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PTSD and the Lore of Vietnam

Flashbacks, Fireworks—and Cars that Backfire?

by JERRY LEMBCKE

Public Radio International has been doing a series on war veterans with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For Its 4th of July edition this year, Marco Werman interviewed Hannah Allam, a national correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers who did tours in Iraq as a reporter. Allam told Werman that fireworks on the 4th “trigger all sorts of bad memories . . . “ You want to “hit the deck,” she told Werman, “because that’s what you’ve been taught.”

Allam’s story gave me flashbacks—not to Vietnam in 1969 but to an anti-war march in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1980s. The march was against U.S. intervention in Central America and I was in the lead contingent of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). We were just a few yards down State Street from the University campus when a group of fraternity boys threw firecrackers in front of us, hoping, we guessed, that we would embarrass ourselves by “hitting the deck.” None of us did.

I didn’t give the incident or the flashback phenomenon much thought until working on a book about claims that Vietnam veterans had been spat on by anti-war activists. Beyond the lack of evidence that the spitting incidents over occurred, I found it curious that so many people believed the stories when many of them contained implausible details that belie  their truth. Claims, for example, that spitting protesters met GIs deplaning at the San Francisco Airport could not have been true because those planes landed at military airbases.

The spitting stories sharpened my interest in flashbacks because many of the stories wove the two narratives together. And like with the accounts of spat-on veterans—that “everyone knows happened,” even though there is virtually no evidence that they did—the record of veterans “hitting the deck” when hearing firecrackers is thin at best. In teaching college classes on post-war culture, I’ve heard a dozen students recount stories of uncles or neighbors who hit the deck on the 4th of July, or when a beer glass drops in a bar. When asked, no students ever say they actually saw something like that and yet they all seem to “know it’s true.”

And, like many of the spitting stories, hit-the-deck stories have ancillary details that raise suspicion. One of my favorites is the veteran who hits the deck upon hearing a car backfire. I grew up in rural Iowa in the 1950s when gasoline engines were still evolving; the older models pre-dating World War II did, indeed, occasionally backfire. But when I read years later about backfiring cars causing Vietnam veterans to hit the deck, I wondered: really, in the 1970s or 1980s? Possible, I supposed, but pretty unlikely.

Like the “spitting hippy-chick” who supposedly met returnees from Vietnam at the San Francisco Airport, backfiring cars became a staple prop in the flashback stories; they were a kind of folklore, perhaps a form of urban legend. They represented an attempt to enhance the story, perhaps because the teller himself was less than confident in what he was telling. Like elements of exaggeration in stories always do, they made me wonder what else was wrong with story.

Many of the hit-the-deck stories combine firecrackers and backfiring cars so I should not have been
surprised that Allam’s would as well. Yet, this was a journalist interviewed by a journalist so I did not expect to hear Allam say that it wasn’t just fireworks that set off memories, but “cars backfiring . . .” Really, in 2003-05 when she says she made return trips to the States from assignments abroad? Why is this in her story? And why did PRI editors keep it in?  The issue isn’t so much the veracity of the claim but her resort to half-century-old imagery popularized in post-Vietnam War lore to make a point.

Allam’s follow-up that hitting the deck is “what you’ve been taught” is another reach for authenticity that doesn’t work—standard though such claims are in stories like these. As something taught (and learned), hitting the deck would have to be as much about muscle memory as anything else, an act repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times, and closely associated with sensory perceptions honed by repeated exposure to the relevant sights, sounds, and circumstances. None of that is possible, if for no other reasons than training routines not having time for that, and events in war being episodic with devices like the roadside bombs she references presenting situations that are nearly one-of-a-kind.

So what are we to make of Allam’s story and PRI’s willingness to air it on a day when listeners were especially impressionable to veterans’ stories and news on the well-being of Americans back from war?

In a 1994 article, psychiatrist Fred Frankel wrote that flashbacks are as likely to be the product of imagination as memory. The imagined experiences can be pure fantasies, thoughts inspired by the “war stories” of other veterans, or the story-lines created by novelists and screenwriters and then merged with memories of actual events. The claim of a flashback can credential for listeners the real-deal combat status of a veteran, and its resemblance to scenes made familiar through popular culture can enhance its authenticity.

Since the very notion of flashbacks germane to PTSD derives from the Vietnam War context, it makes sense that Werman introduced his interview with Allam with a reference to the 1989 film Born on the 4th of July about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. At a 4th of July parade in his honor, the Kovic character played by Tom Cruise, experiences what Werman calls “a traumatic flashback to the firefights he was part of in Vietnam.” “That’s the hard reality of PTSD,” intones Werman.

No, I thought, that’s Hollywood. And considerable though the reality of war and post-war adjustments   written into the film by Oliver Stone may have been, there is still the question of why Vietnam remains the reference point for making sense of American wars a half-century later, and why images like backfiring cars made iconic by raconteuring Vietnam veterans still work as story-telling devices today.

Like good radio journalism should, Werman’s interview with Allam raised important questions. Inadvertently, in this case, the questions raised are themselves as symptomatic of American culture as of the men and women home from its current wars—questions that might be as much about the unsettled memories of Vietnam as of the wars in  Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and  Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His next book PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? is is due out in January, 2014. He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.