As part of our ongoing series on "healthy sexuality and the combat veteran," here are some fascinating excerpts from Yale-trained psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton's work with Vietnam veterans in "rap groups" in the 60s and 70s.
It's also interesting, in light of the extraordinary closeness and love that combatants feel for one another, how very little of that appears to be transferred successfully to relationships with intimate partners. Combat seems to develop a closer bond than often even marriage; and the reasons for that are both various and fairly obscure -- not to mention, hardly ever even broached. We have some ideas, and in the forthcoming months we will be discussing those. But for now, we're setting the stage with more "raw material" from the veterans themselves about the difficulties they have touching love.
There are very few works that even mention sexuality and intimacy and the combat veteran -- literally, even mention the concept -- so it's interesting how many aspects of it he is able to cover here. Quite thought-provoking. "The word on the street" is that, among Vietnam veterans at least, this situation also hasn't changed in the decades since. They're still pretty much stuck in the same patterns, for the same reasons, that Lifton talks about here:
(In Vietnam,) … even authentic intimacy and love had to be in some degree contaminated by the counterfeit universe, had to be a little distrusted. Just as men felt that “Whenever you tried to be human you got screwed,” so one of them added, “If you got close you got burned.”
Vietnam had absolutized (or totalized) the whole question of intimacy for the American survivors. Having experienced a particularly poisonous version of the “end of the world” image that characterizes extreme situations, they distrusted, feared, and could not believe in, the renewed human ties they so desperately craved as a psychological basis for reconstituting that world. The death-dominated imagery they retained had to do with disintegration, stasis and separation. The overall sense of disintegration (physical, psychic, moral) associated with the Vietnam environment is internally maintained in approaching the environment back home.
The stasis or cessation of feeling derived from extreme psychic numbing in Vietnam leaves one with an image of a world that neither lives nor moves. Vietnam’s extreme elements of separation – from familiar landscapes of any kind and especially from purposeful or visible images and symbols – results in an ability to find or catch hold of anything with which one can authentically connect.
Toward potentially intimate relationships the men at first brought a sense that any such promise of renewed life was counterfeit. This intense suspicion of counterfeit nurturance – a form of “tainted dependency” in which love and help are equally strongly sought as a personal need, and resented as a sign of weakness – also had direct origins in the counterfeit universe of Vietnam. There, as the men recalled all too readily, any form of help, nurturing or love was equated not only with weakness of the blind-helpless giant, but with the corruption of the executioner-victim. To be sure, the men brought to Vietnam earlier imagery of a similar kind involving suspicion and doubt concerning love and nurturing they craved. But that negative imagery, present from all childhoods, ordinarily combines with alternative images of trust involving one to respond to love and care with the mixed capacities characteristic of all adult life.
In Vietnam, however, the negative inclination – the image of the counterfeit – is likely to be aggravated to the point of dominating one’s entire psychic life – which is why we can speak of the totalizing of conflicts around intimacy, love and nurturing.
The men revealed their sense of the importance of these issues in their energetic criticism of one another for maneuvers of any kind that seemed to be flights from intimacy – whether these took the form of shifting the discussion toward safely distant matters, telling shallow war stories, or suddenly shifting into revolutionary diatribes or leaden silences. Adept as they were at exposing these maneuvers, none was free of profound individual conflict concerning intimacy.
Associating Vietnam as they did with their parents’ generation, ultimately with the whole of American society, their sense was something like, “After Vietnam, what could you trust of anything?”
A man with unusually profound difficulties with intimacy (exceeding but touching upon those of the others), he seemed to lapse into puzzling understatement when he went on to conclude: “People aren’t perfect,” and “People are fallible.” But what he really meant, as his subsequent behavior revealed, was that unless people (and all relationships with them) were “perfect,” they were threatening, untrustworthy betrayers.
An engaging person with a certain talent for human relationships, his pattern of keeping people at a considerable emotional distance was interrupted by his falling in love with an attractive young married woman. He enthusiastically described to the group their plans to save money in order to buy a Volkswagen bus and drive around the country together. But at subsequent meetings he seemed much less certain and talked of going south alone for a couple of months in order to earn the money for the trip. He also said that he wanted to “test the relationship” in various ways in order to find out “whether two people can really get along when they are with each other twenty-four hours a day.”
