I don’t have nightmares very often anymore. And rarely do I dream about Vietnam; but every once in awhile, I have a disturbing dream that is related to Vietnam. I had one of those the other night.
In the dream I am a new employee at an office. It is a large room filled with people. I’m unclear as to what I’m supposed to do, so I begin asking questions of those around me. They all seem to know me and are glad I’ve come back. A young soldier named Jake comes into the room. He is on active duty and currently fighting in a war. He needs to report to someone the information that earlier today he killed 21 enemy soldiers. I recognize Jake as one of my former Marine clients from when I was a veterans’ counselor. I want to help him, so we go around together and ask several people in the room. We are told that the person he needs to give that information to is in the next room. Together we walk through the doorway and into the other room, a crowded noisy office also filled with people. I figure it must be dress up Friday because all the women and men have on traditional Arab head coverings. It looks like they put sheets on their heads held in place by headbands like hippies used to wear with the rest of the sheet flowing down their backs. The atmosphere is party-like. I can tell Jake is tired and just wants to give his information to the right person and then go get some sleep. I ask one of the women if she knows whom Jake should report to. She looks around and points across the room. She is laughing, reacting to something someone else said.. Jake has a blank tired stare in his eyes. We work our way to the other side of the room, but no one there knows who handles that kind of information. As the party continues, I see Jake leave by the side door. I assume he has given up and is heading back to his bunk to get some rest before having to go back out on another killing mission.
Dreams contain an abundance of symbolism relating to our personal histories. Often in my dreams there are 3 people or entities. One is the witness, who I identify as myself in the dream and who is watching the other opposing entities. The two opposing sides in this dream are Jake and the party people. There is a big difference or gap between them. The office workers are totally preoccupied with having fun in their dress-up Arab costumes. The office work seems secondary to the party. Jake doesn’t care about the party at all. He needs to find the right person to report his information to. He then needs to get some rest. But no one in the office can help him. In his numbed out exhausted way, Jake is totally focused on what he needs to do.
Jake is like so many of my former clients and represents a side of me that can’t relate to the general population because of the awful knowledge of the reality of war. He is still a soldier and has developed a way to live with the brutality in his daily life, but this reality is so far from the world of the office workers. They represent the civilian population and that side of me that wants to fit in and feels compelled to play the game. The office workers are oblivious to the reality of the awful information that Jake needs to report. To them it’s just a matter of his finding the right person to report to. In a strange way Jake has also reduced the awfulness of what he has done to a simple bureaucratic problem as well.
While the office people are having fun dressing up and playing like they are Arabs, Jake is doing their dirty work which they have very little interest in. One of my Korean veteran clients used to say the Marines turned him into a killer monkey. This way of being changed him forever and set him apart from the general population. He knew that he could never again feel that he is a part of society. He wasn’t suicidal, but said many times the only way out of this dilemma was death. Many war veterans harbor a deep sense of guilt, not necessarily for their personal behavior, but for participating in the awfulness of war. They can never again be who they used to be. And what they have done and experienced can’t really be understood by the general population.
When I returned from Vietnam in 1968, I had trouble relating to people. I felt like I didn’t belong. For a time I concluded that in some ways being in the war made more sense than being in the civilian world. But I hated the war and being a soldier, so I tried to join the Merchant Marines. There was a long waiting list. I entered college instead. I remember those first days and weeks after returning home. The people on the street all looked distracted and in a hurry. They seemed obsessed with things and activities that to my mind were of absolutely no consequence. If I related one of my experiences from the war to a fellow student, chances are they might say it reminded them of a show they saw on TV or ask me how many people I killed or they might try to enlighten me about their political beliefs, but very few people knew how to listen to the kinds of experiences I needed to talk about. I also felt that no one really wanted to hear about it anyway. It made them uncomfortable.
I went to the college counseling center and the psychologist put me in a Gestalt therapy group with other students. There were no other veterans in the group. We worked on our dreams. The recurring dream I shared was that there were people with guns who were after me, trying to kill me. I was constantly running in fear for my life. After I was caught and the person was standing over me with a gun to my head ready to pull the trigger, I would wake up in a cold sweat. The group leader asked me to become the person with the gun and go around the room threatening to blow the heads off the other members. I attempted to do this, but after the first one, I broke down and started sobbing. The group didn’t know how to handle this and I was told to go back to my seat. They gave me a little time to compose myself and then went on to next person’s dream. I didn’t go back to the group after that. The psychologist who led the group had no idea how to help a veteran. The group was not veteran friendly; in fact to many students veterans represented the government and the war machine that most were protesting against. I never could figure that one out. At this time in history most soldiers were forced into service by the draft. I would much rather have stayed home and joined the party. I probably would have even dressed up on Fridays.
Jake is able to survive because he is still a working soldier. He still has structure and purpose. He knows that the office people could be killer monkeys just like him, but the office workers don’t know that and probably would deny it if it were suggested to them. We all have the potential to be either the assailant or the victim, the hero or the coward, the saint or the sinner. Jake can never join in on the party. All he can do is give his report like a good soldier and then go get some rest so that he can continue to function as an alert, reactive, killer monkey. The office people put on their costumes and play the game of life, trying to have a good time, pretending that suffering, death, and cruelty don’t really exist.
There is wisdom on both sides and desperate aloneness too. Carl Jung advises us to become aware of each side of our nature and work to integrate them. I need Jake to help me focus on what is real and do what needs to be done. But I also need the office people to help me live a more connected and carefree life.