PTSD: Reality Versus Rhetoric

March 1, 2006

Published as “Reality vs. the Rhetoric:
Iraq Vets and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”
on Counterpunch Weekend Edition, March 18 / 19, 2006

I was flabbergasted to read Sally Satel’s March 1, 2006 New York Times Op-Ed, “For Some, the War Won’t End,” describing the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as creation of a suspicious “culture of trauma” providing veterans a “free ride” as they approach retirement age. A flag immediately went up for me because of my own history with PTSD, but also because Satel is a former VA psychiatrist who now is a resident scholar at the very biased, neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). AEI is a very wealthy think tank funded largely by old-line conservative family money such as the Scaife and Olin Foundations, and is closely associated and shares headquarters with the Project For A New American Century (PNAC), the latter offering a 1997 blueprint for an aggressive, unilateral U.S. global hegemony, including domination of Middle Eastern and Central Asian energy reserves.

The American Enterprise Institute

AEI, a more than 60-year-old think tank committed to preservation of private enterprise at the expense of The Commons, supports such policies as censorship of the arts, required prayer in schools, and privatizing Social Security. It has a list of current and past fellows, scholars and trustees which makes those interested in a just human community shudder in angst. Lynne and Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Ken Lay, Richard Perle, Newt Gingrich, John Yoo, Charles Murray, and many, many others are affiliated with AEI. One might remember Korean-American John Yoo who, only a few years ago as a young lawyer in the Justice Department, wrote legal memos supporting torture while denying legal protections for “illegal combatants” and advocating the legal imperative of the Patriot Act. It is worth reminding ourselves that Charles Murray is the architect of the Bell Curve concluding existence of intelligence differences between the “races,” meaning in fact the superiority of the White “race,” just as Hitler’s vision motivated German Aryan efforts to conquer Europe.

AEI’s Board of Trustees includes present and past corporate insiders such as the Chair of Dow Chemical which exposed several million people like me and the Vietnamese to the most intense chemical warfare in human history, and more recently, with the acquisition of Union Carbide, continues to ignore responsibility for the Bhopal, India chemical leak disaster that killed and severely maimed thousands. Other trustees include the CEO of huge corporations such as ExxonMobil, State Farm Insurance, and Merck Pharmaceutical, the latter still reeling from misrepresentations about its painkiller, Vioxx, which, it turns out, increases risk of heart attacks.

George Bush II The Younger, in a February 2003 speech to the AEI lauded them as possessing some of the “finest minds in our nation” and noted that he had grabbed twenty of its thinkers for his administration. Along with Sally Satel, Lynne Cheney is also an AEI scholar, and they have worked together with the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) to counter efforts of the National Organization For Women (NOW) and to oppose feminist politics in general.

Dr. Satel & “Oppression-Based Therapy”

In Sally Satel’s book, PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine (Basic Books, 2001), she defines “politically correct” medicine as a dangerous orthodoxy intended to maintain victim status. She insists that the healing profession’s concern for “social justice” interferes with patient health because it downplays the role of personal responsibility. Satel condemns three popular “oppression-based therapies”: (1) those encouraging patients to be part of what she calls “victim groups”; (2) those suggesting that psychic stress results from racist or patriarchal society; and (3) those suggesting that healing is enhanced by activism that assumes a malignant political-socio environment that contributed to illness of the patient in the first place. She goes so far as to accuse these therapies of being malpractice. She opposes “consumer and psychiatric survivor” organizations and believes in the necessity of coerced drugging.

By subscribing to these “malpractice” techniques I was rescued from the scrapheap of war-induced traumas being part of veteran’s groups where we safely share experiences and help process our cognitive dissonance crises; recognizing that many of our decisions and harmful behaviors resulted from a cultural racist ideology and blind obedience to patriarchy that disempowered and dumbed us down; and becoming active in addressing the causes of war and working for a just society has assisted in our validation and redemption as human beings.

Satel stoops to the comforts of reductionist thinking, denying the holistic interplay among dispositional, situational and systemic factors. In so doing, she ignores the need for understanding the revolutionary role that historical, social, racial, economic, and political contexts have had in shaping our thinking, assumptions, and behavioral patterns. Thus, Satel advocates, in the name of therapy, perpetuation of the politics of massive obedience to the prevailing authority and power system, even as such obedience assures rapid deterioration of the necessary ingredients for a healthy society — empathy, equity, and mutual respect for all life. Of course, it is likely that her sense of mental health “requires” ideological adherence to the prevailing system. I prefer the emergence of homo humanus, replacing homo hostilus, and the terrifying possibility of homo extinctus.

