Post-Traumatic Whiteness: How Vietnam Veterans Became the Basis for a New White Identity Politics




IN MARCH 1982, after months of heated negotiations among veterans groups, officials, and donors, a construction crew broke ground on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The sloping black granite walls may never have been built if not for the deft politicking of Jack Wheeler, the chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund responsible for planning and financing the memorial. Wheeler, a well-connected white West Point graduate, found that he could unite critics from the left and the right by separating the service and sacrifice of vets from the divisive politics of the war. He turned the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into a monument to the trauma suffered by American men who, dead or alive, never received the homecoming they deserved. “The Vietnam veteran was the nigger of the 1970s,” Wheeler wrote, in 1984, describing the motivation behind the memorial. “You create a nigger by depriving a person of part of his or her personhood. Ignoring that person or inflicting traumatic hurts is the traditional way to treat a nigger.” Suggesting that the neglected veteran must be a white man, Wheeler added that, before the mistreatment of the Vietnam vet in the 1970s, “woman was the nigger of the 1960s” and “the black was the nigger of the 1950s.” The civil rights and feminist movements had overcorrected, he contended, transforming the most deserving among us — white war heroes — into a subordinate social class. White men suffered “traumatic hurts” as well, and that hurt was embodied by the veteran’s war wounds.

Wheeler, a conservative who later served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, marshaled liberal ideas about trauma and representation to remake whiteness for a multicultural age. Emerging from the civil rights era but containing its more radical dreams, liberal multiculturalism traded material redistribution for cultural representation. Universities promoted and taught plural histories of the United States, adding new, but rarely well-funded, programs in Asian American studies, Latina/o studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Syllabi became more diverse as structural inequalities persisted. Late-20th-century multiculturalism encouraged the recognition of subnational communities and the historical traumas they had endured and to which they bore witness. Trauma became a central part of how Americans of different racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual backgrounds and identities asserted their cultural inheritance and their place in a diverse nation. But the discourse of trauma and the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder were bound to the memory of the Vietnam War and the soldiers who served in Southeast Asia. The idea of group-based or collective trauma, which gave rise to the liberal-multicultural ethic of “achieving representation,” was modeled on the push by mental-health professionals in the 1970s to acknowledge the struggles of Vietnam vets. The American Psychological Association added PTSD to the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 as an anxiety disorder that entailed “reexperiencing the traumatic event” and “numbing of responsiveness to, or reduced involvement with, the external world.” That diagnosis was based on the experience of white vets whose psychic injuries offered white men like Wheeler a way to leverage their own identity politics against demands for racial, gender, and sexual equality.

From the Vietnam War to the Trump era, the combat veteran has emerged as the protagonist of a new white racial politics. Although a disproportionate number of working-class black, Latino, and American Indian soldiers served in Southeast Asia, most American novels and films about the war tell the story of white men who undergo a process of alienation, traumatization, and self-reckoning in Vietnam. Think, for example, of the fiction of Tim O’Brien or Oliver Stone’s Best Picture–winning Platoon (1986). The whitening of the war in American culture has allowed white men, whether they served in Southeast Asia or not, to talk about their whiteness by talking about veterans. It is easier to argue for vets than to argue against affirmative-action policies and the rights of black and brown people. It is easier to argue for veteran America than white America.

When president Donald Trump condemned NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, he pitted their protests of racial violence and police brutality against the physical injuries of young vets. When asked about his response to the protests at a Rose Garden press conference, the president told a story about visiting Walter Reed Hospital. “I saw so many great young people, and they’re missing legs and they’re missing arms. And they’ve been so badly injured,” he said. “They were fighting for our flag. They were fighting for our national anthem. And for people to disrespect that by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem I think is disgraceful.” Trump, who received four student deferments between 1964 and 1968 and a 1-Y medical deferment for bone spurs in his heel after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, called upon the moral authority of the wounded warrior to disqualify accusations of racism against the legal-justice system and his own administration. He argued that he was not targeting black athletes but defending forgotten veterans.

The cultural history of post-traumatic stress offers insight into how we arrived at this moment, 50 years after from the civil rights movement, when white men can imagine themselves as minoritized yet not racialized, white yet race-neutral. It suggests how white men have used veterans to straddle the divide between neglected outsider (wounded warrior) and national norm (war hero). From liberal psychiatrists’ writing on “post-Vietnam syndrome” to the conservative POW/MIA movement to rescue long-dead white airmen from incarceration in Southeast Asia, the traumatized vet has bridged the racial politics of liberal multiculturalism and conservative color blindness and tied Americanness to an aggrieved whiteness.

