Skip to Main Content

The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): The Wounded Warrior as Mnemonic Figure

By Jerry Lembcke

The Wounded Worrior as Mnemonic Figure

The emotional amperage of prisoners abandoned and veterans rebuked is raised higher by images of veterans at home with unshakable trauma.  In their 2013 book Beyond Post-traumatic Stress: Homefront Struggles with The War on Terror, anthropologists Sarah Hautzinger and Jean Scandlyn write, “In most conversations where the topic of returning soldiers [comes up], PTSD is mentioned in the first few minutes.”  It is the imagery of psychological damage and emotional trauma that dominates the coming-home story of war veterans today, and makes the ongoing study and reappraisal of PTSD, not only as a diagnostic category but as a powerful cultural category, a high priority for academic scholars and teachers.  The centrality of Vietnam veterans to PTSD’s seminal moment when healthcare professionals debated its diagnostic value, and the controversies over its rise to prominence, are covered in Allan Young’s classic The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and reprised in Wilbur Scott’s Vietnam Veterans since the War: The Politics of PTSD, Agent Orange, and the National Memorial.

Traumatized and wounded veterans are powerful figures in American memories of the war.  Keith Beattie’s The Scar That Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War, Patrick Hagopian’s The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing, and Jerry Lembcke’s PTSD: Diagnosis and Identity in Post-Empire America top the list for acquisitions on this topic.  The study of PTSD, the concept, for its mnemonic value is enhanced by its comparison with the cultural properties of World War I era shell shock, making Anton Kaes’s Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War and Fiona Reid’s Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain, 1914-1930 helpful additions.  Editors Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner’s Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930, Ben Shephard’s A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century, and Michael Roth’s Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past broaden the studies of war trauma literature to other time periods and topics.  Some of the more recent works, like Daryl S. Paulson’s Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans, fold Vietnam veterans into studies that include veterans of more recent wars, thereby updating Vietnam-related subjects as well as showing their legacy for the present.

Victim-veterans also take form in the literature on Agent Orange, the defoliant containing the chemical compound dioxin that the US military sprayed liberally in South Vietnam.  The biological damage that Agent Orange caused to humans continues to be documented in Vietnam, but evidence that US soldiers were comparably injured is more elusive, a fact that invites probes into the political and cultural values that keep that story in the media spotlight.  Edwin Martini’s Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty is a state-of-the-art study on the full range of postwar controversies, including birth defects and legal accountability, that surround the effect of Agent Orange on humans.  With the rigorous argument and detailed documentation befitting graduate studies, Martini’s writing nevertheless keeps the material accessible to undergraduates.  Portions of Wilbur Scott’s Vietnam Veterans since the War: The Politics of PTSD are also useful, and Chris Arsenault’s Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange sheds light on the US military’s use of Canadian territory in the early 1960s to experiment with Agent Orange for combat use.

Works Cited