Perihelion Science Fiction

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Conversations With a Garbage Truck
by Margret A. Treiber

Freshly Brewed
by Preston Dennett

Triangle
by Barton Paul Levenson

Gift of Nibelung
by Olga Godim

Spectral
by Fonda Lee

Send in the Humans
by Harold R. Thompson

Rhythm of the Rain
by Samuel Van Pelt

Worms of Titan
by Brian Biswas

Shorter Stories

Wobble
by C.R. Hodges

Subsumation
by David Steffen

Fast Time Machines at Ridgemont High
by Fred Coppersmith

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Madness of the Winter Soldier
by Erin Lale

Resistance Fighters
by John McCormick


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Madness of the Winter Soldier

By Erin Lale

THE PORTRAYAL OF BRAINWASHING and mental illness in the recent movie “Captain America: Civil War” has roots in real psychological science, and in Cold War history and literature. The movie’s dialogue includes a direct reference to “The Manchurian Candidate,” an influential novel which harnessed the public’s fears about Cold War mind-control experiments.

Bucky appeared in the first “Captain America” comic in 1941. He was Capt. America’s teenage sidekick. The movie character is based on the 21st century comics reboot, in which Bucky became the Winter Soldier after losing his memories, being captured by the Russians, and reprogrammed. The Winter Soldier has a bionic arm with a big red Soviet star on it. The 1940s comics character was actually named Bucky, but the movie character is named James Buchanan Barnes, and Bucky is a nickname based on his middle name. The 1940s character was a child who became Capt. America’s sidekick after accidentally discovering his secret identity. The reboot character is Capt. America’s childhood friend.

PTSD, TBI, MI, and DID

Bucky has amnesia due to injury before he begins the Winter Soldier process, so the amnesia is either psychologically induced by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or physically induced by Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The enemies who brainwash him take advantage of his amnesia. Like many real-life amnesia patients, and like the fictional character Jason Bourne, the Winter Soldier has lost his name and all conscious memories of the details of his life, but retains his learned skills.

PTSD is a trauma-induced anxiety disorder. The two major populations that suffer from PTSD are war veterans and survivors of rape and child abuse. Combat veterans could also have TBI, a physical trauma that can be detected by medical tests. Mental illness is the province of soft science with largely subjective diagnostic criteria, while Traumatic Brain Injury is a neurological condition with objective diagnostic criteria.

Recently, some psychologists have proposed replacing the diagnosis PTSD in war veterans with the diagnosis Moral Injury (MI). Although the diagnostic criteria for PTSD apply equally to combat veterans, crime victims, and survivors of natural disasters, the diagnostic criteria for MI include guilt over one’s misdeeds.

As a person with two distinct personalities with different names, Bucky/Winter Soldier is portrayed in the movie as if he had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Dissociative Identity Disorder is a mental illness in which different divisions of a person’s mind have their own names, and often different sets of memories.

Diagnoses appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) when the majority of members of the American Psychological Association (APA) vote for them. DID/MPD has always had two different factions of doctors competing for their view to be accepted. The majority faction wrote the official diagnosis, which says DID only occurs in survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). The other faction says DID is iatrogenic, induced by efforts to treat it through hypnosis. Bucky does not meet the official definition of DID because his character history does not include CSA, but he could meet the minority faction’s definition. The brainwashing program that created the Winter Soldier could be seen as deliberate mimicking of iatrogenic induction of DID.

In the “Captain America: Civil War” movie, the fake psychologist Zemo addresses Bucky by his full legal name: James Buchanan Barnes. This scene is part of a public trial, so using his formal name is appropriate. Bucky tells him, "My name is Bucky." That is a claim of identity. He is not saying that his name is James but his friends call him Bucky, nor that his name is James but don’t be so formal, call me Bucky. “My name is” communicates that he does not merely prefer the juvenile nickname Bucky but that is his real name. That is the inner child talking. In most cases of DID, there is at least one child alter. One of them is identified as the Original Child, representing the patient as she was when she first shattered under abuse. Although the Bucky personality is too old to be an Original Child, and his character history does not include CSA, in portraying a personality that denies his birth name and asserts that his true name is a childhood nickname, he is portraying DID.

