by Travis Switalski, Sr.
The Names of Rivers by Daniel Buckman, his second in a cycle of four novels, begins and ends a dark, heartbreaking tale of the multi-generational dysfunction between fathers and sons who have both survived the major wars of the American Century. The patriarch of the Polish-American family, Bruno Konick, once soldiered with the First Infantry Division from Omaha Beach to the liberations of Dachau and Buchenwald, an experience that aged his body and forever disconnected his mind. The post-traumatic stress caused by his involvement in WW II affected his life, the lives of his two sons before they ever went to Vietnam, and the life of his grandson, Luke, who wanders Watega County, Illinois realizing that something bad has happened, but unable to understand the big whys.
“Bruno Konick is a compilation of my uncles and grandfathers who fought in the European Theatre of Operations during WW II,” Buckman said in interview. He describes two generations of war veterans in his grandfather’s basement playing cards on Christmas Day. The Vietnam veterans felt isolated and alone at their table, while the World War II veterans, living with their own silent trauma, felt embarrassed for sending their sons off to a war they never intended to win. “I think they had far less closure than 1950s and 1960s Hollywood would suggest. This experience is also framed by tough Depression childhoods as first-generation Americans. I found that these men were sent home to roll final credits on WW II that refused a conventional ending after Auschwitz and Nagasaki changed how people must think about war to win.”
The story of Bruno Konick and his sons intertwines with that of his grandson, Luke. The boy can see the toll that trauma has taken on his working class, Polish-Catholic family even if powerless as a seventeen year-old boy to change anything. “He has a great-grandfather who was gassed in the Meuse-Argonne, a grandfather that was left with malignant PTSD after WW II, and an uncle and a father who are Vietnam veterans that are existing with untreated PTSD and the mania that comes from being a 1980s Vietnam combat veteran,” said Buckman. He wanted to articulate the irony of the boy joining the Marines in order to break the cycle of trauma by potentially exposing himself to the very same trauma. “I wanted the novel to end with the reader wondering what will become of Luke as they already wonder what became of Huck Finn. Will Luke really get out and use the GI Bill? Will Luke get sent to war and lose his nimble wits and wander with untreated PTSD from both his experience and the experiences of three generations ahead of him? I wanted to write a novel about what continuing a military tradition in the family, which is often portrayed as fluffy on network morning shows, does to a family after some hard generations in American Century Wars and untreated PTSD running like an open sore between generations.”
When asked how he thought The Names of Rivers is relevant to America’s recent combat veterans, Buckman said, “I believe that today’s OEF/OIF veterans are much like Luke. He could have been in 1983 Beirut, which was the first major attack by an Islamic terror group on a hard American target, the Marine Barracks 1983. I know from teaching OEF/OIF veterans freshman composition at Chicago junior colleges as a Cold War paratrooper that many young vets from the recent crusade come from the same social conditions as teenagers from the divorce frenzy of the late 70s and 80s laced with untreated PTSD as when I served in the 1980s ‘mellow yellow’ period. I am much older, born in 1967, but my experience teaching OEF/OIF vets and hearing them talk about Korean War veteran grandfathers and Vietnam veteran fathers impresses me one way: This generation of combat veterans are full of grandpa’s and dad’s PTSD themselves. OEF/OIF didn’t escape the culture, hardship, and weird mythology that sprang up to define the wars of the American Century.”
Buckman is the Vice President and Managing Fiction Editor for Military Experience & the Arts. He has been committed since 2006, when OIF grunts started coming back in real numbers, to teaching veteran students to write college essays and mentoring veteran authors with the belief that writing can help individuals cope with their trauma. “Writing has historical credibility in helping veterans not only define their individual PTS into a manageable narrative that will need periodic adjustment over time, but it has made many veteran writers, who never dreamed they would be writers, become respected authors. Homer must have been a soldier.” Buckman challenges veteran writers and students to read books like The Iliad and The Odyssey, asking them if they identify with the characters, Achilles’ rage or Priam’s profound mourning. Most grunt veterans answered with a resounding “every single verse.” He later encourages them all to read authors like Crane, Hemmingway, Herr, Heinemann, O’Brien and Vonnegut to show them that veterans have been writing from pre-history until present day. “I have seen that the simple act of disciplined running, reading, and writing about the war has brought many vets back from real severe diagnoses. If they have these books close, they are never alone. If they discipline themselves to write well every day and do PT, they will begin to understand their experience not as an overwhelming mixture of experience and emotional reactions, but as parts of a larger story that they can begin to write and assemble. I hope that more veterans will use our services at MEA.”
The Names of Rivers is an important novel for all generations of veterans to read and embrace. It is of the same caliber of any of the novels that Buckman recommends to his students and veteran writers and is an outstanding example of the real contribution that veterans have given the literary arts. Buckman’s raw honesty and genuine, heartfelt sincerity come through in his writing, invoking the entire gamut of human emotions in the reader, setting a standard for all writers – veterans and otherwise – to follow.