2013 – Our San Francisco chapter of Veterans for Peace is sitting in a circle at our monthly meeting. Bill, our president, is conducting the meeting and as vice president I am sitting next to him. One of our members is reporting on the success of our recent event honoring African American veterans, and describing the catered dinner of delicious Soul Food that was served.
One member suddenly interrupts saying, “I think it was wrong to charge money for the dinner. Didn’t you realize there were homeless veterans there? I’ve been hanging out with the homeless vets from the Occupy movement, they don’t have money! You were discriminating against them by charging them money just to eat!” She was angry, speaking very loudly and aggressively.
Other members pointed out that the people who paid got to be first in line, but after they were served there was lots of food left and everyone else got to eat then. Someone noted that we had to pay for the food to be catered, and that the caterers had to buy the food and invest their time and effort to cook and serve it.
One member said, “We weren’t running a soup kitchen. I’ve been on General Assistance in San Francisco and ate all my meals in soup kitchens for months, and before that time in my life – and after it – I worked in soup kitchens, and I am as aware as anyone about the need for free food and where to get it.” He was equally loud and aggressive in tone.
The first member retorts, “That’s still unfair. Why should the homeless vets eat second? You’re treating them like second class citizens, you think you’re better than them! That’s why they don’t trust you! You’re the rich vets, they’re the poor vets! And you treat them as not as good!” She seemed not to grasp that many of us including me had in the past been homeless ourselves.
The second member raised his voice some more, repeating again that she wasn’t the only one with experience with homelessness and soap kitchens. This time he was almost shouting.
The first member repeated her arguments about the “rich vets” vs. the “poor vets,” raising her voice even louder and more aggressively until she actually was shouting. She ended with, “They don’t trust you, you’re the rich vets!
The second member suddenly stood up and walked quickly across the circle toward the first member, now shouting back with his previous arguments. This was now a physical confrontation. Bill, our president, immediately stood up and intercepted him, blocking his path toward the woman. He ordered the member back to his seat. The member started to maneuver around the side of Bill, so I stood up and blocked his sideways advance. As the two members continued shouting at each other, Bill and I both demanded that he return to his seat. A loud verbal exchange continued between the two members with Bill and I in between, but he finally did return to his seat. With more prompting, he stopped shouting at the woman.
The woman wouldn’t stop, however, and kept shouting at the man. I repeatedly insisted she stop, but she wouldn’t. Finally, she stood up and said, “It’s it. I’m outta here.” She threw a poster of the dinner down on the floor and walked out shouting, “You guys are the rich vets! The poor vets don’t trust you!”
After a pause, Bill restored order in the meeting and continued on with the agenda.
In thinking about this incident much later, many different thoughts came to my mind. Both as a member of the veterans community and as a social worker with a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and 37 years of work experience, I have seen this same phenomenon of angry rants play out again and again, with or without the dramatic physical confrontation. Many times it consisted of a veteran being triggered by a subject under discussion, a word, a memory, or a thought, and then going on a long, angry rant about the issue. It may be generic, such as the Iraq war, George W. Bush, or some recent outrage in the news, or it may be personal as in this case. While this doesn’t happen all the time, it happens often enough that we in Veterans for Peace have a term for it: “Vet Rant.” The term refers to someone who has gotten upset about something and gone off on an angry rant about it. We have become so familiar with it that occasionally a vet will start a rant, then realize after a minute or two that he is ranting, stop, and say, “OK, I’m done with my rant now, sorry.” Sometimes a person will even say, “OK, I’m almost done with my rant now, give me a minute to finish this point and I’ll stop.” Once they stop, we often nod to acknowledge their feelings, then simply go on as if nothing has happened. If it gets out of hand, then others step in and stop the behavior, as in this case.
This is not to say that angry rants are OK or acceptable. On the contrary, angry rants — particularly if directed at another person — can often be extremely hurtful and destructive of relationships and groups. If taken too far they can easily become abusive to others. Having been abused by traumatic events, if we do not control our anger it is entirely possible to find ourselves in turn abusing others. This is exactly how the cycle of violence is passed on from person to person and becomes contagious in the world. It is important both for individuals to take responsibility for controlling their own behavior, as well as for groups to set clear limits and stop unacceptable behavior. In our chapter of Veterans for Peace, we have been struggling to find the balance between setting limits on behavior and allowing individuals to express their emotions. This article is an attempt to probe deeper into the causes of angry vet rants and where they come from, in an attempt to understand them. With understanding, perhaps individuals can gain more control over and reduce their destructive outbursts.
