it to the VFP Convention in San Diego this year?

  3. kenny williams says:

    Very good article brother,
    Surely the public are aware by now that the Vietnam War was all a lie?
    The Gulf of Tonkin incident that sparked america`s involvement in Vietnam has been proven and admitted by the government that it was a “False Flag”

    Thousands died all for a lie. Yet, the public and veterans are doing nothing?

    If Id gone to hell and back and was tortured with nightmares for years to find out that id gone their over a Lie I`d be furious.

    Nato War Crimes Article makes for a good read in the older posts by myself.

    Peace and Love Bro

    Kenny VFP UK

    1. Ant Heaford says:

      It is what i struggle to understand too – even when Governmental crimes, lies, corruption and incompetence are exposed, we do not see anyone truly held to account.

      The Chilcott Report will be interesting reading.

      1. kenny williams says:

        Brother Ant,
        This attached link below is why people do nothing and believe what the papers and tv say as gospel?

        People have to educate themselves and question everything, if they don`t then history is doomed to repeat itself over and over again.

        PAL Kenny VFP UK

  4. Radfax says:

    Without detracting to much from this story and site;
    War Crimes Continue until arrested

    We do not need to smash the lock in order to open the door; we must simply use the right key.
    It is required under UK law that murderers are arrested and prosecuted.
    Those under oath, sworn to duty must honour their undertaking to enforce the law, uphold the peace & the rights of the People
    They MUST do so, as a conscious sworn oath is not to be taken lightly.
    Bearing in mind that there is much corruption within the courts of the land, within Parliament and unfortunately also within the police force.
    There is now sufficient evidence to arrest and charge MP’s with murder, war crimes, genocide, crimes against peace and crimes against Humanity.
    The government/s direct involvements in illegal wars include Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya.

    1. Ant Heaford says:

      You’re right Rad, we must use the system that exists to hold them to account.

      Publication of the Chilcott Report is critical to this, but They are now saying it will not be published this year.

      WE have to change that.

  5. Ant Heaford says:

    Spot on. Thank-you. I don’t feel so loco anymore.

  6. Philip Reiss says:

    Bill Distler, Your self analysis is on the mark. Those who mouth that trite saying “Thank you for your service” haven’t a clue. The Pandora’s box of moral injury will see societal institutions go into the avoidance mode and shun those who try to bring that issue to the broader public’s attention. Our corporate media will never acknowledge the many Americans who believe George W. Bush and Tony Blair are war criminals.

  7. Sharron Day says:

    A moving and very lucid article. Thank you.

  8. Dear Bill Distler

    Your article is a great, painful read which made me turn, as I often do, to what my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe (Royal Fusiliers, then Essex Regiment), wrote when reflecting on his experience of the Somme, July, 1916 – but also about his entire experience of WW1 which he entered in 1914 as a 16-year-old and survived via Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras and the final 8 months as a POW. Fortunately, he told me all about it during my teens in the 1960s – including his horror at the killing he had done on the battlefield himself – and then me and my mother persuaded him to write it down and he did that in his seventies as a 250,000-word Memoir, every word from vivid memory. Anyway, this was his conclusion, from the depths of his soul as you can tell: ““I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”

    All the best, Phil pp Sam

  9. Willy Bach says:

    Bill Distler, thank you. You have re-described PTSD in a realistic manner that we have needed for a very long time. Some US veterans tried with the term Moral Injury.

    RAAF veteran, Marc (Mike) Holt came close too, in describing the reality avoidance that met Australian veterans:

    “Australian Defense Force (ADF) troops who took part in Malayan Emergency operations, and others who were on active service during the Indonesian Confrontation, returned home to an ungrateful country.”

    Bill, I think you have come closer. I hope we can get some traction for VFP UK and other veterans groups with your attempt to describe it more accurately. I know you are right because I got it without experiencing an exchange of fire. I know you are right because I got it without experiencing an exchange of fire. What is presented to us as reality is actually a delusional society that refuses to get with adult responsibility. They are wrong, not us.

  10. Helen Day says:

    As a medical doctor I think you are the sanest clearest thinking person I have read

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