The Unbearable Psychic Burden Soldiers Carry

News & Politics

I’ll call him “Jack” because that’s his name. He’s my oldest boyhood pal from the wrong part of Chicago. We were corner rats as the local grandmothers called us, hard-case adolescents. He was the smart one, I was academically dismal, and in our own eyes, if not the opinion of cops and school principals, averagely playful. We pilfered, shoplifted and, I can’t quite remember the circumstances, accidentally set fire to a local synagogue.  (We’re both Jewish.)

Jack became a rifleman in the 103rd (“Cactus”) infantry division that after D-Day fought its way from the French hedgerows through the Vosges mountains assaulting the Siegfried Line into Germany pursuing a fleeing enemy and liberating a Dachau sub-camp. Jack had almost eight relentless months under fire on the front line, and I’m not sure he ever was promoted beyond private or pfc.  Somehow he survived the Wehrmacht, and his not-always-bright commanding officers, and anti semitic buddies.  His revenge was to come back in one piece, marry, raise a splendid family and spend his retirement listening, sometimes obsessionally, to his favorite operas and tinkering with computers.

Almost all wartime soldiers, from 1776 to the Civil War, World War II, Vietnam and today, come from poorer and workingclass families. (Jack and I are Great Depression babies with all that emotional baggage.) For me, EVERY generation is “the greatest” for surviving not only war but the shit we came from and the shit we often come back to.

A large number of the men who stormed Utah Beach on D-Day carried in their backpacks along with entrenching tools an invisible psychic burden, a sort of economic PTSD, from the shock and awe of mass unemployment and the ordinary violences of a shortchanged prewar life. Every survivor I talked to in the unit I later joined, the 8th Regiment of 4th Infantry Division, that landed on D-Day would scoff at the very idea of a “previously existing condition” (as army psychiatrists call it)  of a psychic burden caused by poverty or near enough to it.  GIs griped but theirs was essentially an uncomplaining culture, still less psychoanalytical. For many combat was just like civilian life only with better pay.

Or as Jack says, “They call us guys the ‘greatest generation.’ So much crap. Your mother and mine spent more time on the combat line than any soldiers, only it was an undeclared war in our homes. You and me, too, we’ve been at war all our lives.

Overwhelmingly U.S. drafted soldiers in Vietnam – the ones who did the actual fighting – were working class or “minority”; i.e. African American or Latino. I worked among the Vietnam-era Bob Bergdahls of their time, the AWOLs who walked away: sons of factory workers, bus drivers, mortgaged-to-hilt farmers, gang kids and aimless high schoolers, joovie delinquents and boys who simply signed up after seeing John Wayne The Sands of Iwo Jima too many times.  (Bergdahl’s dad is a former UPS driver.)

Now we have an all-volunteer military, and unless they’re listed casualties you’re never quite sure of who they are, where they come from and what’s in it for them aside from 9/11 patriotism. Some stay in for career advancement and financial stability ( such as it is). Or college on the GI Bill or a fast track to citizenship for immigrants.  You’d have to stop to ask each and every one.  Even then, if they’re at all like previous great generations, they may think it’s a foolish waste of time to dig into that tender spot. My guess is that despite all of today’s talk of therapy for returning veterans it’s still that same old World War II mantra: “Got a problem, buddy.  Go ask the chaplain to punch your (tough sh*t) ticket.”

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