I’ve been thinking a lot about the Viet Nam War lately. Probably because for my birthday I bought myself a boxed set on DVD of China Beach, possibly one of the finest pieces of network television ever made.
If you missed the show in its brief run between 1988 and 1991, it follows a cast of characters around China Beach, a real location near Da Nang for troops to catch some rest and relaxation to which the show’s creators added the 510th Evacuation Hospital and Graves Registration Unit.
One of the structures the show rests on as you get to know the characters – a numbed out, shut down nurse from Kansas, a burned out Marine acting as life guard and chief entertainment provider, an arrogant doctor, and a female entrepreneur willing to engage in the world’s oldest transaction if she must – is the idea that there is Viet Nam (in-country) and there is the world, which was often stricly defined as “the United States.” Turns out it was a little more complicated than that.
This concept plays out in every non-fiction book I’ve read about the war, and I’d read more than I have fingers of which I have the usual number, and I took the time a while back to ask my uncle M. about his experiences as a Marine in-country from 1967 to 1968 in a mechanized platoon.
The basic idea is what happens in-country is separate from the world so what happens in-country doesn’t matter. Some people used it as an excuse to be horrible human beings but for most, I suspect, it was a way of dissociating, of pretending the experience was happening to and around someone else. Thinking it through, this may be why 30% of Viet Nam veterans have PTSD diagnoses compared to lower numbers from other military engagements post-World War II according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And dissociating is what most of us have been doing lately, and will probably continue to do for the next couple of years or until this fucking pandemic finally gets under control, only we’ve been doing it with binge watching Netflix and refusing to put on pants that don’t have a stretchy waistband instead of getting hooked on heroin. The problem is, dissociating isn’t really going to work for us the way it “worked” for troops in Viet Nam.
They had the advantage of a hard dividing line: in-country, with the atrocities of combat, the constant fear of death, the physical discomfort, and the ordinary struggles of being forced to be in close proximity to people you didn’t choose, or the world where everything was clean and shiny and death, both physical and of the soul, didn’t lurk around every corner. According to my uncle, even R&R in Thailand away from the combat theater wasn’t “the world” because it was still Asia, exotic and far from home.
It’s not going to work for us because the horror – climate change, fractious politics, the pandemic, school shootings, racism, rape culture and rampant misogyny to name a few things – has been going on so long we’ve lost our ability to flatten and divide it into small enough pieces to cope with.
And is it any wonder? Nadia Boltz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor, author, and bit of a badass, wrote beautifully recently about why we are unable to cope over time: we just aren’t made for it, in a literal, biological way.
It also doesn’t help that corporate America is gaslighting us, turning real psychological problems from all of the things we face in the modern era into the equivalent of “she was asking for it because she wore a short skirt.”
Even worse, they’re marketing the solution to the burnout created by late-stage corporate oligarchy pretending to be capitalism back to us as the self-care industrial complex (available mostly to white women at every outlet near you).
Dissociating isn’t going to help us. Unlike the GIs in Viet Nam, the world is the same as being in the shit.