It was he who had the garbage-dump dream, and in it he was expressing (in addition to the themes already described) his fearful sense that all claim to love and intimacy was counterfeit, filthy, “garbage.” Others in the rap group pointed out that he was being hopelessly absolute about the relationship, that nobody could stand anybody for twenty-four hours a day, that he was “manipulating” arrangements with the girl, “preparing a time bomb,” and “setting things up for a break.”
He denied none of this, and was even willing to explore sources of his mistrust, but nonetheless insisted on doing things his way. He went further and said, “If I can’t love her, then I don’t think I’ll be able to love anyone.” And when one of the [other] men gently commented, “Most of us are afraid to love,” he answered with a poignant question, “How do you tell when you feel love?”
He was soon to prove the men right: before long the relationship dissolved. But he went on insisting upon “complete independence – being able to get along without needing anybody.” His all-or-nothing approach to relationships – the totalism we spoke of before – was discussed extensively. both in connection with the Vietnam experience and his own psychological development. He did not, during the six months or so I knew him, overcome either this totalism or his profound and generalized sense of distrust. But he did open himself a bit to his own feelings and to glimmerings of insight; and the rest of the group seemed to benefit greatly from what they learned about themselves through him.
Falling in love, or feeling oneself close to that state, could be especially excruciating – an exciting glimpse of a world beyond withdrawal and numbing, but also a terrifying prospect. A typical feeling, when growing fond of a girl was “You’re getting close – watch out!” The most extreme emotion of this kind expressed was:
“If I’m fucking, and a girl says I love you, then I want to kill her [because] if you get close…you get hurt.”
Love or intimacy, in other words, posed the threat of still another form of corruption and disillusionment, of still another ‘death.’ It was much easier to avoid that risk and stay numb (remain in an evenly deadened state) – “I feel like hiding out in my own head,” was the way the same man expressed it.
But the men did of course fall in love. When that happened, especially if soon after returning from Vietnam, they would find themselves breaking off relationships because “I couldn’t go through with it,” or “I didn’t want to be tied down to anything.” What they meant was that their psychological work as survivors was so demanding as to preclude, at least for a certain period of time, sustained intimacy or long-range personal commitment.
The general dilemma of these veterans had to do with the extraordinary intensity of both their need for and difficulty with sustained intimacy. Breaking off relationships was as painful as it was necessary. On many occasions, entire rap groups were devoted to such closely related themes as: the general problem of fidelity, notably sexual fidelity, the hunger for love and nurturing, and the sense of being chained by sustained intimacy in a relationship; and the powerful influences of Vietnam corruptions – with their residual fear and guilt of great magnitude – extending backward and forward into old and anticipated corruptions that touch virtually all aspects of existence.
This entire pattern of holding on and breaking off contained a continuing dialectic between persistent death imagery and imagery of life renewed. But they came to realize that the equation was never simple: holding on could take the form either of revitalizing intimacy (life renewed) or of numbed distanced in proximity (a new death), and breaking off could be a pathetic need to reject the intimacy one craved (a self-inflicted death) or a liberating opening out to deep experience and greater self-knowledge (renewed life). Over the course of time most of the men increased their capacity for intimacy, but that dialectic would simply not go away.
-- Source: Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans – Neither Victims nor Executioners, by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. (Yale-trained psychiatrist). New York: Simon and Schuster (1973).
 It is possible that he and many others continue to associated the nakedness of sex with Vietnam images of grotesque bodily disintegration – as did Guy Sajer, with memories from the German Army experience of World War II: “As soon as I saw naked flesh [in a beginning sexual encounter] I braced myself for a torrent of entrails, remembering countless wartime scenes, with smoking, stinking corpses pouring out their vitals.
 I use the term fidelity here to suggest more than loyalty, though loyalty itself was of great importance. Also involved was authenticity – in sexual matters, for instance, the genuineness of an impulse to find a new partner at precisely the time that an existing relationship showed promise of deepening intimacy. Fidelity thus involved being true to, having faith in, the animating principle of the new self being formed. It included overcoming fears that one’s residual destructiveness and death taint would not harm or contaminate others.