Why I Live Beyond
the DisUnited States of
The philosophical psychiatrist, R D Laing, was endowed with immense courage, vision and vigour, and by reason of his unique skills made valuable contributions to psychiatry and caused to come to be events which startled and disrupted long-established analysts of the mind. Laing was a member of that mental health infantry squadron carrying out a mission meant to clear the way for the main body of troops. His insights into schizophrenia, the world’s most debilitating mental disease, will never be forgotten.
Like many illustrious warriors favoured with superhuman eminence, Laing’s first jumps, off the high board into the murky pools of the unconscious, neurosis and psychosis, were belly flops. Heroic in nature, Laing did not return home from battle after his preliminary overthrows. He climbed up far above the ground again, lunged, cut through gloomy waters, and touched bottom where he scraped his skin and bruised his bones yet more. He went back again and again and again and persevered, until his death, searching for something new in the treatment of mental patients.
From page 102 to 104 in Self and Others, Laing’s masterpiece, he talks about a little boy of five who runs to his mother holding a big fat worm in his hand, and says, “Mommy, look what a big fat worm I have got.” She says, “You are filthy—away and clean yourself immediately.”
The mother’s response to the boy is an example of what Ruesch (1958) has called a “tangential response.” In terms of the boy’s feeling, the mother’s response is at a tangent. She does not say, “Oh, yes, what a lovely worm.” She does not say, “What a filthy worm—you mustn’t touch worms like that; throw it away.” In this response there is a failure to endorse what the boy is doing. A state of transitory confusion, anxiety or guilt might be generated in him.
Bateson, Jackson, Haley and Weakland in their article, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” Behavioural Science (1956), discuss this condition and term it the “double-bind” pattern. According to the authors, the likelihood of such a configuration exists when these six elements are present: two or more persons; repeated experience of the state of affairs; a primary negative injunction: “Do not do this. I will punish you if you do;” a secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and like the first, enforced by punishment or signals which threaten survival: a negative gesture, a tone of voice, a posture, etc; a tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping from the field: false promises of devotion, affection or love; and, the absence of these constituents when the victim learns that his or her universe is composed of, essentially, double-bind patterns.
The victims, in this scenario, are caught in a mesh of contradiction between two conclusions and they cannot decide how to act or react rationally. He or she cannot make a sane choice. The prey is deceived and, to survive, must mislead others to protect himself or herself. They learn to reject what is genuine, and lay blame on what is unreal or real ridiculing as immature what might in fact be responsible. Persons trapped in this double-bind pattern cannot establish a sensation of genuineness with another human being.
When I pranced home from Vietnam in August 1968, I began to enjoy one of the most beautiful times of my life: I had made it home successfully--alive! I was in one piece and had not been seriously wounded or maimed! I had read seventy-two books in Vietnam where I had not wasted one moment! Vietnam had not brought me to the nightmares of mental instability, and if people want to say I am “crazy” nonetheless, I tell them I was the way I am long before my tour in Southeast Asia! Good comes from Bad; Bad comes from Good. Perhaps the most fortuitous souvenir—what I cherish the most—that I hold from the horrible twelve months I passed in the Central Highlands with the Snowflake Division near the Cambodian and Laotian borders (Pleiku, Kontum and Dak To), and in the Chu Lai and My Lai locales of the Americal’s area of operations, is this: My life had been threatened so many times that when I came back to New York and set off to unwind so as to become a normal person all over again, I was so exultant that the tension of combat had been eliminated, I stayed in a secret state of euphoria for months. And from that day, I have valued my life the more—certainly much more because it had been put in jeopardy by elements beyond the expectations of my own wishes.
There were a couple of “Welcome Home from the War” gestures from relatives and friends, and I’ll never forget the doorman at the Essex House who greeted me with a “Welcome home, Lieutenant,” gave me my room number, saluted me, and pointed the way to where I found a complimentary bottle of champagne and a bowl of fruit. After a pair of weeks passed by, I “escaped” to Florida. I had to get out of New York and I followed my plan, formulated in Vietnam, to do so. I did not really comprehend at that time why I had to break away from my much-loved New York. I would understand later on.
It did not take me long to gather that I had achieved the status of having a new unsavoury reputation: Vietnam Veteran. In fact, my relatives were the first to hint to me that my service to my country was of dubious make-up. I was told, flat out: “The Army screwed you, you should screw the Army!” I was dumbfounded when it was suggested that I fake back pain, go to a VA hospital, and obtain a lifelong disability check! I think it was this mind-set which instigated in me the predisposition to reflect at that time upon the level-headedness of the United States of America—and quite seriously so. I had to know why my fellow countrymen and women thought they deserved to have their cake and eat it, too! And I wanted to know why I was being wedged into a double bind state of being.
Outside of closed social circles, Vietnam was not a subject habitually broached with Vietnam veterans, accordingly I had to rummage around the mass media and, in particular, political journals and other outlets of enlightenment which replicated the thoughts of my confreres. I speculated that, in the 1960s and 1970s, about sixty percent of my fellows disapproved of what I represented because I “killed babies,” and forty percent approved of me for doing so. An outlandish emotional rift.
The fact of the matter is that I did not kill in Vietnam. I state this unequivocally and to the best of my knowledge. I soldiered as an artillery 1193 and even though defective projectiles and inaccurate maps frequently complicated, to an inordinate degree, our missions as I “humped” with the grunts on the battlefield, I, personally, cannot refer to an incident in which I was involved killing people with artillery or any other armament. I heard that one erratic artillery shell had slayed nine American soldiers because the Fire Direction Officer had confused an “8” with a “3;” moreover, on my first day out to the field in close proximity to the Fourth Division Base Camp, we were “attacked” by a volley of our own 155mm rounds which set our company into such a state of terror and turmoil that, to my utter amazement, it caused one grunt to fall to the ground—in the foetal position, his M-16discarded—praying with rosary beads wrapped through his fingers. What had I done to merit this lunacy?