The name the movie character was born under is the one the fake psychologist calls him, James Buchanan Barnes. James barely exists; he is the host of the personalities within him. His two alters war for control of the body. Bucky is the good boy who follows Capt. America and fights for what’s right according to his own values. The Winter Soldier literally just follows orders. As a portrayal of evil, just carrying out orders is a reference to the Nazis. The early Cold War era that gave rise to the idea of brainwashing was a time when Americans were shifting enemies from the Nazis to the Communists. Steve Rogers and Bucky had entered military service specifically to fight the Nazis. The evil of statism represented by the Nazis was now being echoed in the evil of statism represented by Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean communism.

The portrayal of DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder here references an earlier understanding of the disorder, when it was known as MPD or Multiple Personality Disorder. Before the era of psychological science, a person exhibiting an alternate personality was thought to be possessed by a demon or ghost, and would have been taken to a priest for exorcism. Being legally excused of a crime due to mental illness has its roots in the legal theory that the devil can literally make one commit a crime, through possession. Until recently, the treatment of MPD/ DID involved the death of all but one personality, like in exorcism. The doctor took over the role of priest, chose one alter, and helped it emerge triumphant in the war to control the body permanently, driving the others out. More recently, a new understanding of this disorder changed the treatment goal to integrating all the alters together into one whole. This new understanding led to renaming the disorder DID. The portrayal of the Winter Soldier is still in the old mode, and presents the Winter Soldier personality as an enemy to conquer.

Before returning to hibernation, Bucky states that his goal is to have the dangerous stuff taken out of him, and that current science cannot do that for him. If he just means programming, that is not a true statement. Current behavioral psychology could help him extinguish conditioning or replace it with different conditioning. However, if he is talking about the Winter Soldier as a DID personality, then his statement is true. In current psychological practice, Bucky could not have the Winter Soldier removed from his mind. Bucky and the Winter Soldier would have to embrace each other and become one. A goal short of integration would be co-consciousness, a state in which they would learn to live with each other and co-operate. Bucky does not want either of these goals and will not work for them, so he rejects today’s science and hopes for a different solution in the future. 

Alternate Explanations: True Names and ’40s Bleed-Over

The statement of names in the movie could also be a reference to the fairy tale notion of the True Name. In fairy tales, True Names hold power. To say the name of Rumpelstiltskin is to gain the power to thwart him. The most famous modern depiction of the power of True Names is in “Star Wars.” Darth Vader turns evil and abandons his True Name. He returns to good when he returns to his original identity of Anakin Skywalker. In “Civil War,” James is so far gowinter soldierne that this won’t work for him. The good alter is Bucky. Nothing within him responds to James. Thus, he cannot be redeemed once and for all by reclaiming his True Name as Vader did.

There is a third possible reason for the movie character to assert that his real name is Bucky. The movie character may be written with bleed-over from the original 1940s character, whose name was really Bucky. Reboot Bucky being aware that he used to be ’40s Bucky would break the fourth wall. The Marvel Comics Universe doesn’t include fourth wall breaking, so that can’t be the explanation within the story. If that is the real-life explanation, then it’s a script writer’s wink to the audience, and doesn’t follow internal story logic. The only other way I can think of that reboot Bucky could really be ’40s Bucky on the inside would involve time travel from an alternate timeline like in “Quantum Leap.” There is no indication anywhere in the MCU that Bucky has that power. Timeline-hopping can’t explain this without breaking the fourth wall.

