I frankly don’t believe John McCain’s medical records, or at any rate the portions released to the New York Times. The man was held in solitary for years, tortured until bones fractured, until he confessed to war crimes, until he tried to hang himself.
That he broke can’t be held against him: Almost anyone would have. (In my view GIs should be told to confess to anything whatever right from the start.) But the assertion that he came through unscathed, warm and humorous and psychically sound, just isn’t plausible. It doesn’t happen that way.
Now, PTSD. A lot of people, including vets, don’t believe that PTSD exists. I didn’t. One reason is that they tend to think of it as something verging on the psychotic, as for example seeing nonexistent snipers in the hedgerows of suburban Philadelphia. The other common notion is that those who have it dive under tables at the sound of a backfire. Vets tend to think, I don’t know anybody like that. I certainly don’t see snipers in the rafters. This whole PTSD business sounds like a crock.
So it does. But it isn’t.
And of course many people, chiefly men, regard with suspicion anything that smells of psychobabble, anything touchy-feely. To them PTSD sounds like Can’t-Get-a-Date Personality Disorder — something for Oprah to talk about to bored housewives. So they dismiss it.
Let me de-babble the discussion and state a simple fact: A lot of guys come back from wars really, truly messed up in the head, and it doesn’t go away. They aren’t going to talk to you about it. They figure it’s none of your goddamned business. If you push, they will tell you so, angrily.
If you weren’t in those forsaken paddies, they think, if you didn’t go through what they did, you’re off their radar screens. They’ll talk to you about football, the weather, and whatever happened in the newspaper yesterday. Just don’t even try to talk about Viet Nam. Or whatever war it was. They don’t want to think about it, and talking about it to weenies feels like being naked in a train station.
There are a lot of these brain-burnt guys out there. They don’t want your pity. They don’t pity themselves. They just don’t want to expose that part of themselves to you. They put a wall around themselves. You can’t see it. It’s there.
Often they seem like fairly normal guys with three divorces who drink too much and their children say, It was like he was somewhere else. Perfectly normal guys who have had seventeen jobs because their bosses are always useless bastards. Perfectly normal guys who live out in the desert and do serious scuba or hang glide because they just don’t give a fuck.
Not all. Some manage to hold it together and become things thought to be respectable, such as senators or writers or defense attorneys. A subsurface lode of hostility can be useful in a trial lawyer. Anger is energizing. It can fuel a career.
With PTSD, or whatever you want to call it, the anger is the giveaway. These vets carry a load of subterranean fury that you don’t want to look at. As they would say, I s__t you not one pound. I know a lot of these guys. A buddy of mine — two tours in bad places, killed a whole lot of people up close — now has no tolerance for frustration. He’s ready to spread your teeth over a wide radius if you even seem to think about getting in his face. Admirable? No. But don’t make the experiment.
Sounds like McCain. His explosiveness is notorious.
Another guy I know, writer, freelanced all his life because he couldn’t get along with people in offices. A writer can package this as sturdy independence, as being a colorful maverick. The fellow is approximately sane, or at least apparently sane. Get three drinks in him, bring up the war, and his voice starts shaking and it’s time to change the subject right now.
A fair few PTSD guys become writers: It’s solitary, you don’t have to put up with bosses, and you don’t have to be stable.
How do these vets get this way? Not by anything you want to hear about, anything that you will see on the nightly news. The RPG hits your tank, the cherry juice cooks off, and three of your buddies burn to death screaming because they couldn’t get out fast enough. You lose a leg and half your face to a mortar round. You just see things: A Chicom 122 cuts a cyclo driver in half and you watch him trying to crawl with his guts hanging out. He doesn’t crawl long. You get shot down over Hanoi and spend years being tortured. The military is a fun place. You have all sorts of unusual experiences.
It messes your head up. I promise.
I said anger — yes, but anger at what? At whom? Here I’m on soft ground because vets don’t talk much about this stuff among themselves. At least those I know don’t. But, to the extent that I am competent to judge, they aren’t mad at those who shot them, or shot at them. The VC were only doing their job. They hate those who sent them to a pointless war, who exposed them in thousands to Agent Orange, knowing that it was poisonous and carcinogenic, at those posing fat-ass pols who sent them to die for nothing while they ate prime rib in DC.
Or they just hate. Psychologically the verb can be intransitive. They don’t know what they hate, but don’t get in the way of it.
Not all respond this way. Some choose to intensify their patriotism — it avoids admitting that you have been suckered — and direct their hatred at the hippies, the liberals, the press, all of whom they figure lost the war. But the anger is still there. Most of the time, you don’t notice it. They turn off, often seem emotionally cold. But that explosive venom remains. We’re not talking about a fiery Irish temper. We’re talking half crazy.
Those who seek help, typically from the VA, end up on Thissa-dol and Thatta-dol, on antidepressants and calmants and even antipsychotics. They sorta help. Sorta isn’t good enough with men who control carrier battle groups.
From the New York Times story, Mr. McCain also learned to control his temper and not to become angry over insignificant things, the doctors said. I don’t believe it. It doesn’t fit accounts of people who know him. It isn’t how heads work.
McCain is well known for his violent and irrational temper. A friend of mine, Ken Smith, was flack for Governor Mecham of Arizona during a meeting with McCain. The governor somehow irritated McCain. Says Ken, McCain was leaning forward with a clinched fist. I reached out my left arm, as politely and as non-threatening as I could, and I pushed McCain back. What I remember is how taut and hard his body was, not from working out and lifting weights, but rather from anger and adrenalin. I made an excuse to leave and get them apart.
For what he went through in Vietnamese jails he deserves sympathy and admiration. It isn’t qualification for the presidency.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.