Capture brings war to emotional crossroads

Reaction to abduction of U.S. soldiers may alter policy, psychologists say

War In Yugoslavia

April 02, 1999|By Brigid Schulte | Brigid Schulte,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The emotions of captivity are suddenly churning, experts say.

Behind the hollow eyes and bruised faces of the three captured American soldiers are feelings of fear and humiliation. It's a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, according to psychologists.

And, across America, the humiliation is shared. We've been here before: Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Vietnam. We've seen the videos played over and over again. Suddenly the fighting an ocean away has a real and personal impact for all of us, psychologists say.

"It brings it home. Before it was just a target. It was more of an abstraction," said psychologist Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University. Now, he said, "the stakes go up and you wonder should we fold our cards, should we keep going?"

Figley, who has interviewed about 900 combat veterans, predicted the nation's feelings about the POWs will solidify quickly. There will be a general feeling of how their capture might affect America's role in the Kosovo conflict by the weekend, he said.

Right now, there is more painful shock. It's an "oh-my-gosh" feeling, psychologists say.

"It's a very humiliating experience, and it reminds me of back when they took the hostages in Iran and paraded them around," said Ellin Bloch, a dean at the California School of Professional Psychology and author of "Crisis Intervention and Trauma Response." "We feel helpless, because part of us can identify with them."

For the prisoners the feelings are stark fear and embarrassment, experts say. Figley recalls that many of the POWs he's talked to wished they had been killed to be spared the embarrassment of capture and defeat.

"The first thing is abject fear," said Joseph Mancusi, a Virginia psychologist who used to run the Veterans Affairs Department's national psychological services program. "Are they going to kill me? Are they going to humiliate me? Are they going to brainwash me?"

The feeling of helplessness will grow for the captives, Mancusi anticipated. And the pain, emotional as well as physical, will become worse if they are isolated from one another, he said.

But for the nation, frustration is likely to be quickly replaced by anger, Mancusi said. It will likely be "generalized anger" at the Yugoslavians for taking hostages and anger at the Clinton administration for putting soldiers in harm's way.

"We are at the start of something that could profoundly psychologically affect the military, politics and people of the United States," Mancusi said.

How that translates politically -- into support of further action, like the early Vietnam War years -- or into a call for withdrawing American forces, as in Somalia, remains to be seen, political experts say.

John Mueller, a political science professor at the University of Rochester, sees the specter of Vietnam and public fears of getting into a deeper war. He predicted the public will say, "This is a disaster," and push to withdraw from the Kosovo conflict, as America did after soldiers died in Somalia.

Others see an opposite swing.

"It's going to increase the war hysteria here in the United States, such as it is," Washington University political science professor Victor LeVine said. "This is basic humiliation. We don't like it. No. We have power. We want to do something."

LeVine pointed to the 1979 Iran hostage situation: "The pressure was to do something."

Nowhere is there more pressure to do something than in the military, said Douglas Lovelace Jr., a professor at the U.S. Army War College.

"There's a tremendous sense of urgency within the military to somehow get these young men back," Lovelace said. "It could cause us to take some risk that may not necessarily be justified by the circumstances."

"It does heighten the rage the soldier feels," Mancusi said. "At the unit level those folks just want to go out and do things."

Mancusi recalls Vietnam soldiers who after seeing friends captured went out on shooting sprees without discipline or cares about morality.

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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