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U.S. book questions notion of tormented Vietnam vet

Author: Not Specified
Document Dated: November 11, 1997
Date Posted: November 19, 1997

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A soldier returns home from war convinced people are still trying to kill him. When night falls and his family goes to sleep, he takes a gun, crawls around in the dark and shoots at imaginary objects.

His story is typical of the psychological trauma that still afflicts many U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War decades after they left the battlefield -- except this particular soldier never served in Vietnam. He was a veteran of the American Civil War, which ended in 1865.

The account of his postwar distress is one of many in a new book, "Shook Over Hell" (Harvard University Press), that seeks to correct the notion that Vietnam was unprecedented for the number of psychological casualties it produced.

"My feeling is that the problems of the Vietnam vets were grossly exaggerated," author Eric Dean told Reuters in an interview. Dean, who got the title from a Civil War soldier's poignant description of a battle, said he was intrigued by the way books and films tend to glorify the U.S. war between the North and the South while portraying Vietnam as "tragic and unnecessary."

His conclusions are likely to spark an outcry from veterans groups and others, especially since Dean himself never served in the military. Now 41, he was old enough to qualify for the draft toward the end of the Vietnam War but says his number never came up.

ALL WARS ARE HELL "I don't want to underemphasize the difficulty of the experience," he said. "But objectively one has to reach the conclusion that the Vietnam War was not as terrible or as catastrophic as it has been portrayed."

Dean believes most people have a general impression of that war that is based more on popular psychology and media accounts than on history books.

Movies on the Civil War, he says, tend to focus on heroic commanders, while those on Vietnam deal with the torment of individual soldiers. A number of box office hits like "Taxi Driver" and "Rambo" have also used the Vietnam experience as the premise for their characters' crazed, homicidal behavior.

Dean said he wanted to put the psychological impact of Vietnam in a historic perspective. Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder became an accepted medical term in large part because of the experiences of Vietnam vets, Dean found evidence he believes shows that many more Civil War veterans actually suffered from the disorder.

A lawyer who began researching the Civil War while studying for a doctorate in history, Dean based much of his book on insane asylum records and federal pension documents. While he expected to find grisly battle descriptions, he was surprised to come across accounts of troubled homecomings, violence and lingering neuroses -- all reminiscent of the much more familiar stories of Vietnam vets.

A Southern soldier in the Confederate army described foraging for supplies and coming upon a house where the man was being drafted into military service, leaving behind a wife and five children, all under ten.

"Of course we took her food and horses and left her weeping over coming starvation," the soldier recalled.

DESPERATE LIVES Many men, haunted by such experiences, returned home to lives of depression, anxiety, crime or mental illness. After the Civil War, Dean found, two thirds of all commitments to state prisons were men who had served in the military.

The book argues that their plight was more difficult than that of soldiers returning from Vietnam, who had the benefit of a society more understanding of mental illness. Civil War veterans exhibiting aberrant behavior were often diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock or even sunstroke.

One avenue of research Dean did not explore was Vietnam vets themselves. He said he saw no need to interview the men who served in Vietnam because there has been so much research done on them already.

One big mystery is what made some soldiers better able to readjust to civilian life than others.

To the extent that serving in actual combat makes such readjustment harder, Dean says, evidence again suggests that Civil War soldiers faced more problems. Only about 15 percent of Americans who served in Vietnam were in combat and five percent of them died or were disabled. In the Civil War 25 percent of all soldiers were killed or disabled.

Dean also offers data suggesting the suicide rate of Vietnam vets has been greatly exaggerated and is really not much higher than that of the population at large.

"It's a very emotional topic," he said. "But we're about 20 years away from the war and I think that gives us some distance."



Copyright 1997 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved

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