The scapegoat of war: protecting U.S. veterans.
Subject: Post-traumatic stress disorder (Risk factors)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (Care and treatment)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (Prevention)
Scapegoat (Psychological aspects)
Scapegoating (Psychological aspects)
Veterans (Health aspects)
Veterans (Psychological aspects)
Author: Umbrasas, Karl
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 12 Source Issue: 3
Product: Product Code: E198380 Veterans
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 208639914
Full Text: This article discusses the implication of veterans receiving a negative homecoming upon returning home from combat. The negative homecoming received by Vietnam veterans is considered a form of societal scapegoating, and the potential for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans to be scapegoated is addressed.

Negative Homecoming and its Impact on Veterans' Mental Health

Many factors have been shown to contribute to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam veterans. Obviously, the psychological experience of being in combat and having one's life threatened while witnessing other gruesome acts has etiological significance. Having a pre-existing disorder that acts as a diathesis to the stress of combat is another contributing feature. However, one dynamic that has been shown to reliably and powerfully contribute to the diagnosis of PTSD in Vietnam veterans is that of a negative homecoming experience (Johnson, 1980; Solkoff, 1986; Butler, 1988; Green, 1990; Fontana, 1994; Orsillo, 1996; Fontana, 1997; Johnson, 1997; Cantrell, 2000; Koenan, 2003). The construct "negative homecoming experience" exudes subjectivity and could thus suggest that these veterans are not responding to objective reality. This is not the case, however, as the student of history is well aware of the objectively hostile, negative treatment that Vietnam veterans have endured.

It is the psychological impact of this negative treatment that has been showing up in studies that investigate the origins of veteran psychopathology. Johnson et al. (1980) report that the intensity of the veteran's homecoming was a stronger predictor of PTSD than combat exposure, as the insults, lack of support, anti lack of honor experienced by these veterans consequently led to anger, resentment, isolation, and eventually an emotional closing off from others. In another study, Orsillo et al. (1996) found that a negative homecoming coupled with shame about one's service is a stronger predictor of PTSD than combat exposure.


Because the homecoming experience is such an instrumental variable in the veteran's post-combat adjustment, it is necessary to provide a safe, accepting environment in which the veteran can re-adjust. Such an accepting post-combat home environment, according to Fontana (1997), will enable diffusing the veterans' combat distress within the society that they served and allow the integration of the veterans' experiences over time. However, if veterans are not allowed this diffusion, for instance, when the country is vehemently against the war and rejects the veteran, they will not have the means to affirm the legitimacy of their wartime behavior, which results in each individual coming to terms with their wartime behavior on their own (Fontana et al., 1997).

The fact that a society may sanction a war, send its men and women to fight on its behalf, and then reject these service members upon their return raises important questions. Why would a society harbor so much disdain for a group of its own citizens functioning on its behalf?. What are the psychological dynamics at play when a society acts as such? Could this happen with our current cohort of veterans? To answer these questions, we must turn to a discussion of the scapegoat phenomenon.

The Scapegoat

The term "scapegoat" has its origins in an ancient Hebrew ritual where a priest would symbolically infuse a goat with the sins of the people and send the goat off into the wild to thus rid the people of their sins (Aronson, 2004). Today, we understand the term "scapegoat" to mean a person or group of people who are on the receiving end of blame and prejudice. The scapegoat phenomenon can potentially manifest itself in any group of people, be it small groups or societies. In group psychotherapy, the scapegoat emerges as a person who receives the group's exaggerated and likely untrue projections (Dugo & Beck, 1984). Examples of the scapegoat in a societal context have been Chinese immigrants in the 1800s and the Jews in Nazi Germany (Aronson, 2004). And, more recently, it can be said that the Vietnam veterans were scapegoats to their country during and after the late 1960s.

The psychological dynamics of the scapegoat phenomenon begin with a frustration at something too big, powerful, or vague. An individual thus directs a powerful emotion at it (such as anger), without any potential for success in affecting it (Aronson, 2004). This leads to a displacement of anger, aggression, and any other emotion onto a less powerful and more tangible entity, such as an outgroup or outgroup member (Aronson, 2004). The scapegoat manifests as the entity that is disliked, easily accessible, and less powerful than those displacing the emotion (Aronson, 2004). The hostility that becomes the visible mistreatment of the scapegoat is a function of what the dominant group deems appropriate at the time (Aronson, 2004).


Apparently, the scapegoats of the Vietnam War were the veterans of that war. In the late 1960s and early 1970s (and even years later), American society was in a constant state of flux, and citizens grew increasingly restless. The opposition to the Vietnam War was a model of this unrest. The youth were taking to the streets and engaging in protests and demonstrations denouncing the actions of their own country. There was a great deal of anger at the government over the war, and people wanted their voices heard. Consistent with the scapegoat phenomenon, however, the government was too big, vague, and unresponsive to their cry.

