Flashbacks, Fireworks—and Cars that Backfire?


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.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus 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 newest book is PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.

Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st Century
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
Rob Urie
Democrats, Neoliberalism and the TPP
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
The Bully Recalibrates: U.S. Signals Policy Shift in Syria
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
John Wight
No Moral High Ground for the West on Syria
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Ron Jacobs
The Murderer as American Hero
Alex Nunns
“A Movement Looking for a Home”: the Meaning of Jeremy Corbyn
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Xanthe Hall
Nuclear Madness: NATO’s WMD ‘Sharing’ Must End
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Uri Avnery
Abbas: the Leader Without Glory
Halima Hatimy
#BlackLivesMatter: Black Liberation or Black Liberal Distraction?
Michael Brenner
Kissinger Revisited
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Jason Cone
Even Wars Have Rules: a Fact Sheet on the Bombing of Kunduz Hospital
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Hadi Kobaysi
How The US Uses (Takfiri) Extremists
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Marc Norton
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
David Rosen
If Donald Dump Was President
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Ronald Bleier
Am I Drinking Enough Water? Sneezing’s A Clue
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
David Yearsley
Papal Pop and Circumstance
October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?