- Historic Sites
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
Even during the war, warnings were being sounded that this conflict, apparently so different in other ways, could also be different in its mental aftereffects. VA psychiatrists began to speak of PVS, a post-Vietnam syndrome, behavioral disorders that were supposed to have been created uniquely by the war. Robert Jay Lifton, a noted psychiatrist and a passionate critic of the war, told Congress in 1970 that the injustice and immorality of Vietnam were sure to stimulate rage, hate, and guilt among those who had been coerced into fighting it. No wonder veterans had difficulty adjusting, given the character of the war; in Lifton’s view, these reactions were normal and appropriate. Lifton thought PVS was so elastic and widely abused as to be useless as a diagnosis. Nevertheless, when his own study of Vietnam veterans, Home from the War , was published in 1973, he had to admit that the term was “used by almost everyone.”
What had happened was that the post-Vietnam syndrome had slipped out of its professional confines and into public usage, a transformation that mirrored American attitudes toward the conduct of the war itself. As the public definition of the syndrome evolved, the post-Vietnam syndrome became another means by which Americans tried to make sense of the war itself.
At first, of course, there was an orgy of forgetfulness. “Putting the war behind us” became a common refrain in the seventies, when the nation was beset with other domestic and international problems. If remembered at all, the conflict was seen as evidence of a kind of pathological international behavior; those who had fought in it were regarded in much the same way.
But intrusions upon our forgetfulness began as early as 1973, when a group of Vietnam veterans at Southern Illinois University conducted a selfstudy that found an “emotional malaise” common to all veterans of the war. A New York Times survey the following year showed higher patterns of drug abuse among veterans than the national average. By 1978 the VA was reporting that about 20 percent of all Vietnam veterans were “having difficulty adjusting” to civilian life. Less than a year later the U.S. Department of Justice released figures showing that a majority of the fifty-eight thousand men with service records then in prison had been in Vietnam, a statistic that was sure to make headlines but that alone proved little.
The daily news did not improve the Vietnam veteran’s image. Across the country dramatic incidents were reported in which veterans of the war killed themselves, loved ones, and others, had shoot-outs with the police, took hostages, and were implicated in other criminal activities. What made these crimes different was the veterans’ trial defense: Their wartime experiences absolved them of responsibility for their actions. The courts were often sympathetic. In widely publicized cases vets were acquitted on the ground that they were suffering “com bat flashbacks” at the time of their crime, a modern military variant of “not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.”
Meanwhile, the post-Vietnam syndrome was losing ground to a more sophisticated understanding of the problem. Increasingly, veterans’ readjustment was made the subject of private and government-sponsored research. One of the earlier studies, published in 1979 by the Center for Policy Research, found that 40 percent of all Vietnam vets suffered some sort of emotional distress and that 75 percent struggled with recurrent nightmares and marital and job problems. Other terms—“delayed stress syndrome,” “posttraumatic neurosis,” and “traumatic war neurosis,” to name a few—began to supplant PVS in both professional and public literature. The inevitabledisintegration of the fragile public consensus about the war’s effects on its soldiers hinted at a new stage in America’s negotiations with its memories of the war. When Jan Scruggs launched his campaign for a Vietnam veterans’ war memorial in the nation’s capital in the spring of 1979, a good deal more was at stake than the eventual building of a monument. After six years of repressing the experiences of the Vietnam War, America began to face the public and private wounds that still cried out for healing.
In professional medical circles an accepted term of psychiatric reference for these postwar behavior disorders was established in 1980 with the publication of the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , known as DSM-III for short. Having based their work for the past decade upon outmoded diagnostic guidance within a highly charged social atmosphere, analysts, clinicians, and psychological self-help groups could now turn to DSM-III ’s new definition of posttraumatic stress disorder.