Our American mythology: What we're all getting wrong about veterans

America's misunderstanding of war and its costs carries a heavy toll, according to author Jerry Lembcke

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 26, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

The Vietnam War should never be forgotten, especially now. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)
The Vietnam War should never be forgotten, especially now. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

Jerry Lembcke is a Vietnam veteran who joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War after returning from the war himself. He became a sociology professor at Holy Cross, and first came to my attention with the first book he wrote, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam."

That first book was both a refutation and a deconstruction of the myth that antiwar protesters spit on Vietnam War veterans as they returned from service. Factually, Lembcke noted that no news accounts of such events were published at the time—despite how obviously newsworthy they would have been—but that they became commonplace roughly a decade after they were supposed to have occurred. What did happen in the alleged timeframe was almost the exact opposite—a dramatic level of antiwar activism within the military, along with very public alliances between civilian and military antiwar activists -- not least, the presence of antiwar veteran contingents at the head of most antiwar marches.

The very existence of antiwar veterans was repressed in two ways: First by pathologizing veterans, and then by rewriting history to represent antiwar protesters as the enemy of returning troops.

Lembcke has written several books since then, most recently "PTSD: Diagnosis and Identity in Post-Empire America." In this new book, as I read it, he is dealing with a second, more profound rewriting of history—rewriting the pathologized veteran as a new sort of hero—and connecting that rewriting to a much longer timeframe, involving wars from World War I to America's latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I spoke with him about his new book -- after sharing with him what I just wrote above to make sure we were on the same page.

Is this an accurate take on your book?

I think the preamble there you provide is really good, definitely captures not only what my current book is about but also "The Spitting Image," and how the one flows out of the other. Both of those images work to recast or reimage Vietnam veterans, and that's carrying over now to how that's working with the current generation of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan—this idea of veterans who are rejected or neglected or are coming home hurt, rather than coming home empowered and politicized by their wartime experience, is really important.

While the primary focus of your new book is on military identity and its mythic functioning, you provide some important broader framing for the discussion. The foremost of these is  framing in terms of the broader subject of modern trauma, introduced by the topic of "railroad spine." What was "railroad spine," and how did it reflect a confluence of cultural and technological forces, which would continue to impact the discourse about injured soldiers in the decades to come?

The context was the early 1800s in England, when trains were a new thing, and they were rickety wooden contraptions that resulted in lots of accidents and bad injuries. The accidents involved large numbers of people. That was new, mass-produced accident-injuries, in this new technology, making them a kind of modern-day phenomenon. Plus, mass-produced and widely distributed newspapers spread news about the accidents to people who had never seen trains—and could, thus, only imagine what they, and the accidents produced by them, were actually like. Finally, the concept of liability insurance was relatively new, making the injuries subject to litigation for financial settlements.

Soon, doctors were seeing patients presenting ailments they claimed to be the results of train accidents, although they did not have the kind of bumps and bruises they should have had if they had actually been in an accident. Patients appeared with an exaggerated spine curvature, an unnatural concave bend in the back that became known as “railway spine.” Doctors, legal experts and later historians reasoned that many of the “railway spine” cases were actually forms of paralysis induced by the patients’ imaginations of having been struck from the back, a kind of whiplash effect.

Historically, “railway spine” is important because it carries forward to influence the study of female hysteria in the late 1880s, shell shock in WWI veterans, and PTSD and TBI cases of today’s war veterans. Many cases of TBI, for example, cannot be associated with any other injuries that should be visible if a brain injury had actually been sustained.

One of the key points in your book is that the wounded warrior has become, in a sense, a replacement for the traditional war hero, or, perhaps more accurately, a preferred alternate version. Can you say something about the argument you make in support of this view?

