FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

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.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
August 26, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Louisa Willcox
The Unbearable Killing of Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: 2015 Shatters Records for Bear Deaths
Paul Buhle
In the Shadow of the CIA: Liberalism’s Big Embarrassing Moment
Rob Urie
Crisis and Opportunity
Charles Pierson
Wedding Crashers Who Kill
Richard Moser
What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?
Dirk Bezemer – Michael Hudson
Finance is Not the Economy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Bernie’s Used Cars
Margaret Kimberley
Hillary and Colin: the War Criminal Charade
Patrick Cockburn
Turkey’s Foray into Syria: a Gamble in a Very Dangerous Game
Ishmael Reed
Birther Tries to Flim Flam Blacks  
Brian Terrell
What Makes a Hate Group?
Andrew Levine
How Donald Trump Can Still be a Hero: Force the Guardians of the Duopoly to Open Up the Debates
Howard Lisnoff
Trouble in Political Paradise
Terry Tempest Williams
Will Our National Parks Survive the Next 100 Years?
Ben Debney
The Swimsuit that Overthrew the State
Ashley Smith
Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution
Andrew Stewart
Did Gore Throw the 2000 Election?
Vincent Navarro
Is the Nation State and Its Welfare State Dead? a Critique of Varoufakis
John Wight
Syria’s Kurds and the Wages of Treachery
Lawrence Davidson
The New Anti-Semitism: the Case of Joy Karega
Mateo Pimentel
The Affordable Care Act: A Litmus Test for American Capitalism?
Roger Annis
In Northern Syria, Turkey Opens New Front in its War Against the Kurds
David Swanson
ABC Shifts Blame from US Wars to Doctors Without Borders
Norman Pollack
American Exceptionalism: A Pernicious Doctrine
Ralph Nader
Readers Think, Thinkers Read
Julia Morris
The Mythologies of the Nauruan Refugee Nation
George Wuerthner
Caving to Ranchers: the Misguided Decision to Kill the Profanity Wolf Pack
Ann Garrison
Unworthy Victims: Houthis and Hutus
Julian Vigo
Britain’s Slavery Legacy
John Stanton
Brzezinski Vision for a Power Sharing World Stymied by Ignorant Americans Leaders, Citizens
Philip Doe
Colorado: 300 Days of Sunshine Annually, Yet There’s No Sunny Side of the Street
Joseph White
Homage to EP Thompson
Dan Bacher
The Big Corporate Money Behind Jerry Brown
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
DNC Playing Dirty Tricks on WikiLeaks
Ron Jacobs
Education for Liberation
Jim Smith
Socialism Revived: In Spite of Bernie, Donald and Hillary
David Macaray
Organized Labor’s Inferiority Complex
David Cortright
Alternatives to Military Intervention in Syria
Binoy Kampmark
The Terrors of Free Speech: Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act
Cesar Chelala
Guantánamo’s Quagmire
Nyla Ali Khan
Hoping Against Hope in Kashmir
William Hughes
From Sam Spade to the Red Scare: Dashiell Hammett’s War Against Rightwing Creeps
Raouf Halaby
Dear Barack Obama, Please Keep it at 3 for 3
Charles R. Larson
Review: Paulina Chiziane’s “The First Wife: a Tale of Polygamy”
David Yearsley
The Widow Bach: Anna Magdalena Rediscovered
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail