war trauma

War Trauma Revisited: Loneliness, Eating War, Whispering

The Vietnam War was the big bang that hurled us into awareness of trauma and sparked the birth of what was to become the field of traumatic stress studies. I say both “the” and “Vietnam”, somewhat embarrassed by a new awareness of another expression of cultural chauvinism. Centuries of war bloodied that small country, colonized and embattled with China, Japan, France, Britain, Cambodia… so “the” war with the US was one of many. Similarly, I am newly aware that spelling “Vietnam” as one word instead of two is somewhat of a corruption of the indigenous “Viet Nam”, which ironically means “unity.” 

American veterans returning from that war with glaring, seemingly intractable symptoms, commanded long-needed attention to what in 1980 became the diagnostic category of overwhelming experience: PTSD. Nightmares, flashbacks, irregularities of memory, exaggerated startle response, depression, and anxiety all became the growing and perhaps similarly overwhelming list of boxes to check. When I worked at the VA some 15 years after the real-time end of the war, I saw how many of the aging men, (and most of our patients were men,) were still living it. Florid drug addiction blanketed many of their unbearable symptoms. Sadly, living close to Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, I believe some of our homeless are those same guys, now 48 years older.

I recently woke to another population that at least I had completely ignored. Once again, I was awakened by an interview in the wee hours on public radio with Viet Namese author Que Mai Phan Nguyen about her new novel Dust Child. Besides the population of US veterans I am familiar with, and (by now I have had more than a few clients who were their sons and daughters,) I became aware of vast groups, generations, of attachment-traumatized American veterans, Viet Namese women, and Amerasian or mixed-race offspring of the two. 

The novel artfully weaves together threads of three different stories representing a new view of the intergenerational transmission of attachment trauma and neglect. We meet a white male war veteran, like most GIs, barely more than a child when he finds himself embroiled in a bloody war far from home. Like most of his cohort, he does not choose to be there and does not really understand what it is all about. Like many of his buddies, lonely, bored, and desperately needing to block out painful reality, he whiles away his evenings in the seedy bars of Sai Gon (also two words in the native language,) drinking and being “entertained” by attractive young local women.

Secondly are the sad stories of painfully young Viet Namese women attempting to stave off starvation and save their families from homelessness by working in bars, serving drinks and providing company, and “more.” And finally, a generation of “Amerasians,” the often abandoned and orphaned offspring of desperate and lonely bar liaisons. These children are of any and all mixed-race colors, with apparently African American fathers (these being the most painfully outcast,) some mixed Asian and Latinx, and every imaginable variation. Our character in the story is dark-skinned, curly-haired, and unspeakably lonely, longing for family, hopelessly wishing his father would come looking for him and transport him to the dreamed-of better life in the US, and in search of a loving mother who would want him.

One protagonist is the now middle-aged white veteran, visiting Viet Nam and searching for the beautiful barmaid whom he had truly loved, now ashamed that he had both cheated on his faithful wife waiting at home and had left his young girlfriend pregnant. He did not know if the girlfriend or the child of unknown gender had survived the war.

We get the backstory of the then-young “girlfriend,” fleeing the extreme poverty of the countryside, seeking to earn enough to keep her family from losing the small plot of land that sustained and housed them, only to discover she had unwittingly signed on for sex work. I won’t spoil the rest of the story. Suffice it to say, the battlefields of Viet Nam are haunted by the gruesomely dead, the walking wounded, and the multitudes of ghost-like orphaned and abandoned whose invisible scars of attachment trauma, deprivation, and neglect leave many with huge questions about identity.

American veterans returning from that war with glaring, seemingly intractable symptoms, commanded long-needed attention to what in 1980 became the diagnostic category of overwhelming experience: PTSD.

Eating War

In an interview, the author Que Mai Phan Nguyen, says the Viet Namese people have a particularly acute denial of PTSD. It is stigmatized, and people with symptoms are shunned as “possessed by ghosts,” which is not far from the truth – although surely not a reason to stigmatize or shun. Or they say, “How could we be traumatized? We won the war!” as if it were impossible to be the winner and claim trauma. Nguyen describes another expression of her own war trauma. As a child, she fished in the pond close to her family’s home. Agent Orange contaminated the pond, as so many other aspects of nature and people, too. “We were so poor we still had to eat those fish. In effect, we ‘ate the war.’”

She also makes the interesting point that, certainly in the US media and many movies about the war, the Viet Namese people are, for the most part, “props” in the background of a story about Americans. It is important to her to make space for them, to create dimension, so that we actually grant them the dignity of human existence in our awareness and history. 

April 30, 2023, marks 48 years since the “fall of Sai Gon” or the “Reunification of Viet Nam,” depending on one’s point of view: that war ended. As other wars rage in the present, I find myself pondering the legacy of fracture or never formed family bonds. Somehow, even with the inescapable familiarity of my own family’s Holocaust history, this cast of characters brought home the tragedy in a whole new way.

 I love orchids, and my favorite places on earth are tropical lands, hot and lush, with beautiful birds, animals, and, most of all, flowers. Yet I have never been “able” to grow them myself, or keep them growing – well, until now. 


Just when I thought I would stop discovering more and more passions/obsessions: things to make me still more “too busy,” I found myself again swept up, this time by the notion of being an “orchid whisperer.” I love orchids, and my favorite places on earth are tropical lands, hot and lush, with beautiful birds, animals, and, most of all, flowers. Yet I have never been “able” to grow them myself, or keep them growing – well, until now. Suddenly I discovered that when the blooms fall off and the branches start looking like dead sticks, they are not, in fact, dead. If I mindfully check the soil regularly and water them when they seem like they are getting dry, the seemingly dead brown stick begins to show shades of pinkish green, and then minuscule curlicues of growth begin to appear at their tips. If I check on them each day, and (admittedly with my nose in their “faces,”) I do talk softly and encourage them, they find their way back and bloom again! What a great metaphor for trauma healing! I remember the years of feeling like a dead stick, never to grow, let alone bloom, again. That parts of Viet Nam are blooming again is a good thought. 

It has been hard for me to imagine how Viet Nam has become the vacation destination that it has. I have been unable to uncouple my associations of the place from all the horrific war images of my youth. As with all trauma, we must hold both: the processed memory and the wisdom it carries; and the faith, nurture, and care to bloom again. Happy spring!  

Todays song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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