I could say something about how I make that point, which is contrasting the portrayal of veterans into films that I think a lot of people are familiar with. One of those films is the 1978 film "Coming Home," and the other is the first "Rambo" film in 1982. Bob, the Marine in "Coming Home," comes home traumatized by his wartime experience; he feels like he has been betrayed by his wife, neglected by his society. Rambo is also traumatized. That film opens with him in jail in the small town in the Pacific Northwest, but he has flashbacks there to his imprisonment in Vietnam as a POW, and he too feels misunderstood, neglected, even rejected by his society. The difference between those two films, time-wise, is only four years, but Bob in "Coming Home" is left for us as just a kind of pathetic crazy mental health case who commits suicide at the end of the film. Whereas the Rambo figure, by the end of the film, is somebody who is very powerful, we're kind of led to certainly empathize with, if not to see as a hero figure. And we know now he is the hero figure who goes into the future. Even Ronald Reagan adopts Rambo as a kind of figured that he thinks America should rally around.

So we have there, really, the dividing line, sometime around 1980, between the way that war trauma is used in popular culture, on the one hand to pathologize the image of the Vietnam veteran, and on the other hand to in a sense lionize veterans. And it's that heroizing of war veterans that I think goes on into the future and I think that's what we're dealing with today, with people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. That war trauma has become a credential for the warrior, rather than the way logically it should work is the other way around. The warrior should credential the mental and emotional hurt. That has gotten reversed or inverted, which is something that I think we really need to recognize in our political culture today.

You have a brief section on three notable war resisters, in which you say, "Despite their one-time celebrity status as war resisters, Donald Duncan and Charlie Clements are, like Siegfried Sassoon, lost figures in the history of twentieth-century wars, their stories, like Sassoon's, casualties of the war on public memory waged with the images of soldiers and veterans with minds and emotions broken by war."

This leads me to a set of related questions. First, who were these three men? And what message did they have that did resonate at one time?

Siegfried Sassoon is probably the figure who Americans would know the least about, although he became probably better known as a literary figure after World War I. But in 1917, he was already at that point a decorated soldier within the British Army in the war, and he refused to serve any longer. He wrote a letter to the British Parliament, saying he was retiring, he was dropping out, he would not serve anymore in the war. He was then sent to the Craig Lockhart mental institution for examination, whereupon one doctor declared that he suffered from an antiwar complex—which I thought was quite funny, but in some sense quite accurate. And then, as I say, he went on to be mostly notable as a literary figure opposed to war.

Donald Duncan and Charlie Clements are both figures in the American war in Vietnam. Charlie Clements graduated second in his class at the Air Force Academy in 1965, I think, and then went on to fly some missions in Vietnam. He came stateside for a leave, and decided he didn't want to go back. He thought the American people were being lied to about the war in Vietnam, and he didn't want to be part of that. He was sent to a mental hospital. His story became a kind of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" story, which was quite frightening, actually, for me in reading about it originally, wondering whether he is going to get out of this situation or not, because he was essentially locked up.

But he did [get out], and he then went to medical school, became a doctor, and later founded the Medical Aid to El Salvador project during the American wars in Central America in the 1980s. He wrote about that experience in a book that became famous, entitled "Witness to War," and that book became the basis for a documentary movie with the same title – "Witness to War"– which won the Academy Award for the best documentary in its year. And Charlie Clements is still active in peace and at antiwar things.

Donald Duncan was a U.S. Army Green Beret in Vietnam, who was involved in one of the really early important battles at Ben Het in 1965. After that, he dropped out of the military, and became notable as the cover image on a Ramparts magazine in 1966, beneath the big block letters that said "I Quit." Because he too left the military. He became a celebrated figure within the American antiwar movement, and one of the first American GIs within it, who began to speak out publicly against the war, and was very active in recruiting other Vietnam veterans to the antiwar movement.

So what, of course, these three figures have in common is that they all, in a sense, quit. They all resigned from the military, and they all become very important figures in the American antiwar movement. But they're lost figures, as I say in the book. Certainly Clements and Sassoon, because they become treated as mental health problems, and thereby kind of discredited in their own time. Some antiwar people revive their image, remember them, but most Americans don't. And I think the reason is because of that pathologizing of what they did.

