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Eve's Review

Pathologizing Dissent

Dissenting POWs

Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke

Monthly Review Press, 181 pages




Eve Ottenberg

The pernicious mainstream narrative that dissent is a mental health problem crops up in the strangest places. Soviet commissars deployed it against protesters, whom they packed off to mental hospitals, mostly in the 1970s. This abuse then received lavish attention in the western media, which portrayed it, amid great hysteria, as more evidence of brutal communist totalitarianism. But in the U.S. something similar, though perhaps more subtle, was going on. Here, the notion that dissent derives from traumatic stress or neuroses achieved common currency toward the end of the Vietnam War.


That was when dissenting POWs were repatriated – to a country averse to hearing their criticisms of the war. Instead, U.S. media, politicos and military bigwigs pathologized these protesters, implying that they were weak and had been tortured into supporting the North Vietnamese. Or they had been brainwashed – something communists supposedly excelled at. The word "trauma" was bandied about, and the proper place for these protester's views was deemed the psychiatrist's office.


A new book, Dissenting POWs, by Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke assails this nonsense that protest is pathological, by detailing how such rubbish littered public discourse since the late 1970s. The book announces its aim: to restore "to proper prominence the record of antiwar voices within the POW population." A big part of that is removing the mental illness smear, which has enabled interested parties to smother critiques of war, critiques that are based on politics and morality, not an emotional debility. The chief interested party is the military, but there's also the rest of the imperial government and its stenographers in the media.


"The psychologizing of dissent," the authors write "became, in turn, the backstory to the medicalizing of GI, veteran and POW rejection of war." Or as they write elsewhere: "Why punish behavior that can be discredited, stigmatized as a mental health problem?" Indeed, that stigma worked so well, that the military could back off punishing POWs for antiwar actions – actions it took VERY seriously, so seriously that, citing author Craig Howes, this book reports a Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) in a North Vietnam prison in April 1972 having "issued a 'conditional license to kill' fellow POWs if their loyalty to the United States was suspect."


Military brass was ready, even gung-ho about punishing dissenting POWs. But one antiwar POW, Abel Larry Kavanaugh, committed suicide in 1973, which "put the public brakes on the effort…to prosecute the radicals." Another dissenting POW said of this suicide: "What he did was an attempt, I think, to take the pressure from us and put it on the military. He gave his life for us." But the Kavanaugh suicide had other unintended consequences. It "shifted the paradigm from 'bad' to 'mad,' from villain to victim."


The idea of weak-willed soldiers succumbing to communist brainwashing dated from the Korean War and to the classic film on the subject, The Manchurian Candidate, based on the 1959 book of the same title. The notion that these U.S. POWs were somehow mentally defective "was an idea hatched in the years after the war in Korea to explain why some American POWs made statements denouncing the war and even considered staying…with their captors."


This book describes how Hollywood filmmakers ignored stories about POWs coming to consciousness of the evils of the war. So did the press. And even the New Left looked askance at protesting POWs. "The antiwar POWs were not the darlings of the antiwar movement that the whistleblowers of the Winter Soldier Hearings had become." Most POWs were pilots. That meant they "had rained hell on the Vietnamese." So their morality was suspect. And there were other problems. "The New Left of which SDS was the central component…had itself been born out of dissatisfaction with communists who dominated its Old Left predecessor, the Communist Party of the United States, the very communists publicly reviled for the practice of mind control within their organization." So when American leftists met with POWs and their captors, they were "suspicious of both."


The authors show how medicalizing dissent cleared a space for the poisonous weeds of reaction to thrive. The story shifted from one of the U.S. waging a criminal, imperial war against a small country, whose affairs were not U.S. business, to one of American betrayal of its veterans and their military mission. By the end of the 1970s, "Vietnam veterans were commonly portrayed in film and news reports as casualties of the war, their mission sold out on the home front and their homecoming marked by ingratitude and condemnation. Representations of POWs followed a similar path…It was trauma, not politics and conscience, that moved in-service resisters."


Thus the crux of POW dissent, that the war was evil, criminal and gratuitous, could be conveniently swept under the rug and ignored. Acts of violence by soldier-resistors against superior officers were not reported. Nor was the open rebellion against SROs in the North Vietnamese prisons, rebellion which was prevalent by the early 1970s. POWs themselves were to be pitied for the trauma that supposedly caused their outspokenness. The mental health storyline subsumed anything that hinted of true antiwar sentiment.


But try as they might, military honchos could not stamp out dissent. Indeed, the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War had a legacy in the 21st century: Iraq Veterans Against the War. Founded a few years after the Iraq war began, IVAW explicitly modeled its activism on that of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. IVAW eventually became About Face: Veterans Against the War, an advocacy group, calling for the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq. About Face also argues for reparations for the Iraqi people, thus implicitly demanding the public admission of guilt and remorse that such reparations signify, from the U.S. government, something most American military and political elites no doubt have decided will only happen over their dead bodies.


These antiwar veterans confront the legacy of the medicalization of dissent, dating from the Vietnam War era. As one anti-Iraq-war organizer put it: "Everywhere we go, all people want to talk about is PTSD." It's a great distraction. But the very fact that IVAW came into being contributes to defeating the toxic lies about pathology. The mere existence of such antiwar veterans' groups announces to all that knowing right from wrong is not a medical condition.

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