I first began to realize my own problem with vet rants during Gulf War 1. At the beginning of a meeting it was decided to go around the circle and give everyone a moment to vent about their feelings. When it came to my turn I had no idea what I would say, but I started talking. I spoke angrily about the war, how unnecessary it was, and how immoral it is to murder innocent people for oil. As I talked, I became angrier and angrier. Suddenly I realized that I was going over my fair allotment of time, but I had trouble stopping myself. With much effort I finally managed to stop. Afterwards I thought to myself, “What’s going on here? I sound exactly like an angry Viet Nam vet. But I’m not a Viet Nam vet, I’m a former Army deserter who refused orders to Viet Nam and escaped to Canada. Why am I so angry?” That led to a lot of thinking.
I realized that I was still angry about the Viet Nam war. I was angry about My Lai, the incident where American soldiers slaughtered over 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of the same name. I was angry at the pattern of killing innocent Vietnamese that was part of American policy from the highest levels, including aerial carpet bombing, free fire zones, rounding up whole villages and moving them to “strategic hamlets,” torture and execution of prisoners, Agent Orange, and all the government lies about the war from it’s beginning to the present. But more than that, I eventually realized that I was also angry about what the war personally put me through: the Army, the need to decide to either kill or go to jail or into exile, the fear that I lived through, the mental and moral struggles with what was right and what was wrong when your country lies, the hardships I faced in being wanted by the FBI for five years, deserting to a new country, and being a stranger in an strange land. I also was angry for the countless people I’d met along the way who had also suffered; the other war resisters, the combat veteran friends still struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Vietnamese students and later the Southeast Asian refugees that I’ve met, the people who died there whose stories I heard from those who returned, and the American and Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange still suffering today. There was really no separating my feelings for any of these aspects or people, it was all one big ball of pain, fear, anger, grief, and loss. To twist a conservative phrase, I just felt like, “Vent it all, let God sort it out.”
Over the years I have seen these same feelings, and the angry rants, in many quite different people who have suffered. Rape victims angry at their perpetrators, 80 and 90 year old survivors of other wars in other nations, victims of child abuse, sexual molestation, neglect, and emotional abuse, people involved in gang warfare, and many other people involved in very different traumatic events. All experienced pain, loss, fear, grief, and suffering. Some were angry even at their own powerlessness to stop the events, or to save others that they cared about. Some felt immerse guilt about events even if those events were far beyond any possibility that they could have controlled the situation or changed the outcome. Logic had nothing to do with anything; all of these feelings — pain, fear, anger, grief, loss — were deep primal feelings, seemingly immune to logic or reason. We just felt them, intensely and deeply. And the rants followed. Sometimes the rants are directed at a person, present or not. Sometimes the rants were directed at entire groups — “the enemy,” the government, the “other,” the leader(s) — and sometimes at the world or life itself.
But I also saw people, over the course of time, work out some of this anger. People came to understand their anger. The first step seemed to be to accept that one is angry, and to accept that one rants. Then comes the long process of talking about it, sometimes for years, to understand it, to see it clearly in it’s many facets, and to release it over time. There is much healing in that, but it is a long term life task. Some have tried to short circuit the process, but there are no short cuts, only the continued working, working, working on oneself. Sometimes people make large leaps forward. Sometimes people get stuck for years. Sometimes people judge themselves or others harshly if they feel that they aren’t making as much progress as they think that they should. But over the years I have observed that every person has their own pace and their course of healing. Perhaps it’s karma, perhaps it’s our life plan, or perhaps it’s our own individual natures. In any case, those who continued working have consistently made progress, no matter how slow or how fast. And as the process continues, they have consistently become wiser, kinder people, and beacons for others to follow. Flawed beacons, but more inspiring because of their flaws. Who could possibly follow a perfect person? A flawed person who improves, they can lead the way.
Vet rants are a part of the process. They are to be understood and managed, with appropriate limits set on behavior while acknowledging the feelings. If we ourselves have anger issues, the best thing we can do is accept that we do, and make the needed effort to control our angry rants. Others should apply social pressure and limits to stop behavior that is destructive and/or abusive. But we also need to find constructive ways to express our feelings.
Therapists have advanced various methods of carefully constructed speech in expressing anger. Typical techniques include saying, “When you do __________________, I feel ______________,” or, “”When this happens, I feel ______________________.” The idea is to state one’s feelings without expressing judgment of another, allowing the anger to be expressed while also allowing the other person space and respect. These work to a point and are good techniques. But no single technique is a magic cure-all for anger or anything else. It takes work, sometimes years of work, and each individuals’ developing understanding of themselves, others, and situations. Various therapists have developed many methods of treating anger and other issues, such as “Client Centered” and other forms of talk therapy, “Behavioral Therapy,” “Forgiveness Therapy,” and other forms too numerous to discuss here. A reader can Goggle any of these terms for more information. Each method has it’s pros and cons, it’s supporters and detractors. The issues around each method are deep and complex, and no single therapist or method works for all people at all times. People have to find what works for them at what point in their lives. What does work, however, is work itself. Keep working, and eventually some degree of healing usually develops.