I think you somewhat answered what I was going to ask next, but in case you want to add something more I'll go ahead and ask how does their existence illuminate the war on public memory you refer to? And what is the nature of that war?

There is more to say there, very briefly. One takeaway phrase is "the medicalizing of dissent," which is what happens in all of those cases. Rather than treating their dissent as a political problem, their dissent is treated as a psychological issue, and medicalized, treated as a medical issue. Another key word there is it "stigmatized" them, medically and psychologically, and that certainly works in American culture in a different way than does simply, say, criminalizing it, or treating it as a behavioral kind of issue. It sends people's thinking down a different line of thought. It "otherizes" these people in a different kind of way. It puts more distance between the American population at large and these people.

The other key word is "displacement." Displacement is the key to how memory and forgetting work. We don't just forget certain things. We remember in those places something else. So what has been forgotten is forgotten because it has been displaced, has been pushed away, it's been pushed off-screen by something else. So we forget about the political veterans because the image of traumatized veterans comes into that place and pushes the political veterans out of our memory.

Again, you've somewhat answered my next question, but in case you have something more, I'll go ahead and ask: What is the function of the imagery of broken soldiers in that war on public memory? And how does that imagery and its function impact the actual flesh-and-blood soldiers?

How does it impact the actual flesh-and-blood soldiers is that particularly with Vietnam War veterans, political veterans' own self-sense, their own image of themselves is lost in the popular culture, and is lost in public memory, and I'm quite sure that as time goes on, then, a lot of those veterans then search for another way to represent themselves, even to family and friends, other ways of conversing, talking about themselves; they really have no other choice than to adopt that lexicon, that terminology of mental health, because they're hit with those questions all the time – were you traumatized by your work on experience? Or you're given the phrasing that it was really an awful experience, I guess, huh? So you're kind of forced into that discourse, that way of talking about your own experience.

In conventional military terms, World War I and Vietnam appear like polar opposites—the ultimate in fixed-position mass warfare vs. the ultimate in dispersed small-unit fighting where positions were frequently taken, abandoned and retaken months or years later. But you argue that World War I and Vietnam—as well as more recent wars—were much more similar as opposed to World War II, which was the actual outlier. How is this the case?

What I'm talking about is not the war themselves, but the way the study of war trauma and postwar culture is done. So in the studies of war trauma and of postwar culture, Vietnam has more in common with World War I that it does with World War II.

So how did the context of post-WWII America contrast with post-Vietnam America -- and what consequences did this have for veterans, wounded or not?

The huge big difference there is World War II was won, Vietnam was lost. One is a triumphant postwar culture, and the other is a lost war culture. It seems as though people hang on to losses and defeats longer than they hang on to victories. There might be some collective psychology things going on there. Or people don't want to let it go, because they hope that something will cause it to turn out better than it actually did; or there's something there that they don't know about, but maybe if they did, things will look better. In any case, individuals and the collective cultures seem to get kind of hung up on a lost war, whereas World War II was one where people put it in the rearview mirror, the whole society puts it in the rearview mirror, and the country moves on.

The other big difference between those two wars is after World War II we have an expanding economy, there are jobs for veterans, there's a whole new era of urban growth, suburbanization, the auto-mobilization of America. World War II is really a threshold between the previous era of American life and the new era. The war after Vietnam, or the economy after Vietnam, goes into recession, by the late 1970s, the steel industry, the automobile industry are both in the tank. Lots and lots of Vietnam veterans are put out of work ... There is some recovery in the 1980s, but that generation of veterans is really hit badly by economic loss as well as a lost war.

That's something that seemed to be really key, the losses that people are not willing to look at, and that seemed to echo something in "The Spitting Image," that the people who really did shun the veterans were not the antiwar protest posters, who were happy to have them at the head of their marches; it was the "silent majority" that was most unwelcoming -- they didn't want to hear what you guys had to say about the war.

Yes, absolutely. That's true. And certainly they did not want to hear from antiwar veterans. The pathologizing of it really comes out of that. One way of not listening, of not hearing is to say that these antiwar veterans should be sympathized with, perhaps, but their behavior is really therapeutic, really cathartic, it really shouldn't be taken seriously as a political statement—and so we should treat them accordingly.

You write that the psychiatric evacuation rate in WWII was higher than it would be in Vietnam, but according to one doctor, hysterical symptoms disappeared almost entirely in WWII. What does this tell and/or suggest to us?

The distinction that's being made there is between psychiatric casualties and hysteria, and those are two different things. The bridge there between the two is what's called the conversion disorder, where fear, anxiety, trauma that is suppressed and not expressed eventually comes out as some kind of physical ailment. We typically think of a nervous tic as kind of the most common expression of that ... During World War II a fair number of troops were evacuated for psychiatric reasons, but they were immediately treated as cases of fear, emotional fatigue and so forth. They were treated that way. They weren't medicalized necessarily, through drug treatment and that sort of thing, but they were given a respite from the front. They were taken seriously and in lots of cases the men were sent back, and they seem to have performed very well. So we didn't get that postwar hangover effect.

That's the way I like to think about that hysteria part of it, it's something that isn't dealt with adequately or effectively, and then it has some kind of carry over, an after-war affect. That seems to be the story, also, of shell shock in World War I. And I think it's then what happens with Vietnam veterans.

How did later critics come to revise the understanding of WWI "shell shock"? How do their criticisms raise questions about PTSD and TBI?

The later critics you refer to are in large part historians of psychiatry. There is a little body of literature on the history of psychiatry, and what they see is that the very notion of shell shock really comes out of pre-World War I culture in Europe. It comes out of the way in which newspapers early on started to talk about what was happening to people serving in the war.

A lot of that tied back to images of women treated for hysteria in the late 1800s, the 1880s and 1890s, which wasn't that long before World War I. So the imagery that people had at that time was mostly female--there were books of photographs that come out of mental hospitals in the 1880s and 1890s. And so people's thinking sort of went in that direction. That's a normal kind of thing to do, right? You process new information in the categories and within the frameworks that you have, that are given from the past. And so what historians then began to write—and I quote some of these things in the book–is that, well, one historian said that soldiers went off to war in World War I expecting to have shell shock, expecting to be traumatized by war. They went off that way because their hometown newspapers were already writing about what is probably going to happen to these people when they go off to war.

Now let's set that aside for a second. The other thing that is postwar, after World War I and the way in which shell-shocked plays out. There's a really interesting fairly recent book, Anton Kaes is the author, it's "Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War." It explores the way that filmmakers used the figures of shell-shocked veterans as a metaphor for shell-shocked Germany. The micro image of the traumatized veteran becomes a stand-in for the shell-shocked nation, a nation that has been traumatized and has been hurt by its wartime experiences, a nation that has experienced loss through its last war, a nation that has to have that loss addressed, Anton Kaes argues, through more war.

Now the most important or best-known film that's in that genre is "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." It's a film which is shown here probably every Halloween; a lot of your readers will know that film. The zombie kind of figure in that film is a World War I veteran, and he's portrayed in the coffin, he walks out of the coffin and so forth. That's Anton Kaesl his book came out just a couple of years ago. But there's another book that came out in 1947 and the title of it is "From Caligari to Hitler," and the author of that book is Siegfried Kracauer. This is very close to World War II, and the subtitle of his book is “A Psychological History of the German Film.” So he is writing about the same thing, and the touchstone for him is also Caligari and how it plays into the rise of Hitler in Germany.