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In the fall of 1970, Robert Jay Lifton, a liberal professor of psychiatry at Yale University, received a letter from Jan Crumb, a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Crumb invited him to New York to meet with some of the vets. His letter described “the severe psychological problems of many Vietnam veterans because of their experiences” and attributed them to “the military policy of the war which results in war crimes and veterans’ nightmares.” Lifton, who had condemned the war in a congressional hearing earlier that year, was intrigued because the VVAW, though small in number, had made headlines for uniting vets against the war in which they themselves had fought. As Hunter S. Thompson observed at the time, “There is no anti-war or even anti-establishment group in America today with the psychic leverage of the VVAW.” The antiwar vets attested to the visible and invisible wounds of a war escalated and sustained by their own government.

Lifton took the train from New Haven to midtown Manhattan, where he met with 12 white veterans with beards, long hair, and a wariness about sharing their feelings with an elite-university “headshrinker.” Chaim Shatan, a New York University clinician, teamed with Lifton in leading the first meeting. The men crammed into a small room on Fifth Avenue, where, after some hesitation, they began sharing stories about what they had seen and done in Southeast Asia and their struggles to find meaning in their lives since returning home. The “rap group,” as they called it, became a cornerstone of the national VVAW. Lifton and Shatan, who became fast friends and allies, met with the antiwar vets once a week, sometimes for hours at a time. The two men referred to themselves as “professionals” rather than “therapists.” The veterans called them “shrinks.” Lifton and Shatan had stumbled into what they believed to be a new, non-hierarchical treatment model. Lifton declared it “street-corner psychiatry.” The vets called it “rapping.”

Shatan brought wide attention to his and Lifton’s work with a New York Times editorial titled “Post-Vietnam Syndrome.” It established a framework for what years later would be institutionalized as post-traumatic stress disorder. Shatan told of a white ex-marine named Steve who could not walk through his Manhattan neighborhood without scanning the sidewalk for “hostiles.” Steve suffered from alternating bouts of guilt and rage. He felt abandoned by his government and alienated from the humdrum of civilian life. Steve could not move on from the war. It haunted him years after his tour had ended. “The post-Vietnam syndrome confronts us with the unconsummated grief of soldiers — ‘impacted grief’ in which an encapsulated, never-ending past deprives the present of meaning,” Shatan wrote, assailing the Veterans Administration for not providing treatment to vets like Steve because their disturbances did not occur until well after they had returned from Southeast Asia.

The VVAW was dominated by white men, but Lifton and Shatan were for the most part silent on the racial politics of Vietnam and a draft that had put a disproportionate number of black, Latino, and American Indian men in the line of fire. Lifton detailed his and Shatan’s rap groups in Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners (1973), a book that earned him a National Book Award nomination. Home from the War built on his earlier work with survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Lifton reasoned that the white Vietnam vets he interviewed, like the civilians of Hiroshima, were neither victims nor executioners but survivors. The veterans, even those who had committed atrocities, had undergone the same existential transformation as survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. The latter had suffered “a vast breakdown of faith in the larger human matrix supporting each individual life, and therefore a loss of faith (or trust) in the structure of existence.” Lifton believed that his veteran-patients had lost that faith, too. The national stories that had once given their lives meaning had come apart in Vietnam. From the Hiroshima blast radius to the Fifth Avenue office of the VVAW, he saw the survivor as the defining figure of the extreme times in which he was living.

Far from an outlier, the antiwar vet functioned, for Lifton, as a window onto the soul of post–civil rights America. Lifton had studied under the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who coined the term identity crisis in his 1950 book Childhood and Society and, some have argued, “invented” modern identity by redefining it as the psychopolitical category we know it as today. Erikson’s influence shows in Lifton’s account of the Vietnam vet as having suffered a severe dislocation that reflected a national culture that had been transformed by struggles for civil rights and women’s and gay liberation. The country was undergoing its own identity crisis as the dominance of whiteness, masculinity, and heterosexuality came under attack. Lifton treated the white vet as the embodiment of that national identity crisis. All Americans, he argued, felt a sense of existential loss, and the traumatized vet testified to that disintegration. His marginal status reinforced rather than undercut his Americanness. He testified to a broader sense of disillusionment with the national ideals on which he was raised, among veterans but also non-veteran Americans. Amid calls for black, brown, and yellow power and women’s and gay liberation, Lifton and Shatan set the white male veteran at the center of a new group-based politics of trauma and identity.

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The publication of Home from the War in 1973 coincided with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the return of 591 prisoners of war to the United States. The freed prisoners arrived to an orchestrated media event that the military dubbed Operation Homecoming, with cameras ready to capture devoted wives leaping into the arms of their uniformed husbands. Lifton fired off an editorial warning against foisting the “hero’s mantle” on these men. “A long and degrading war has made Americans desperate for heroes,” he wrote, but “we would better serve returning prisoners, and other Vietnam veterans as well, with attitudes of openness, truthfulness and recognition of the extent to which all Americans fighting in this war have been victimized no less than their assigned enemies.” Lifton could see that heroizing the prisoners could distract Americans from the war itself and the decisions that had led to it. But he did not, it seems, recognize that his new book also contributed to the sanctification of the prisoner of war, who became an icon in Hollywood films and right-wing political culture.

