war trauma and authoritarianism

Last night PBS, which I normally detest as it is for the most part publically-funded elite propaganda, aired a well-done, provacative show which featured interviews with people in various positions vis-a-vis the Vietnam War. It was an “American Experience” special called “Vietnam: A television history” (see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/).

I was shocked that that kind of quality work could come out of mainstream media. I thought the Republicans had wholly ruined PBS along with NPR. But apparently recent events have forced some upper working class people (professionals, like communication professionals) to differentiate working class interests from the hegemonic neoconservative articulation of elite interests. The lesson is that upper working class people will not be such good sell-outs and yes-men when the elites pull neoconservatism on them.

Here are the seven groups that featured in interviews:

(1) The capitalist (financial, political, and military) elites who designed and implemented the US invasion of Vietnam in order to promote their control of the Asian economic-political system via opium, heroin, and oil traffic (see the excellent history by Scott, Peter Dale. 2005. “Drugs and oil: The deep politics of U.S. Asian wars.” Pp. 171-198 in War and State Terrorism, edited by M. Selden and A.Y. So. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield).
(2) Working class American men who worked and died as soldiers in Vietnam; and one American sister of a soldier.
(3) Vietnamese men who worked as soldiers in Vietnam.
(4) Upper working class students and academic workers who struggled collectively in the U.S. to end the war in Vietnam.
(5) Liberal elite university administrators who disagreed with pro-war elites, but invited the police to repress the students.
(6) Working class police who fought to silence the students.
(7) The communication professionals (media), who presented to the public pro-war elite propaganda, including lies about the outcome of military clashes and lies about protest in the U.S.

There are some startling dynamics among these groups that I think must be discussed. I address here the dynamics between soldiers and other working class people.

While the working class American men who worked as soldiers in Vietnam were surprised to find that the elites running the war were willing to send soldiers off to be killed for unclear reasons, the soldiers had limited exposure to those elites, and reserved their most virulent hatred for the working class people around them who did not get sent to war and instead struggled to end the war from within the U.S. In fact, decades later, both police and soldiers expressed the desire to be able to kill the non-militarized Americans who did not support war.

This is surprising because elites’ wars, prosecuted without concern for working class lives, often need to be preempted or stopped by the struggle of working class people. If they don’t struggle with authorities and elites to protect the worth and quality of their lives, working class people will be used as a huge supply of not just labor power, but cannon fodder. When I say this, I mean this is true for all working class people, including “middle” class workers. When all is said and done, under capitalism, elites can’t see working class people as anything other than commodities, tools, resources; and working class lives and quality of life are not going to be taken into decision-making consideration without working class people struggling to put their own interests on the table.

The reason for the direction of the soldiers’ hatred, one of the ex-soldiers explained, is that he cannot agree that Vietnam was was not a war for American “freedom” (in other words, an ill-defined, sublime good); he would not be able, psychologically, to accept the idea that his soldier friends died horribly for no sublime cause. He clung to the idea that war is fought for “freedom” and he hated anyone who would say that the war was prosecuted for the machiavellian advantages of elites.

I suspect a bolstering reason why soldiers direct their hatred at their non-soldier fellow workingclass men and women:

Soldiers and police are heavily trained to regard non-militarized non-elites as subhuman. This is pure authoritarian training. Not only designated “enemies” are dehumanized, but working class people who are not militarized are dehumanized through military training, and daily military discourse and socialization. The authoritarian military training is: The proof of humanity is to act as an efficient tool for authority, and, later, to experience trauma doing so.

There is a consensus that non-military working class people did not psychologically support returning militarized working class people after the Vietnam War, but I can see there being difficulty there, because militarized people are so thoroughly trained to regard and treat their non-militarized peers as subhuman. They can’t engage with them substantively. It would be very hard indeed for these groups of people to connect, as war trauma would further cement the ex-soldiers’ authoritarian training and alienate working class men and women from each other.

In a way, it is maybe useful to think of many of the men who return from war as angry ghosts, carrying on their backs the angry ghosts of their friends who died before the war could be ended. They can only demand the silent attention of those who did not endure their trauma, the “living” who must, in the soldiers’ view, only listen passively to the soldiers’ experiential trauma, the story of cruel death. Ghosts are blind and deaf to the experience and struggles of “the living,” and cannot see that the living do care and try to stop more working class people from being sent to cruel deaths. Soldiers see that anti-war struggle as self-interested, since it stems the tide of war and does not benefit their already-fallen comrades. By contrast, true altruism, in their haunted minds, is single-minded loyalty to dead soldiers. Justice, for the ex-soldier/ghost, inheres in the continual, horrific sacrifice of working class lives. I think that this is akin to the psychology of the genocide survivor who feels it unjust that she lives while her family and friends were killed. Justice becomes obliteration.

As a working class person who tries to end the elites’ war, it is maybe wisest to resign yourself to the fact that if you succeed, after war, you will have a population of angry ghosts living amongst you. It is the working class that is haunted by war. Elites live blithely.

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