Now I think all that is really important because that is what plays out in post-Vietnam War American culture; by that I mean at this point the culture that we're still in, because the role played particularly by the news media in creating that category that we now know as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, the role of the news media is absolutely decisive. There's particularly an Op-Ed piece the New York Times published in 1972 that put PTSD as a diagnostic category into play. I think there's no doubt that, just like in Germany, the news media then puts on the minds of a new generation of veterans going off to war that they're going to come home traumatized. It sets the expectations of people going off to war, and maybe more importantly it sets expectations of the American people about what's going to be coming home from war. Soldiers are going to be coming home traumatized, and so there is a real symbiosis here, in terms of these expectations, that I think feed on one another and feed into one another. Certainly by the time people go off to the Iraq War in 2003, we've already been through a cycle of people going off to the Gulf War and having come back from the Gulf War; now they're going off to a new war in 2003, and as they go off, news people are writing about how they are going to come home traumatized, and of course referring to Vietnam veterans having come home traumatized, according to press people, and how Gulf War people have come home traumatized. As this began to happen and I began to read these stories in 2003, I was beginning to say to myself, and somewhat publicly, "Of course, we're going to have a new round of PTSD."

Now the other thing that's very, very important and I think maybe is a punch line—the subtitle of my new book is “Diagnosis and Identity in Post-empire America,” because I think that just the way shell shock played out in Germany after World War I, setting the stage for a nation needing to avenge its losses and then leading it to new war, I think that is playing out in America today. It is forming the consciousness of a nation that has lost its place of high standing in global politics. We are now going through the throes of lost empire, and we are in a mood to fight back, to try to regain the prestige that we think that we once had, the prestige that we think that we lost in war, and were trying to do that through a war, through commitments to more conflict, and I think it's a very, very dangerous mind-set for the country to be in, a dangerous mind-set that really threatens to expand into still broader wars.

On page 58, you write, regarding the pictorial record of Abu Ghraib, that traditionally the externalized, valorizing trophies of war that provide meaning and purpose have disappeared. How does the recording of atrocities replace what is missing, and what does that tell us?

Yeah, that's such a great question. Of course we're going off to wars not only that we lose, so we don't come home with the kind of conventional spoils of victory, you know, the war treaties, the surrender agreements, the sort of crowning moment. But we're also going off to wars that are not only not popular but are come to be seen by lots and lots of Americans, even pretty mainstream Americans, as wars that shouldn't be fought, wars in which there is no glory, even if you won this war, maybe it's not something that should be celebrated. So there's not much pride to be having these wars that we're fighting, which leaves us with kind of a vacuum there.

Now that's where the psychology, the postwar psychology, kind of gets a twist, and it's a twist that began with Vietnam, and it's carried on big-time now, particularly in the war in Iraq, where what can come back from these wars is some feeling that we sacrificed. In these wars there's a kind of Protestant religious virtue, a kind of abstract virtue, but it's there, and religious culture, sacrifice and loss in itself is a virtue. So with that kind of understanding, with that twist in the culture, then, in some sense the greater our loss, the greater our hurt, the greater the damage that we can show that we have endured in this war, then the more virtuous—in some kind of twisted, abstract way—we as a people become.

And so soldiers who come back from war with hurts, the hurts they bring back from the war become a kind of trophy. If you come home with war stories about having committed atrocities, having done really, really terrible things while you were at war, that can get presented to people as evidence for how terribly you were hurt in the war. I can tell the story, let me tell you how bad it was for me, how dehumanizing that war was. Let me tell you, right? And I tell you, then, about the terrible, terrible thing that I did to some of the Vietnamese people, or what I did in Iraq that was so terrible, terrible. So that the terrible things that were done at Abu Ghraib prison become represented then as evidence for the terribleness of the war.

This was quite literally done with the story of the Marines who pissed on the corpses of some dead Taliban a couple of years ago. News people, even on PBS News Hour, they talked about that as what war does to young people, who are sent off to war. So, in a sense, they become victims of the war that they have been sent off to carry out. That gets played as not only the identity of soldiers coming home, but it will also become a kind of a national identity just as it did in Germany. We become defined as a traumatized people, a people traumatized by war, and so the redress for that, then, has to be found in more war.

How did the Vietnam-era GI coffeehouse movement contrast with Iraq War-era GI coffeehouse movement?

