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How do we build self esteem from childhood to young adulthood?

Building and maintaining self esteem largely depends on our experiences, our history of successes and failures. Each of us defines what is a success or what is a failure depending on what we learn from our family, our culture, our friends, and our personal experiences and beliefs. In the American culture there is a concept that "if you are not a winner, then you must be a failure".

There were few ways to participate in Vietnam and feel like you were succeeding. In combat you do things that you feel bad about unless the society as a whole sanctions your behavior as a warrior, accepts you, and later rewards you for your participation and sacrifice. Our society largely defined Vietnam as a failure; it was not won. When vets returned they often encountered silence and/or hostility which reinforced the idea that if you are not a winner, then you must be a failure. The society in general did not sanction or reward your efforts in Vietnam. While fighting in Vietnam the measure of success and failure became different from the culture's. Vietnam was experienced by many vets as a no win situation and this had a serious impact on individual self esteem.

In what ways were Vietnam and trauma experienced as a no win situation?

  • 1. Conflict of Ideals some of the "good guys" in Vietnam did horrendous things, so the whole concept of "good" vs "bad" was not always recognizable. The ideal of the good warrior changed. Vietnam took a different type of warrior in order to stay alive. Traditional images of honor did not necessarily fit the VN combat situation.
  • 2. Misuse of power individuals were forced or felt they had to participate irregardless of personal beliefs, ideals, morals, judgments, or knowledge.
  • 3. Strategy from the upper levels of the military and government kept changing; there was an erosion of order. Order is an important component of feeling safe, supported, and successful. Order is necessary to work toward a mission or goal. Break down order and there is no safety, no feeling of success.
  • 4. Actions were not effective both group actions and individual actions were not effective because there was no sense of "winning". Most wars are fought over territory, but in VN territory was taken and given every day.
  • 5. Subordination of the individual war requires that the mission is more important than the individual, however if there are no clear achievable goals this creates great conflict. Boot camp and military command is based on a punitive model, designed to make you acutely aware of your failures. In war you under reward individual success to support the mission or the group, but collectively Vietnam was not won.
  • 6. To a great extent each soldier was drafted and then served alone in Vietnam, rather than being sent as a unit. This served to isolate each soldier and deprive each individual from knowing group success. One important way to know you are succeeding is to have the support of a group. The group defines success and failure, the group recognizes you as an important part of the whole and as a success.
  • 7. No clear definitions of roles, behaviors, or expectations as the war progressed. The VN war started with one set of ideals about what would constitute success, but "winning" had to be scaled down further and further.
  • Winning the War to Keeping the troops alive to Each individual getting out alive
  • 8. Guerilla warfare it was impossible to define the "enemy". If men, women, and children are all potentially the enemy it is hard to feel successful.
  • 9. The use of "body count" as a measure of success is a difficult measure to feel successful or good about.
  • 10. The South Vietnamese were ambivalent about our presence there; the people you were there to help showed mixed support. Military actions often required destroying the crops, countryside, and villages of the people that were to be protected.
  • 11. War does not allow for personal feelings and dealing with the effects of witnessing and/or participating in trauma.
  • 12. When soldiers returned home their experiences were ignored and often treated with silence by the society as a whole and by family and friends "don't/can't tell. Lack of support from civilians made the individual soldier feel abandoned. "I'm fighting for my fellow countrymen and they don't appreciate my efforts."
  • 13. Protests at home gave the message that the soldier was bad and a failure. Many vets were told by superiors and by family that they were a failure.
  • 14. Disruption of work and relationships occurred due to VN and what happened after discharge. These are two of the most important areas of life and failure at these after returning home added to the loss of self esteem.
  • 15. Individual vets experienced internal conflict and doubt between what they saw and heard at home after discharge versus what they had recently experienced in Vietnam and feelings about the vets still in VN
  • 16. Vets returned at a time when great cultural changes were occurring the vet was not the same, and home and cultural ideals were not the same.

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