The Name “Winter Soldier”

Ed Brubaker turned Bucky Barnes into the Winter Soldier in his reboot of Capt. America. The name Winter Soldier was lifted from the name of the Winter Soldier Investigation, an examination of American war crimes in Vietnam. The hearings took the name from the Thomas Paine quote in which Paine disparaged “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” as quitters. Brubaker wanted the name to suggest both that the Winter Soldier keeps going when the going gets tough, and that he bears guilt. The name Winter Soldier also references the cold of the Cold War, and the cold of the Russian winter.

Flashbacks and Suicide

In the comics, the Winter Soldier has PTSD flashbacks of World War II combat in the middle of a fight against Capt. America, and suddenly remembers he is Bucky. Bucky can’t handle the guilt of what he’s done as Winter Soldier, so, this is about MI as much as it is about PTSD. Bucky commits suicide. He comes back later, because that can happen in comics. However, in portraying PTSD, MI, and suicide, this comic is dealing with real life things that harm real people.

The Manchurian Candidate

The public’s fears about brainwashing fueled the popularity of the novel “The Manchurian Candidate.” These fears were founded on historical events. The North Korean government really did subject American POWs to a re-education program, and some American POWs came back saying they were communists.

American boots hit the ground in Korea on July 5th, 1950, and on July 9th, an American POW gave a communist propaganda speech on the radio. At the end of the war, eleven ex-POWs were convicted of collaborating with the enemy.

The term “brainwashing” entered the American lexicon in 1951. In Edward Hunter’s nonfiction book “Brainwashing in Red China,” Hunter translated the Chinese term hsi-nao as “brainwashing.” Hunter’s book dealt with re-education during Mao Zedong’s revolution. The idea of brainwashing seemed to explain what the public saw happening to American POWs in the Korean War.

In the 1950s, American psychological and psychiatric sciences embraced the idea of conditioning. The foundational work in that field had by done by Pavlov, whose book “Conditioned Reflexes and Psychiatry” had been posthumously translated into English in 1941. From the point of view of the American public, it looked like the communists were ahead in psychological science. It seemed reasonable to attribute unknown advanced capabilities in this area to communist nations.

“The Manchurian Candidate” was published in 1959. In the novel, the main character is an ex-POW who had been brainwashed by his North Korean captors and programmed to commit murder on command. He assassinates a politician.

The parallel to the Winter Soldier is obvious. He too was programmed by his captors to murder on command. He does it over and over on multiple missions. Rather than from North Korea, his controllers are from Russia. By then the Soviet Union was not a friend of China and North Korea, but in the imaginations of U.S. readers, all three nations still fit into the category of Communist Bloc countries.

In the immediate wake of the assassination of JFK, “The Manchurian Candidate” was blamed for influencing Lee Harvey Oswald. The movie was withdrawn from theaters. 

The Winter Soldier Control Process and the Computer Age

In “Civil War,” Tony Stark addresses Bucky as a “Manchurian Candidate.” However, the Winter Soldier is not controlled the same way as the Manchurian Candidate. The Winter Soldier is controlled with an activation phrase, like in the movie “Telefon.” In the comics, he also has a deactivation phrase. The Manchurian Candidate is controlled with a visual cue. He is activated by seeing the Queen of Diamonds playing card.

In “Civil War,” a complicated series of random Russian words is the Winter Soldier’s activation phrase. The controller says, “Longing. Rusted. Seventeen. Daybreak. Furnace. Nine. Benign. Homecoming. One. Freight Car.” Then the controller says, “Soldier,” and the Winter Soldier confirms, “Ready to comply.” Then the controller gives orders.

A few of the random words could be assigned meanings. For example, “seventeen” could refer to the year of Bucky’s birth. However, most of them do not relate to the character or story. They appear to be randomly generated, perhaps designed to be very unlikely to occur in the correct order accidentally in ordinary speech.