Very easy, very quickly, organizing versus servicing. The GI coffeehouse movement was intended to organize, to bring in GIs to the antiwar movement, to politicize them, and make them active in the antiwar movement. The new generation of coffeehouses is much more designed to service the people who are coming home from war and PTSD is all over their literature, it's all over their Web pages. The leader of the Coffee Strong coffeehouse outside Fort Lewis, Washington, the current day one, has said "We tried to stay neutral in terms of the war." Coffeehouse veterans of the Vietnam War era must just read that with amazement.

Early in the book, you recount an incident from the mid-1990s, when you were giving a lecture about myths and legends of the Vietnam War, and the spitting myth in particular. An audience member stood up and said, "I'm 100 percent PTSD." For me, it was a curiously striking moment. How does it illuminate the title and subtitle of your book?

I may have answered most of that already, but the key word is "identity" and the way in which it's come to be a kind of ontological category, a statement of "this is who I am," and that needs to be embraced – there's a word – the difference between embracing PTSD as an identity and feeling stigmatized by PTSD.

In the Vietnam War era, some members of the Black Panthers were returning Vietnam War veterans, who used their military training to, in turn, train others to be defenders of their communities, particularly against racist police departments. Flash forward to the Iraq War era, and you tell the story of how Kanye West, whose father was a Black Panther, hosted an MTV special on PTSD, entirely devoid of any politics. What can you tell us about that special, and in turn what did it tell us about how America has changed?

Of course, in the book I write that his father was a member of the Black Panthers. Your question really points to the contradiction there or the poignancy of that difference. To me, in addition to what I've already said on this, the point is that it's the commercial exploitation of PTSD imagery that I think the MTV PTSD program really illustrated. The way in which you can use a mental health category like PTSD is pretty amazing to me. They advertise this MTV show as something that Kanye West was doing for PTSD-stricken Iraq War veterans. That's the way it was advertised. So the idea that he could draw an audience in this way, using PTSD as your magnet, testifies to the cultural cachet, not the diagnostic cachet, but the cultural meaning that PTSD now carries within American culture. That is really powerful.

You note that stories on the extent of injuries to Iraq War veterans have broad appeal across the ideological spectrum, even beyond the limits of the corporate media, as you cited Amy Goodman and "Democracy Now!" focusing on subject from a "cost of war" perspective, even as gung-ho militarists pushed it as well. You cite one general saying that 100 percent of veterans are victims. How does this framework differentially impact antiwar critics and military boosters?

The antiwar piece on this is most easy for me to understand and the odd curious twist in it that veterans coming home hurt by the war within this cost of war framework become assets. Hurt veterans qua hurt veterans become assets within this calculus. In a curious sense, and of course nobody would put it this way, everyone that comes home makes it a more powerful discourse. The more boots on the commons we can show, or the march crosses we can put on the town commons, the more powerful our antiwar message becomes. Now contrast that with the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, where veterans that came home from war were not thought of as casualties, but they were thought of as allies to be recruited into the antiwar movement, and to be used. They were viewed as political assets, they were valued for their empowerment, not for the hurts that they brought home.

Now the pro-war military side of this, I've got to say, the only way I can understand this is that, and by the way, the 100 percent, that was on the HBO, the follow-up to the HBO program. It was a hugely promoted venture, that was all about PTSD and TBI, and then there was a follow-up to it, I think it aired the next day, in which they had some retired high-ranking retired military people on the panel, who are really praising this HBO program, and one of them said that he waved his arm and said "100 percent of you are PTSD victims." The only thing I can think of there is that they are pandering to an American audience, a taxpayer American audience that they want to curry favor with for the military and paramilitary institutions. They think that the PTSD imagery is so widely disseminated and so broadly embraced, in some ways, so powerfully in American political culture that they dare not speak critically of it. They better present themselves as part of that, and wrapped themselves in the PTSD flag, that is not organically their flag . And then at some point in time make that play out in their favor.

One role might be that they can use that leverage funding for better and more war equipment; a new generation of machinery craps a new generation of more high-tech war. If you really fixated American consciousness that we don't want to take these kinds of losses anymore in war, well then, you really set the stage for selling the idea of a drone-type warfare as the only way we can go, that's the only way we can go. It's possible they have some pretty sophisticated political culture wonks on their team too. And it might be that that's what they're pointing to further down the road.

