I Watched Friends Die in Afghanistan. The Guilt Has Nearly Killed Me.


The most troubling part of all this is that I actually liked being in Afghanistan. I didn’t want to leave. For the first year or so after we got back, I spoke openly and bluntly about the experience. Eventually, however, I started to notice a pattern: Whenever I talked about it, I’d leave the conversation feeling ashamed and become increasingly anxious over the rest of the day. So I decided to stop bringing it up. If a person asked questions and seemed genuinely interested in the truth, I would happily oblige. Otherwise, I’d keep it to myself. Except when I was drunk. I told my friends that if I started blabbering about Afghanistan at the bar, it was time for me to go home. But once I got going, the war stories flowed out of me like vomit. Inevitably, I’d wake up the next morning full of regret that compounded the hangovers, and I’d try to avoid my friends until the guilt subsided.

The subway incident compelled me to seek help, but it didn’t convince me that I actually needed it. That epiphany occurred about a week later, when I finally got around to rewatching HBO’s police drama “The Wire. Toward the end of the first season, the protagonist, Detective Jimmy McNulty, becomes stricken with guilt after his partner is critically wounded during a drug bust. The raid was part of a bigger investigation that McNulty had forced into motion against the will of his chain of command. Stumbling drunk and tearful, he asks himself, “What the [expletive] did I do?” By this point in the show, we have seen sufficient evidence that McNulty is as selfish and manipulative as he is endearing. His guilt seems justified enough, and David Simon, the showrunner, could have let the character wallow in it for the remainder of the season. Instead, McNulty gets an unexpected pep talk from his commander, Maj. William Rawls, who doesn’t hesitate to remind McNulty that he hates his guts. “Believe it or not, everything isn’t about you,” the major says. “[Expletive] went bad. She took two for the company. That’s the only lesson here.”

I paused the show as the words sank in. Rawls might as well have been talking to me. And he was right. God hadn’t condemned me. I had.

Jan Scruggs, the former enlisted grunt who helmed the campaign to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, struggled with survivor guilt after returning home in the spring of 1970 full of shrapnel. Twelve years later, he stood before tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans on the National Mall and officially unveiled a monument to every American who fought and died in the war. It was the first memorial of its sort, intended also as both a permanent reminder to Washington of war’s human toll and a pilgrimage site for those whose lives were forever altered by it. Scruggs says the idea was inspired by Michael Cimino’s 1978 film “The Deer Hunter” — specifically, the scene in which Christopher Walken’s character, an Army commando, blows his brains out playing Russian roulette in Saigon. “That is what war is like,” Scruggs told me. “You can be a clerk typist and get hit by a rocket while at a Vietnamese massage parlor in Saigon. You can be an infantryman and not get a scratch in 12 months.” It was the same line of thinking that produced the Lucky Bastard Club.

Scruggs famously stood his ground through the political firestorm that erupted over Maya Lin’s design, thwarting a powerful cadre of politicians and businessmen determined to scrap the design for something more heroic. Scruggs thought that retroactively glorifying Vietnam would enshrine the rampant dishonesty and magical thinking that had allowed the conflict to drag on for so long and alienated those who served there. He also knew that the country’s eagerness to bury the truth only strengthened the impulse among veterans to self-induce amnesia of the trauma they experienced. As a graduate student of psychology at American University in the mid-1970s, Scruggs consumed the available literature on survivor guilt and believed the memorial could address the syndrome directly in individual veterans and catalyze a healing process. Hence the decision to arrange the 58,000-plus names on the memorial according to dates of casualty. An alphabetical arrangement would have made it easier for the vast majority of visitors to locate names on the Wall. Scruggs, however, was more concerned with helping veterans “who had experienced multiple K.I.A.s in a single action,” he told me. The idea was to “transport” them back to the mass-casualty event. The names are etched on glossy black granite so they appear superimposed over the veteran’s reflection to remind him that his own name could have just as easily been up there. When I asked him to explain the rationale for this, Scruggs suggested I look up Carl Jung’s concept of the hero archetype.

Jung proposed that the collective unconscious preserves a set of primordial patterns and impulses that are represented in archetypal characters that consistently appear in mythologies around the world, such as the trickster, the mother, the wise old man. Every archetype resides in an individual’s psyche, but a person’s goals, outlook and behavior may tend to be shaped by one more than the others. Jung’s hero is someone primarily driven by a desire to leave a mark on the world. To achieve this mastery, according to Jung, the hero must leave his comfort zone and undergo a series of ordeals that will force him to confront his limitations, including the fact that he can’t beat death. What he does with this knowledge after returning home determines whether he ultimately fails or succeeds. If he accepts himself for who he now knows himself to truly be, rather than whoever he started his journey wishing to be, he will unlock his own unique potential — become what he was “destined to become from the beginning” — and be at peace. If he does the opposite, he fails, and the price of failure is a life frozen in fear. “In myths, the hero is the one who conquers the dragon,” Jung wrote in his book “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” “not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both have to deal with the same dragon.”



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