Like Lifton and Shatan’s rap groups, Operation Homecoming was for the most part a white affair. Congressman Charles Rangel delivered a statement before the House Subcommittee on National Security Policy on the unmistakable whiteness of the returning prisoners. Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, had watched the men’s arrival on television and could not see more than one or two black faces. “I have been struck by the fact that the overwhelming majority of these returning prisoners are officers and that an even greater majority are white,” he told the committee, reminding them of the overrepresentation of working-class black soldiers on the front lines. “You will recall, I am sure, the protest which arose from the black community over blacks having to fight and die in disproportionate numbers for a society which refuses to give them the full respect and opportunity here at home.”

Rangel was right about the narrow demographic of the homecoming event. The returning prisoners, who became enduring icons of the war in American culture, did not reflect the working-class, multiracial armed forces that fought in Southeast Asia. Most of the prisoners were airmen who had been shot down over North Vietnam before 1968, the year president Lyndon Johnson declared an official halt on the bombing of the country. Eighty-four percent of freed prisoners belonged to the Air Force. Eighty-eight percent were officers. Most held college degrees. All were men. And an estimated 95 percent were white. Not a single one of those 591 prisoners had been drafted. In a war fought by the nation’s diverse working classes, the cultural dominance of the prisoner “left behind” in Southeast Asia reorganized the memory of the war around a group of older white officers who returned to wives, children, and well-established military careers.

Yet, more than the men who returned in 1973, it was the prisoners who never came back who most shaped the cultural and political legacies of the war. The POW/MIA myth transcended the actual men alleged to be held in Southeast Asia and acted as an organizing framework for a new politics of white trauma in the late 20th century. Faced with the erosion of real wages, a decline in domestic manufacturing, attacks on organized labor, the gradual hollowing out of welfare services, and emerging automation technologies, a large number of working-class white men found themselves worse off than their fathers who had achieved middle-class comforts a generation earlier. Stories of white men abandoned by their government in Southeast Asia resonated with those men who felt left behind by the economic changes of the 1970s. The prisoner of war became the hero of an emerging white racial politics through which white men could see themselves as deserted by their government and marginalized in a multiracial national culture.

The prisoners who did return as part of Operation Homecoming were cast as icons of white nostalgia for a “more innocent,” pre–civil rights era. Stefan Kanfer, writing in Time magazine, described the freed POWs as “a new breed of Van Winkle, blinking at a world that can hardly believe how profoundly it has changed.” He imagined that these men, most of whom had been held in Southeast Asia for five or more years, must have been shocked to see groups congregating in the streets to raise “the perennial banners of militancy, each inscribed with the device, Liberation” over which “are the words Gay, Black, Women’s, Chicano and People’s.” Like other writers in the 1970s, Kanfer used the POW as a narrative device for measuring the changes that the country had undergone during the war, most of which he coded as chaos wrought by liberated women and radical Americans of color. The story of the white prisoner of war situated him not only as innocent of the turmoil of the late 1960s but also as traumatized by it. The wounded warrior, whether the antiwar vet of Lifton and Shatan’s rap groups or the abandoned POW of right-wing political culture, allowed white men to see themselves as victims of, but also situate themselves within, the trauma-minded multiculturalism of the post–civil rights era. And that is the era in which we are still living.

After becoming the de facto Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump received an invitation to address the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington, DC, the largest POW/MIA event of the year, where he told an excited crowd that he would “rebuild our military” and “take care of our veterans” who “have been treated so badly in this country.” Journalists were shocked that Trump, who had dodged the draft in the 1960s and made headlines for ridiculing senator and former prisoner of war John McCain’s military service, could be so well received at a POW/MIA rally. But the POW/MIA myth has not been about POWs or MIAs for a long time. It is about whiteness. It is about how war trauma has been used to cast white men as minoritized underdogs in an age of multiculturalism. They, too, Trump declared that day, “have been treated so badly in this country.” They, too, had suffered traumatic hurts. The wounded warrior has given civilian white elites like Trump a cultural vehicle for lamenting the browning of the United States by defending the flag and the anthem, with or without the consent of veterans. But the 45th president was not the first to conflate war trauma with white grievance. That began decades earlier when liberal psychiatrists and conservative activists converged in remaking whiteness in the name of veteran America, when the left and the right aligned in reimagining whiteness as a post-traumatic condition. It is time we decouple struggles for veterans services from efforts to return the United States to the white nation it never was.

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A further discussion of veterans and white racial politics since the Vietnam War is forthcoming in Critical Inquiry.

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Joseph Darda is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University.


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