In the most recent Fort Hood shooting, the shooter, Ivan Lopez, was said to be an Iraq War vet, but was only there for the last four months of withdrawal operations. Yet—regardless of what turns out to be true in this case—your book suggests that this sort of marginal involvement is entirely typical of PTSD victims. Why is that so? He really is a poster child for PTSD.

He is. And the poster child for all of those other ancillary things. PTSD seems to be a reach for a credential for military identity. In Lopez's case, he seems, well, the press tells us that he himself self-diagnosed to use the term they used, as a traumatic brain injury victim. He says he has traumatic brain injury. Now there's no record that he has actually sought that diagnosis and no record that he is granted that. He has also sought a diagnosis of PTSD, but he's not been granted that yet. But he has self-diagnosed as traumatic brain injury, even though there's no record of him having seen combat in Iraq.

Now that is typical of Vietnam veterans and going all the way back to World War I. The data is there that shell shock came to be seen more commonly in soldiers who had never been to the front than those who had been to the front. Peter Bourne, who wrote one of the first books on more trauma in Vietnam, wrote that; at that time he was writing about post-Vietnam syndrome, more commonly observed among soldiers who had never been in combat than those who had, and were already seeing the same thing with soldiers back from Iraq, soldiers back from Afghanistan.

In December 2012, the New York Times reported that 700,000 veterans of the Gulf War filed for disability claim with the VA, and more than 85 percent of those have been granted benefits, more than 85 percent of 700,000. There was virtually no combat in the Gulf War, the first Persian Gulf War. Everybody knows that. So there are lots of claims being made, lots of claims being granted. Now, my hunch is that a lot of those claims are being made because people who were in that conflict, were dispatched to the Gulf War, need some kind of combat identity that they can associate themselves with for the experience that they had there. There's similar kinds of numbers -- this is all in my book, page 154, and you can dig those numbers out on your own, but lots and lots of cases like Lopez.

Now going back to Lopez, he supposedly has a photograph of himself with the bandolier of automatic weapon ammunition, and maybe with an automatic weapon. I haven't seen this, actually, but newspaper people have written about this, even though there's no evidence that he would have ever used such weapons, or been asked to use such weapons. So there is evidence that he's reaching out for something, he's reaching out for some kind of identity, some kind of masculinity reinforcement. That is the way the TBI thing plays into this, but the TBI diagnosis that he wants is that TBI is an unseen wound, it's an invisible wound, if it exists at all. You don't have to be able to show something to somebody. So it's a claimable wound, arguably, by anybody who is deployed to Iraq. And that's where he becomes a kind of microcosm, a kind of stand-in for something that I think is going on more generally, particularly by people coming back from Iraq.

You have this one passage on page 177, which seems to get at the very heart of the matter: "With wounds making heroes, and invisible wounds countable, everyone who deployed could have a hero-eligible story, and the nation's foundational sense of itself as a besieged people sacrificing for the defense of Good could be affirmed."

This seems like an extremely economical explanation. Some might respond, "Aha! Now it all makes sense!" But others might distrust it precisely because it is so neat. Yet, the story you tell is very much one of a prolonged process of thrashing about, groping for meaning. What would you say to those who distrust this formulation?

Yeah, I’ve got to say that is a pretty economical summary of the book. What can I say? Well, the thrashing about bit, I would point to, in the case of the Vietnam War, the kind of films and popular culture that came out of the war in Vietnam, that most of the films coming out of Vietnam are not about the war itself. Most of the films are about the men who fought the war. Most of those films are about soldiers coming home, damaged in some way or another, coming home dangerously armed, becoming a danger to their own people. I would point to that, and I would say that we're still in that same kind of cultural space, that the Gulf War, and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan have really not moved beyond that space—we still get the questions. What were these wars about? Have we won or have we lost that war? Is that war still going on? Much of what is said about the war in Iraq ends with a question mark. We are not settled at all.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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