Without doubt the Vietnam War is one which has receded from public consciousness perhaps more rapidly than any war in the history of the United States. Unfortunately the ravages ofthat war hang on long and tragically in the lives of veterans who years later still re-experience the traumas they underwent while in Vietnam.
The following example represents a specific case history of a Vietnam veteran who after 1 2 years is still haunted by his experiences in that Southeast Asian country.
He was a 34-year-old once married Mexican-American male who lived in Mexico during his early years but spent most of his growing years in the United States. His early life was seemingly unremarkable, his family was secure, and he learned the value of hard work.
At age 1 8 he went into the Army infantry and soon found himself in Vietnam where he spent a full year. He had no overt injuries or difficulties but had some trying experiences as a demolition expert there. In several battles he was in life-threatening situations where his company was over-run. Also, after these battles he was upset to realize that he lived while others died. He had some miraculous experiences where he should not have lived, but did. These experiences suggested survivor guilt for being alive.
In addition, he had great conflict over the lack of support from home and from America concerning the Vietnam War and felt himself uncertain as to what he was doing there. Nevertheless, he was a good soldier and received an honorable discharge.
While in Vietnam, he had a number of repetitive dreams that were frighteningto him though not disabling. The dreams involved people trying to hurt him, attack him or get at him, with other people being killed all around him. In Vietnam he had occasions to literally save his and his own colleagues' lives by blowing up Viet Cong whom he later observed were often young boys aged 15 or 16. He described one recurrent dream wherein he saw one of these boys facing him, staring at him, causing him to be extremely anxious with no resolution of the dream. This repeated itself again and again.
These traumatic dreams recurred quite frequently fora period of time after his leaving Vietnam and then gradually began to disappear. They then occurred only very rarely through the next ten years.
Two years ago he fractured his back in a serious accident while working at a huge utility company. Becoming more passive and dependent, his recovery was prolonged for a year or more. However, with the healing of his back many problems developed with his marriage and also with his company. He coped with these fairly well until finally he began to be challenged by representatives of his company as to whether "he was really doing all he could to rehabilitate himself." This escalated and finally legal action occurred concerning his claim for disability versus the company's claims of minimal damage. It was at the onset of this legal battle with the company that the return of the Vietnam dreams occurred on an escalated scale. Over and over they came back to him on a twice to three times per week basis with dreams of people being killed, he being attacked, and finally the dream of looking at young men who were facing and staring at him.
An attempt at analysis of this individual's situation included a focus upon his dreams that from a therapeutic point of view revealed many things. First, there came to light the ambivalence of his early teenage years and his own identity as to whether it was Mexican or American. He had been raised part of his life in Mexico and then the rest of his life in America and he suffered the problem of having a split identity. This had become an issue in the service, but there he made a firm, successful resolution of the conflict.
However, this split identity was challenged again during the Vietnam War when the uncertainty of support from home and even in Vietnam from many Americans reignited that sense of uncertainty. This was further highlighted by the experiences of colleagues being killed. The crowning point came in traumatic battlefield situations where young Viet Cong boys were killed by him. These memories remained to haunt him in dreams. With this, the onset of survivor guilt reactivated old doubts of his split identity.
However, these were put to rest on his own for approximately ten years until an injury re-exacerbated a dependency position - an anxiety-ladened one where his own foundations for security were again challenged when members of his own company challenged the legitimacy of a serious injury he had received and the benefits he should accrue from that for therapeutic and rehabilitative purposes. It was in that setting that the dreams recurred, specifically those in which he was threatened. Most physicians who had seen him continued to complain that he should not be having the difficulties, the pain, etc., that he was having, because "his back was healed." What was not far below the surface was the reactivation of the conflicts he had experienced in Vietnam and subsequently even during his childhood. The element of his claim of legitimacy on his autonomy and the right to exist with his own certain values reopened wounds.
Of central significance was the image of a young Viet Cong boy who appeared again and again in his dreams that correlated with the re-exacerbation with his injury at the current time. This was a reflection of survival guilt, but most importantly this image was noted to be a self image, or an image of the own disowned part of his self. It was that part of the self that did not have legitimate claim for outward approbation and approval. This could be likened to his former Mexican identity that did not have the legitimacy that his American identity had as he integrated his self concept in teenage years. Therefore, that old Mexican identity had to be repressed, put behind, and "forgotten." However, it was not forgotten because it reasserted itself again and was reactivated in Vietnam when having close encounters with the Viet Cong (also a "disowned group").
Even though this previously had been successfully integrated and mastered psychologically, the same conflict recurred as he was thrown suddenly into a passive dependent position and in essence was forced to identify with those disowned parts of the self that he had put behind him years before - his old Mexican identity and the Viet Cong memories. It was as though in his psychological experience and the traumatic neurosis he suffered he suddenly had to own that shadowed part of himself as he was now being forced to literally live it out being accused by others as being in the "out group" and "not willing to work." The dreams of the Viet Congyouth became guiding symbols for the therapeutic resolution of these conflicts.
At a symbolic, transpersonal level, this conflict represents an almost universal conflict that can be seen throughout history and certainly in mythological lore. The images of Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Jesus and Judas, are but a few examples of this twinning phenomena represented by the"light and dark brother" in historical context.
In this particular example, this Vietnam veteran broke down because of his forced rapid shift to have to identify and live out a side of himself that he had thought was safely repressed. However, with this rapid switch in identification in living out a disowned part of himself, ie, an identity that was helpless, unacceptable at a collective level, it re-exacerbated the identity problem in bold relief.
This particular psychological complex is far more prevalent than realized. It has been observed in many clinical cases and is seen in the lives of policemen and correctional officers as well as Vietnam veterans.
As Jung has noted, it is the making conscious of this complex, ie. the shadow and disowned image of the self with its subsequent integration, that constitutes one of the most important and singular steps in an individual's identity development.
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Jung CG: On ine psychology of the unconscious, in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology Collected Works. Princeton. New Jersey. Pantheon Books, 1966. vol 7. pp 64-1 19.
Walloon MA: Applied Dream Analysis: A Jungian Approach. Washington. VA Winston & Sons. 1978.