The "Troubled Vet" Returns

Mackubin T. Owens

December 23, 2004

Almost from the very beginning of the American counteroffensive against the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, the specter of Vietnam has hovered over U.S. military action.

Two weeks into the Afghanistan campaign, critics of the war had dusted off “quagmire,” a sturdy favorite of those who criticized the Vietnam War. The term reappears every time there is a setback in Iraq, despite the fact that even the most successful wars are frequently characterized by plans gone awry. In fact, most people who draw Vietnam like a pistol understand neither Vietnam nor the current war.

The Vietnam analogy has now begun to encompass the soldiers fighting the war. “A Flood Of Troubled Soldiers Is In The Offing, Experts Predict” blared the front page of The New York Times of Dec. 16. “An Army study shows that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually climb to one in three, the rate ultimately found in Vietnam veterans,” the Times reported. “Because about one million American troops have served so far in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures, some experts predict that the number eventually requiring mental health treatment could exceed 100,000.”

War is a terrible business. Even those who do not suffer physical wounds can be traumatized by the experience. Of course, some handle the stress of combat better than others, but even the strongest can reach a breaking point.

This has been true of soldiers throughout history. Unfortunately, critics of the Vietnam War managed to portray those who fought that war as uniquely damaged by their combat experience. Now falsehoods about the Vietnam veteran are being used to discredit the current generation of soldiers.

Consider the claim in the Times article that one out of every three Vietnam veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a real phenomenon, but it was not nearly as widespread among Vietnam veterans as the press has portrayed it.

The one-in-three figure for Vietnam veterans, derived from the flawed National Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Study, is implausibly high, especially given that fewer than 15 percent of those who served in Vietnam were assigned to combat units. A much better designed study by the Centers for Disease Control reported that 15 percent of Vietnam veterans experienced some symptoms of combat-related PTSD at some time during or after military service, but that only 2.2 percent exhibited symptoms at the time of the study.

In fact, the Times article reflects the same dynamics that were at work 30 years ago. First, anti-war psychiatrists such as Robert Jay Lifton, who was instrumental in the development of the popular understanding of PTSD, claimed that since Vietnam was worse than earlier wars, returning soldiers would suffer severe psychological effects specific to the war. At the same time, the Veterans Administration was forced to justify its budget just as the World War II veteran population declined. Ideology and the self-interest of bureaucrats constitute a powerful combination.

Of course, PTSD is only one component of the Vietnam veteran orthodoxy. According to the conventional wisdom, those who served in Vietnam were largely young and poor. Minorities were disproportionately represented. They suffered unspeakable trauma. Many, if not most, committed or observed atrocities. The horrors of the war led many to turn to drugs and a life of crime. More Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than died in the war. Vietnam veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless and the incarcerated.

In other words, the Vietnam veteran was and is a time bomb waiting to go off.

But these claims constitute a slander against an entire generation of soldiers. For instance, the war was not fought primarily by reluctant draftees, predominantly composed of the poor, the young or racial minorities. The poor and the minorities fought and died in Vietnam, but so did the middle class.

The record indicates that 86 percent of those who died during the war were white and 12.5 percent were black, from an age group in which blacks comprised 13.1 percent of the population. Two-thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers, and volunteers accounted for 77 percent of combat deaths.

Statistics indicate that the suicide, homelessness and drug abuse rates of Vietnam veterans are no higher than for non-vets and non-theater Vietnam-era veterans. The incarceration rate is lower.

Finally, a comprehensive 1980 survey commissioned by Veterans’ Administration (VA) reported that 91 percent of those who had seen combat in Vietnam were “glad they had served their country”; 80 percent disagreed with the statement that “the U.S. took advantage of me”; and nearly two out of three would go to Vietnam again, even knowing how the war would end.

For better or worse, today’s soldiers seem destined to be linked in the public mind to those who fought in Vietnam. So while we need to learn from the Vietnam experience and ensure that the men who have borne the brunt of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq are afforded the best medical and psychiatric care possible, neither they nor the country are well served by predictions of a coming mental health crisis predicated on flawed studies from the Vietnam era.

Mackubin T. Owens, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.