When the Vietnam Conflict ended in 1973, 566 military prisoners of war returned from captivity in North Vietnam. More than 45 years later, the psychological tests of approximately 300 of these repatriated prisoners show few instances of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. How can this be when other groups in history who have experienced captivity have often shown extreme aftereffects? The answers are varied and complex, but one thing seems clear. The Vietnam prisoners of war had a system that worked, a system for human connection based on control and grounded in the effective use of humor. They created freedom where there was none.
Research tell us that human beings want power and authority over their futures. We want to feel that we have a say in how things will go for us. When we perceive that our actions will make an outcome likely, we feel optimistic and secure. When we don’t, we feel insecure. We feel like victims. Sometimes people stay in a victim’s frame of mind after a loss or disappointment. They doubt their capacity to make their lives happen according to their own aspirations, so they wait to be rescued or blessed by good fortune. They start to feel undermined and overwhelmed; and they can become totally immobilized.
But the POWs weren’t victims. Their captors certainly victimized them, but they never saw themselves as victims, no matter what was done to them. They weren’t victims because they took control of the few things they could control. They were told when and what and if they could eat; they were told when they could shower, sleep, and use the toilet. They had no say about parts of their lives that people normally take for granted. But they did have control over one thing, and that was their humor perspective.
Their need for control served as a framework for the POWs who created and maintained a system of strong interpersonal relationships and group affiliation that helped them survive over seven years in captivity and thrive during the years since repatriation. Humor was one of the elements of that system. The POWs taught each other how to use humor as a weapon for fighting back and as a tool for building cohesion.
As one man stated, “Believe it or not, even under the almost worst of conditions over there, under the right circumstances, we could laugh.” They would say, “Well, boy, we’re going to look back on this and laugh, but boy, it sure does hurt now.” Another participant in my study added, “The first five months I didn’t have a sense of humor. I was having great difficulty finding anything very funny about the situation, and then I discovered by living with other people and the way we interacted, that we eventually started being awfully funny.”
According to some POWs, the importance and the value of a sense of humor was critical. “Humor allows you to get up every morning and think this isn’t the end of the world, so one’s sense of humor is pretty critical.” One VPOW reported that even after being beaten the men ended up telling jokes to each other despite the miserable conditions of the cell. Some others on the other side of the wall, who had also been beaten, tapped the question, “What’s so funny?” The response was, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you shouldn’t have joined up.”
To prevent a disjunction of the self and to find meaning in a situation void of meaning, the POWs relied on resources many of them did not know they had. Their internal sense of mirth and humor, their reliance on one another, and their group interactions all combined to create a system for survival. Their humor perspective provided the framework for discovering how to cope with their captivity, and their commitment to one another other gives an important perspective about what coping is made of. The role humor can play in bouncing back from adversity, especially when we are linked to others who will help us laugh, seems critical.
On this Fourth of July, let us remember these heroes and others who have sacrificed for our freedom. They gave their yesterdays so that we might have bright tomorrows.