It should be noted that the group of demonstrators during this period were unusually ambitious, as their idealism for change is arguably unmatched in 20th century America. Their deep resentment toward the government--and by extension the military-began to be directed toward a more vulnerable and easier target--the veteran. An individual veteran walking down the street in uniform or small groups of veterans in the airport were definitely the outgroup in a context of an extremely unpopular war. They become the repository for society's anger and resentment. Consistent with the form of aggression appropriate at the time, veterans were heckled, harassed, shouted at, and even spat upon. The uncivil behavior toward the veteran was an outgrowth of the protests and demonstrations being held during that time. Society projected their disgust of the government onto the veterans who were carrying out the orders of the government. Fighting back in self-defense only corroborates the aggressor's view that the veteran is really an instigator of violence and an aggressor.

Homecoming of Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans

The current cohort of U.S. veterans who have served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq are coming home in large numbers. Their return home or re-deployment from the combat zone will continue as military and political progress moves forward in the war zones. This will leave a cohort of veterans who need to accomplish a multilevel readjustment to society. Physical and emotional scars need to be healed, and family and social relationships need to be nurtured. Similarly, there is a higher-order healing and validation of ideals that need to occur with society in general, to allow the veterans to legitimize their wartime behavior and service and eventually reintegrate into the society that they served (Fontana et al., 1997). Their welcome home is crucial as it will validate their service and begin the process of their re-adjustment into society (Bristol, 2004).

Today's social and political climate is different from the context in which the Vietnam veterans returned home. There is no large-scale, coherent, antigovernment movement visible in the streets. We currently do not see or hear about these veterans being stigmatized as were the Vietnam veterans. However, there appears to be a large dissatisfaction with the country being at war. This is especially relevant as it relates to the circumstances leading up to the war, notably the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. This is desirable in a democracy, as it is important for a society to express opinions freely and agree or disagree with the government as they wish. But within this social dissatisfaction exists a precondition for scapegoat dynamics.



The scapegoating of veterans can occur with this or future generations of veterans. There is currently a significant societal dissatisfaction with, and disapproval of, the government as well as its involvement in the wars. This social censure of a big, powerful entity that is relatively intangible sets the stage for scapegoat dynamics. It is quite possible that if society as a whole does not feel heard, it may then displace negative effects on something or someone that can be immediately associated with its angst. Dissatisfied with the human toll, large sums of money spent on the war, and a weakening international image, people may harbor negative feelings that will seek discharge. Veterans may be viewed as the reason why America's international image has been tarnished, or they may be seen as cold-hearted perpetrators of violence. The veteran may personify an ailing economy as trillions of dollars continue to be spent on the wars. The psychological implications of being on the receiving end of such projections can lead to a sense of rejection, humiliation, and eventually alienation.

An awareness of scapegoat dynamics is important in safeguarding the mental health of a veteran. As data from Vietnam veterans indicate, the negative homecoming or scapegoating that they have experienced exerts a huge toll on their mental health. Indeed, their negative homecoming was a more powerful predictor of PTSD than their combat experience (Johnson et al., 1980; Orsillo et al., 1996). Knowledge of how social forces exert insidious effects on people will provide an advantage in caring for the current cohort of veterans. For instance, upon the veterans' return, it will be important to acknowledge them for their service irrespective of one's political preferences. If one does not actively embrace a returning veteran, refraining from invalidation of veterans can be just as helpful in its neutrality. On the other hand, to invalidate and even reject the veteran because of political or policy disagreements with the government is tantamount to scapegoating.

Clinicians who work with veterans can do many things to increase their awareness of the military culture or increase the relational quality with the veteran. A good starting point is to determine the level of acculturation the veteran has within the military culture. Veterans may have a broad range of attitudes towards the military, and their identity as a veteran can be just as variable. Therefore, determining the veteran's level of acculturation to the military culture will help establish the approach to take with the client (Sue, D.W. & Sue, D., 2003).

One important aspect of working with veterans is validation. Specifically, validation for the veteran's service. Validation is an integral component of any therapeutic relationship, but with the veteran, the therapist's acknowledgement of the veteran's service and even an interest in their experience conveys respect and prizing that the veteran may not experience elsewhere.


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By Karl Umbrasas, MA

Karl Umbrasas is a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) student in clinical psychology at Argosy University in Schaumburg, IL. Karl's interests include military and veterans' issues, clinical hypnosis, and brief forms of psychotherapy. Karl has worked in various roles in the mental health field, most notably as a therapist at Holy Family Medical Center in Des Plaines, IL.
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