Re: Sources: Sanitized/Repressed Vietnam

Kali Tal (
Fri, 1 Mar 1996 12:23:40 -0500

Marc Gilbert writes:

>Ted Morgan sees PTSD as an approach to American society. How about
>matching DSM III to post-Vietnam American society?

I'd recommend that folks be very careful about extrapolating the
psychological models to create frameworks for social/cultural analysis. My
book, _Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma_ (Cambridge U
Press: 1995) details the dangers of that approach. In fact, I question the
validity of the contemporary medical model of PTSD--I believe that the
"diagnosis" approach depoliticizes any analysis of the Viet Nam war and its

Marc also writes:

>One point seems clear: if one cannot raise and address the
>trauma in a safe place, after a time, the symptoms of PTSD become
>entrenched due to biological changes caused by the trauma and its
>supression. How can the biological aspect of PTSD--which insures the
>repeated fight or flight and other disorienting symptoms--be related
>to society as a whole? Can things be socially endemic? I am sure
>there are parallels of this elsewhere, eh?

Actually, not much is clear. There's no guarantee that even if one can
"raise and address the trauma in a safe place," that the symptoms of PTSD
will disappear. Nor is there a good definition of "safe." Furthermore,
we've got very little understanding of the interaction between the
biochemical changes in the brain which are caused by trauma, and the actions
of human beings in the social sphere. Lots of people are drawing broad
conclusions from this research, but they are, for the most part, based on
very sketchy evidence (scientific or historical). The neuroscience research
which measures chemical changes in the brain is very exacting and
precise--based on a measurable set of standards, upon which most scientists
agree. It offers no explanation of behavior beyond the confined realm in
which the measurements are taken. Good science is often the basis for faulty
theories of social structures (look at the poor use to which Darwin's
theories were put by the "Social Darwinists"), and we ought to be careful
about making such leaps.

An analysis of post-Viet Nam war U.S. which relied upon the construction of
the diagnosis of PTSD would be flawed, indeed. It would be crippled at its
heart because it would confine our thinking to the parameters of a metaphor
based on an illness/cure model (see James William Gibson's criticisms of
that very model in his classic _The Perfect War_). There's something very
attractive about this model, perhaps because it seems to mimic "nature" and
therefore to sidestep "ideology." And since "ideology" has become a Bad Word
recently (somehow equivalent to a leftist agenda), some progressives who are
trying to make their arguments more attractive to the general public have
begun to make use of the medical model (even bell hooks has begun to do
this). I can see the appeal, but it's ultimately a losing proposition, since
all interpretations of "nature" are, at root, ideological, and submersion of
ideology simply makes it harder to excavate later....


Kali Tal
Sixties Project & Viet Nam Generation, Inc.
18 Center Rd., Woodbridge, CT 06525
203/387-6882; fax 203/389-6104
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