Here’s a statistic: upwards of 60,000 Vietnam veterans are believed to have killed themselves since the end of the war. That’s more than the number of Americans who died in the war—think of the size of Maya Lin’s memorial, then double it, and you’ll have an idea of what it means.
But then, that number—taken from Marilyn Young’s 1991 book The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990, and repeated elsewhere (including a New York Times story published in 1981, just six years after the end of American involvement)—is unconfirmed, and possibly quite low. There are no official numbers, and the number of veteran suicides, like all things related to the Vietnam War, is a point of contention. According to a 2003 article in the Telegraph (UK), the American organization Veterans of Foreign Wars estimates 180,000 veteran suicides. The online group Suicide Wall, dedicated to erecting an additional Vietnam memorial to veteran suicides, prefers the figure 150,000, cited in the book Nam Vet. Another website, which approvingly cites General William Westmoreland and Richard Nixon as sources for its facts, quotes a study indicating that 9,000 veterans have committed suicide since the end of the war.
One could go on, trolling medical journals and veterans’ reports for numbers, without coming to a conclusion, except that the “numbers game” is an appalling one to play. Still, everyone appears to be playing it except the agency that matters, the United States government. Vietnam veteran suicide has long been a taboo topic for the federal government, one of many regarding a war whose baleful influence on the military establishment (known as “Vietnam syndrome”) it hated, and whose persistence in the minds of devastated citizens it deemed a nuisance. Thus many official articles show all the signs of the problem, without drawing the obvious conclusions. A 1996 article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine comparing the deaths of Vietnam veterans to those of non-Vietnam vets concludes that there is an “excess of external causes” in Vietnam veteran deaths, compared to veterans of other wars, including “motor vehicle accidents,” “accidental poisonings,” and “homicides.”
Except for the startling, moving Lin memorial, the official policy of the US appears to be the annihilation of public remembrance of the war. One way this has been accomplished has been the vigorous pursuit of other wars. “It’s time we moved on, in unity and resolve,” Ronald Reagan said, at the 1984 dedication of the memorial. Thus, under his administration, the spectacular invasion of Grenada and the vicious proxy wars in Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. By Veterans’ Day in 1988, Reagan—again speaking at the memorial—felt comfortable declaring that the soldiers of Vietnam “ennobled the nation as they became champions of a noble cause.” Reagan went on, “I’m not speaking provocatively here . . . who can doubt that the cause was just?”
And then again, after the perceived success of Operation Desert Storm, George H. W. Bush exulted, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” Subsequent American military efforts in the Balkans seemed to confirm the sentiment. In 1995, in response to the opening of Vietnam to American capitalism, Thomas Friedman declared that, 29 years after Senator George Aiken declared a “phony” victory in Vietnam, we “truly” had a real one. “It’s time to bury the past,” he said, unmistakably triumphant.1
Between 2000 and 2006, the number of Vietnam veterans seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder doubled, reaching an all-time high of over 260,000. (2.15 million Americans went to Vietnam; 1.6 million were in combat.) The first spike in trauma reports came in 2003, at the start of the Iraq war, when images of combat began to arrive.
Veterans are not the only ones suffering flashbacks. In a way, it is a national condition, because of the way official discussion of the war has been abandoned and discouraged. The past isn’t buried; moving on is impossible.
Partly because soldiers in Iraq are overworked, serving two or three deployments before returning home, well over 50,000 Iraq veterans have already been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. 107 soldiers in the field have committed suicide. Two much-needed, long-overdue bills (H.R.327 and H.R. 2219) are making their way through Congress: one would create a comprehensive suicide prevention program through the Department of Veterans Affairs (it was introduced in response to an Iraq veteran’s suicide); one would create a 24-hour veterans suicide prevention hotline. We would all do well to support these bills through letter-writing and phone calls. Such bills are the result of the near absolute abandonment of Vietnam veterans, and the felt need to remedy the situation this time around.
Confronted with low poll numbers on the Iraq war, President Bush has called for “a national discussion” on the consequences of withdrawal. Presumably, this would be the discussion that his administration avoided in the lead-up to the invasion, just as the Johnson administration did over forty years ago.
But what exactly would a national discussion look like? The President, we can safely assume, means a “policy” discussion, conducted among “experts” whose job it is to hand down judgments and courses of action. The self-regarding discourse of expertise is largely to blame for the insistently vacuous talk about the Iraq war, in which the worst judgment leveled is that it’s a “foreign policy disaster.”
The Vietnam anti-war movement was a revolutionary attempt to create the conditions for an alternative kind of discussion, one that took place constantly among non-expert people, with everyday vigilance—the same kind of effort that produced the American constitution. It was an attempt to give a new meaning to “Vietnam”—to say the word, as John Kerry had hoped, and “not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped in the turning.” This turn never took place, unfortunately, and so the need and opportunity to make such a turn continues to arise, most recently with regard to Iraq. Once again duty requires us to organize ourselves, to form a “public” that makes demands and demands acknowledgment. Nothing would be more astonishing than to give the President the national discussion he calls for. It would be exactly what he never wanted—democracy—and the surest sign of our moving on from Vietnam, “in unity and resolve.”