In the process of both working on my own healing and observing the healing of others, I began to question why we need to vent our anger. I began to wonder if there is some innate dynamic in our nature that causes us to vent. What purpose does it serve? In asking myself these questions, a thought occurred to me: Perhaps, back in the very primal beginnings of our species, humans survived because we warned each other of dangers, whether those dangers were physically present at the moment or not. If people told others of a traumatic incident, this would warn others to avoid certain dangers as well as convey how the person survived the danger. Such knowledge would greatly improve our species’ chances of survival. When I thought back to examples of people ranting, it often had certain elements such as a wrong that was done, a hurt that occurred, a danger that was survived, and some idea about what would have been right instead of what actually happened. In the case of rants against theoretical future events, it was usually a rant against allowing such future events to occur, sometimes with statements about what should be done instead. In other words, whether conscious or not, there was an altruistic motive involved in the rants. This put the “vet rants” in a very different light. Rather than seeing angry people as being negative and hurtful, I realized that there was actually a positive, caring drive operating underneath the seemingly negative behavior. It was both a cry for help and a cry to save others. The seemingly “bad” behavior was in fact a desperate attempt to do good.
In the example I gave at the beginning of this article, both the woman and man were trying to do right, to protect others from unjust harm. In spite of their angry confrontation, what really motivated both of them was an underlying and very primal drive to do good, to protect others from future injustice, harm, or perceived danger.
This insight led me to wonder: If humans’ basic response to danger is “fight or flight,” then are these angry rants part of the “fight” reflex? And if so, then is withdrawing or remaining silent in the face of real or perceived injustice or danger part of the “flight” response?
If both anger and withdrawal are part of the “fight or flight” response, then that suggests that underlying all of this is fear. Fear of harm — be it to self or others — seems logically to be a key emotion beneath both reactions. If so, then it stands to reason that healing from either reaction requires getting beyond the fear. This in turn requires getting to a place of physical and psychological safety, both for oneself and for others about whom we care. Getting to a safe place is, in fact, exactly what many emergency social services help victims do. For example in battered women hotlines, a first priority is helping the victim leave the battering situation and get to a safe location before anything else is done.
Yet with unending war, we veterans can never reach a place of safety for others. Thus the phenomenon of some veterans’ PTSD becoming worse when new wars happen; their old issues are re-triggered. They care deeply about others, even if they have never physically met them and they are on the other side of the world. They care deeply enough to suffer when they see others suffering. The same is true of people who have suffered other types of traumas and see the same or similar traumas inflicted on others.
This may also explain the timing of when in a person’s life various forms of therapy may or may not be effective in helping them heal from their traumas. How can any amount of talk therapy, behavioral therapy, or any other therapy reduce the “fight or flight” response if the need for the response is still present in the person’s life? How can one forgive or let go if at the same time one still needs to maintain their anger (“fight” response) or withdrawal (“flight” response) as a defense against an ongoing danger to self or others? To watch others suffer often causes people to re-experience their own suffering. Even to anticipate such suffering in others may be enough to re-trigger old emotions. In such cases, there may be a mix of some healing (because the person has reached a place of relative safety for themselves) combined with some continued anger, withdrawal, or other symptoms of their past trauma (because they experience others’ continued suffering).
We can see this clearly in the example that I started this article with — the confrontation between the man and the woman over food for the homeless. Homeless veterans are the ragged tip of the iceberg of veterans’ suffering, and a vexing problem that seems to never get solved. The woman was concerned not only that they get free food, but also that they do so in dignity without being put at the end of the line. The man was concerned that the caters get their earned income and that those who paid for the meal are assured of being fed. Each had a concern for others, a compassionate and altruistic drive behind their “bad” behavior. Both have worked on their issues over the years and made some progress.. Yet in both cases, not only their own suffering but also the suffering they observe in others continues, so healing is only partial and pain, anger, guilt, and other symptoms persist.
Our world, ourselves — everything is connected to everything else. We have to ask the question, if the cycle of violence can be contagious and passed on from person to person, what about it’s opposite — love? Can love and kindness be passed on from person to person and be contagious also? Can random acts of kindness really change the world? Logic would imply yes.
Ultimately the journey is for all of us humans to heal — or not — together. What will humanity choose?