In the comics, the Winter Soldier also has a deactivation word, Sputnik. That word was not chosen randomly. Sputnik was the first Soviet space satellite. The sudden appearance of Sputnik in the skies of Earth galvanized the American public to compete with the Soviets for control of space. During the Cold War, the U.S. geopolitical theory about communism was the Domino Effect, which said that if communism took over enough countries it would inevitably take over the entire world, and so it had to be opposed everywhere. Cold War era fears of Soviet world domination fueled the U.S. space program. The word Sputnik refers to the lasting effects of Cold War panic on U.S. culture. 

So, if the Winter Soldier was based on the Manchurian Candidate, how did they come to have such different control processes? The explanation is not to be found by looking back in time at the actual experiences of American POWs in North Korea. They did not have control processes implanted in them. They were just indoctrinated in communist philosophy.

To find the explanation, let’s look at another work of fiction that references the North Korean mind-control experiments. In my science fiction novel series “Punch,” the main character, Capt. Punch, is an ex-POW programmed by aliens through an alien mind-control program. She has a control process that is identical to the Winter Soldier’s process: an activation phrase and a counterphrase to deactivate her. Only the actual words used differ. Capt. Punch’s activation phrase is a nickname the aliens gave her, and her counterphrase is a word in the alien language.

Capt. Punch was not based on the Manchurian Candidate. She was based on an actual Korean War veteran, my father. He had his own private Winter Soldier program. In the context of a martial arts school, he led guided meditations (a less scary term for hypnosis) designed to create the Perfect Warrior. The Perfect Warrior program did not have a control mechanism, though. My father was not under any foreign control, and none of the students in the Perfect Warrior program were under his control.

So, both these literary characters, the Winter Soldier and Capt. Punch, have a control process that works like an on/off switch, but they are both based on things that don’t have that process. The Winter Soldier is based on The Manchurian Candidate, who had a different control process. Capt. Punch is based on the Perfect Warrior program, which did not have any control process. Both were ultimately based on the North Korean mind-control program, which did not have a control mechanism either. Yet, they ended up with control processes that work exactly the same way. How did this happen?

Although based on an early Cold War era idea, the Winter Soldier plotline was written in 2005. The Punch series was also written in the 21st century. These two characters don’t act like the things they were based on. They act like robots. They are given a predetermined command to switch on, accept new user commands only while switched on, carry out the instructions exactly as given, and are switched off with another predetermined command. They work like computer programs. Their control processes must have been unconsciously influenced by the way computer programs work.

Conclusion

Because the Manchurian Candidate, the Winter Soldier, and Capt. Punch all have their roots in fears about mind control, these characters are not meant to show the typical veteran with PTSD. They are all anomalous. They are not meant to represent average people with mental illness any more than Capt. America is meant to represent the average soldier. Heroes and villains are supposed to be larger than life.

The Winter Soldier character in “Civil War” portrays mental illness in a dramatic rather than a realistic fashion. In real life, people do not get DID from being in a war, not even if captured and tortured. Not even the ex-POWs who came home professing communism. In real life, perhaps the iatrogenesis faction always loses the APA vote because they’re wrong, and one can’t induce DID with hypnosis. Their theory is plausible for the story.

When people with mental health labels appear in novels and films, they are often written as more violent than the average person. The reality is that people with mental illness are no more likely to commit crime than the general population, but are more likely to be victims of crime.

Drama exaggerates both the good and the bad in human nature. The portrayal of brainwashing and mental illness in “Civil War” is not meant to educate about mental illness. It’s meant to show a character with enough humanity to be relatable, with enough internally consistent science behind his plotline for the audience to suspend disbelief. It’s meant to make a good story. It succeeds. END

Further Reading

Comic Vine: Bucky Barnes
Who the BLEEP is the Winter Soldier?
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
“The New Yorker:” Brainwashed
Brainwashing in Red China
IMDb
The Mary Sue
Operation: I.V.
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network

Erin Lale is Acquisitions Editor at Caliburn Press. She was the editor of “Berserkrgangr Magazine” and owner of The Science Fiction Store. She recently edited the anthology “No Horns on These Helmets.” Her latest novel is “Planet of the Magi.”

 

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