When I was in college in the ’70s, the large corporation my father worked for had a sweet summer-hire program for the kids of employees. I worked full-time in one of their warehouses each summer making just under union scale, and made enough that I didn’t have to work during the school year.
As you can imagine, I met a very wide range of personalities of all ages, shapes and descriptions, from my fellow summer-hire college students, to hard-core blue collar types, mothers and grandmothers gone back to work, white collar front-office types, and on and on.
My first summer there in ’75 a bunch of us became friendly with a young army vet just back from Vietnam who was very reticent to talk about his experiences there. Gradually he opened up, and toward the end of the summer he brought in photographs from, as he called it, “the action.”
He said, “You want to know what it was like, how we dealt with things, and why I don’t like to think or talk much about it? Look at these pictures.” They were shot after shot of him and his buddies smiling, waving and posing next to Vietnamese bodies in various states of disrepair: blown up, shot, burnt, crushed. We literally gasped out loud as we saw them.
He looked at us sheepishly, said, “Sick shit, I know, but that’s what you do when you’re in the middle of it: you’re happy as hell you got those fuckers before they got you. After a while it doesn’t even seem real.”
There was a picture of one of his friends holding a severed arm like a baseball bat, another with two bodies positioned so that it looked like they were kissing. I literally felt sick to my stomach, but I also couldn’t turn away, equally horrified and mesmerized by the show before my eyes.
One picture is lodged in my mind to this day: my young friend twisting his body and contorting his face in a remarkable bug-eyed imitation of a corpse propped up against a door frame, the living imitating the dead in an obscene parody of empathy.
“That is some sick shit, there, man,” our friend mumbled as if he were talking about someone other than himself, and in a way I guess he was. He smiled distantly, put the pictures away in his pocket and wandered back to work – the subject did not come up again.
So how much does that — from another war, in another place, 30 years ago — sound like this?
- When Pfc. Chase McCollough went home on leave in November, he brought a movie made by fellow soldiers in Iraq. On his first night back at his parents’ house in Texas, he showed the video to his fiancee, family and friends.
This is what they saw: a handful of American soldiers filmed through the green haze of night-vision goggles. Radio communication between two soldiers crackles in the background before it’s drowned out by a heavy-metal soundtrack.
“Don’t need your forgiveness,” the song by the band Dope begins as images unfurl: armed soldiers posing in front of Bradley fighting vehicles, two women covered in black abayas walking along a dusty road, a blue-domed mosque, a poster of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. Then, to the fast, hard beat of the music — “Die, don’t need your resistance. Die, don’t need your prayers” — charred, decapitated and bloody corpses fill the screen.
“It’s like a trophy, something to keep,” McCullough, 20, said back at his cramped living quarters at Camp Warhorse near Baqubah. “I was there. I did this.”
….McCullough was surprised that his favorite video was disturbing to his loved ones back in Texas.
“You find out just how weird it is when you take it home,” said McCullough, whose screensaver is far more benign, showing him on his wedding day.
Brandi McCullough, then his fiancee and now his wife, said she had walked in as he was showing the videos to friends who were “whooping and hollering.”
The 18-year-old was shocked by images of “body parts missing, bombs going off and people getting shot.”
“They’re terrifying,” she said by phone from Texas. “Chase never talked about anything over there, and I watch the news, but not all the time. I didn’t realize there was that much” violence.
….Daniel Nelson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine, said he understood the disconnect.
“I’m not surprised about this — it’s a new consciousness that we’re beginning to see,” he said, comparing the videos to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photographs. “What happens in this situation, the culture is endorsing something that would be prohibited in another context stateside.”
What seems disrespectful or a trivialization is also a way for soldiers to distance themselves from the trauma, he said, which says: “I don’t want to see what I’ve done or experienced as real.”
The creation of videos resembles what Nelson has seen in his work with traumatized children and Vietnam veterans, he said.
“How do we create the story about our lives?” he asked. “Part of the healing process is for them to create a narrative, to organize an emotional story that allows them to get a handle on it.” [LA times]