The folly did not terminate there for me. Years later I would hear on CNN that during the Vietnam “War” an almost 70% of United States’ military personnel were killed or maimed in Vietnam by mines, and that 90% of these armaments were US military ordnance! And I can believe it. Whenever I was transferred to a different artillery unit, I came into the red leg fold asking: “What’s the dud rate here?” 30%? 40%? 50%? It is certainly true that exceptional meteorological “tricky situations” compromised the accuracy of our FDC calculations, yet no one can deny that the haste—it makes waste—to join in on the economic boom (remember the 1962 recession?) which exemplified the Vietnam “War,” caused projectiles to be manufactured with substandard worth. When these rounds were converted into booby traps by our clever enemy, the results could be sordid. As an artillery battalion liaison officer flying with the battalion CO in his C&C Huey, we often swooped down to a grunt broken into pieces by a booby trap, and then MEDIVACed him to the nearest field hospital where maintenance crews hosed off the blood on the helicopter’s floor before we were able to return for more.
The My Lai area was notorious for the percentage of booby traps it secreted. Imagine. You are marching with your buddy through rice paddies when, in a flash, you see him go flying with members of his body slashed or gone astray. You can’t find a way to embrace a fond affection for the Vietnam people; and, you have to be a finicky person not to want to seek out a vendetta. Nineteen-year-olds cannot be depended upon to discriminate judiciously especially when under pressure. (I was a university graduate, with a degree in philosophy, and it was hard enough for me to weigh up at times these niceties, but not even a ten-star general could have ordered me to kill women and children and old folk—even in a ditch.) I have no condolences for Lieutenant Calley because all of us—arriving in-country—read and signed that we read the Geneva Convention and division memos instructing us how to treat prisoners of war and Vietnamese nationals. The United States’ government and the United States Army commanded us to behave in one way (CYA: Cover Your Ass!), and when we did not, they turned their backs on what was dishonourable and not above-board making out of the Vietnam conflict something that it unquestionably was not: a righteous initiative, one to be satisfied about supporting. A double bind state of mind?
For the Vietnam veteran this forked tonguing was remarkably crass when he or she returned home to the United States. They knew very well the shenanigans that had gone on in Vietnam, and to be thought of as a loser in a war which Americans did not cheer on but made profit of by benefiting from the business enveloping it, was truly more than a let-down. Some veterans could not bear the rebuff that awaited them and they blew away their minds and bodies, or their schizoid fellow citizens, in tragic acts of violence. The history of the Vietnam veteran is well-documented, but I have never seen price estimates for the heart-rending damage he or she caused not only for themselves, but also for the victims of their post-war violence—the divorces they were involved in, the crimes they were sent to prison for, the alcohol and drug abuse their family members suffered with them, and so many other dynamics which enter into the fiscal tabulation of this national calamity. And make no mistake about it, the Vietnam veteran might be loaded down with diagnostic lingo and syndromes and other descriptions of maladaptive behaviour, but no one will ever consider as being mentally unbalanced those who sent him off to that insane police action that did the United States of America more harm than benefit.
When I left the United States for good in 1975, I knew it was on a catastrophic course. I had not the words to say what I wanted to explain. I had to test my premonitions and had to contrast them with the viewpoints of others who were not Americans. I grasped that the United States was ripped in two, although I never then imagined that it would continue to cultivate a “split personality” which would advance it to continually enlarge the chasm that polarized it further and further. Today we have Red States and Blue States, and no one has thought to mix red and blue together to get violet—the colour of wretchedness and introversion. Americans are fighting to be happy and they are so desperate to be so they will even laugh, with a knee-jerk, at the overworked jokes of a David Letterman.
The United States learned not much from Vietnam except how to make sure that the atrocious errors, embarrassing for them, they committed there would not be duplicated in future hostilities. That is why the US Army is a voluntary organization today! It is more martial than it ever was. Its regime is wielded throughout the globe with fear and not the yearning to be respected. (The Americans are a wonderful people—if they aren’t bombing you!) The Yankee is not regarded even as a benevolent dictator, and he is truly hated when his barter ($$$) stops circulating. It does not flabbergast me one iota that Gore Vidal, or anyone else for that matter, could conceive of a book entitled The Decline and Fall of the American Empire. The United States of America is sliding down The Tubes. Northamericans, out of despondency, have become awful losers yet they persist in alleging that they are redoubtable winners. Just another double bind stance—one they are very much accustomed to.
I don’t want to be with a failure—especially one that does not have the courage to penetrate its own limitations. Old Glory is hemmed in. As the years pass, it will draw more and more into itself. The United States is in a pitiable state and has not the expertise to release itself from its own desolation. I want to be happy; I do not want to live with a nation pretending to be so. I refuse to live in the United States of America the more because it did not afford me the chance to become a hero for it when I served it in Vietnam. I feel that I was betrayed. How could I ever stand up erect at a baseball or football game and sing with others “The Star-Spangled Banner?” I would have to wait outside. I can only wish the United States of America a hearty “Good Luck.” It’s going to need it. And I ask the United States of America only one thing: that the renunciation of my citizenship, sitting on the desk of the consulate general in Florence, Italy since 1994, be approved by the Department of State immediately.
Authored by Anthony St. John