I would like someone like Satel, and all those folks associated with AEI to have shared just one or two hours of my traumatic experiences. A dose of that reality likely would overwhelm their ad nauseum rhetoric in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.


Coming from the “indentured servant” class, I was drafted out of law school in 1966 at 25 years of age. Unlike Vice-President Dick Cheney, I possessed no special connections or family money that enabled me to keep my deferment in order to pursue those other things that I would have preferred. So, I enlisted in the USAF in lieu of going into the Army to more likely avoid a combat experience. In 1969, however, I was ordered to Vietnam as head of a special ranger-trained AF combat security unit. While there, as fate would have it, I experienced sickening patterns of crimes that led to my opposition to the war. I was discharged in 1970 as a Captain at 29 years of age.

In 1981, twelve years after those traumatic experiences, I suffered, at age 40, a near psychotic flashback that revealed graphic details of what I had witnessed on a special assignment in April 1969 while documenting the aftermath of bombing missions that intentionally annihilated a number of inhabited villages. The flashback revealed that I had observed somewhere between 700-900 Vietnamese, mostly women and young children in five separate villages in a week’s time. In the very first village I initially heard, then observed a water buffalo screaming in pain from a 3-foot gash in its belly. Taking several additional steps I could walk no further. There were bodies lying everywhere; I estimated more than 125. I covered my face with a handkerchief as the stench from burning flesh and lingering napalm was overpowering and I began to weep, then vomit. This was just the beginning of the memory. The flashback shook me to my roots and it took me several months to recover from the sudden recall of what had been buried in my subconscious.

I attended a few VA rap sessions but didn’t feel safe, so sought my own therapy, both group and individual, and continued to pursue my life. I avoided alcohol or drug use and was considered quite functional. But I began to experience chronic insomnia; hyper-alertness to noises; sudden crying periods; distracting, intrusive memories during daytime hours; avoidance of public crowds; terrifying bodily sensations later termed “panic attacks,” etc. Nonetheless, for a while I even directed a state-funded veteran’s outreach center as I struggled to mask my symptoms the best I could.

In the early 1990s my symptoms were becoming more acute and I sought Jungian therapy. Several people suggested I was suffering from PTSD and advised me to consider help from the VA. In 1994, at age 53, I had my first scheduled assessment with a VA psychiatrist. I was so terrified at the thought of baring my soul to an employee of the government that I remained in my car outside the VA hospital and never made my appointment. Three years later, in 1997, with the emotional support of other veterans, I re-applied and within a year I was diagnosed with PTSD at age 57, twenty-nine years after the worst of the traumas. Now 64, I have discovered lessons about managing the symptoms, and am more mindful of taking care of myself. However, the trauma and memories of the events remain vivid, though I allow space for them in my psyche.

PTSD is nothing to make light of and Dr. Satel, I would submit, needs a dose of war to grasp a reality about her “theories.” War is insane, and those of us thrust into it for God, Country and Right of Passage pay a dear price for the remainder of our lives, even though we may have been politically awakened as a result. WWI German soldier Paul Baumer, in the epic film, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), had it right when he proclaimed, “I’m no good for back there anymore.” That was true then, and it is true now.

Don’t Blame the Victim

Instead of questioning motives of veterans who have been forced to endure wars, the vast majority of which are grotesquely illegal upon honest examination, it would behoove psychiatrist Satel and others who think similarly, to condemn the criminality of the political leaders who continually conspire, plan, prepare, initiate, and wage wars of aggression in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, and the Constitution itself. Blaming the victim, rather than the intellectual and political architects of this supreme international crime, practices the ad nauseum trick of “shadow” projection of fault onto others, perpetuating cultural denial and avoidance of accountability.

Satel wants only the lowly troopers to take responsibility for their healing, ignoring the responsibility of war policy makers and profiteers, who are committing the supreme international crime of aggressive wars deserving Nuremberg-style prosecutions. And I suspect also that it would not occur to her that these policy making men and women be subjected to forced therapy or coercive drugging to cure them of their dangerous psychopatholgical behavior. Thus, we witness the typical double standard imposed by those at the top in hierarchical power systems.

If Satel and her comrades were really concerned about saving taxpayer funds, they would cease their glib support for extraordinarily costly aggressive wars of hegemony. Then the psychiatric community could truly be proud that they are preventing hundreds of thousands of people from becoming PTSD patients. How about that for modern psychiatry? But then the shrinks would have to possess the courage to confront the inherent contradictions of a market-obsessed, capitalist economy that values private profit over public justice and caring. Hmm!


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