Post Traumatic Narrative Disorder

by Kyle Larkin

War writing is paradoxical by nature. Historically, veteran authors have claimed that war cannot be understood unless it is experienced firsthand, but this claim is always made within the very writings that attempt to help readers understand wars they did not experience. Some writers seem oblivious to this contradiction, while others explicitly acknowledge that they don’t expect readers to understand them. Philip Caputo ends his Prologue to A Rumor of War by conceding that his writing “might, perhaps, prevent the next generation from being crucified in the next war. But I don’t think so.” Deep ambivalence is a central aspect of war writing, but we write anyway, knowing that it will change nothing, because the purpose, above all, is to share our experiences—to simply tell. These shared experiences, written by veterans, have formed unique and definitive narratives of each war.

The unprecedented scale and horror of World War I coincided with Modernism to produce the first great outpouring of work by disillusioned veterans. It is the narrative of trench warfare and Shell Shock—some of the earliest attempts to understand traumatic stress. World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history, led to a wide range of writings from authors all over the world. It is remembered as a justified war, the triumph of Good over Evil, the overthrow of Fascism by Heroism. The lack of iconic literature about the Korean War tells its own story—the absence is itself the narrative. It is the Forgotten War, in which more than thirty thousand American deaths were overshadowed by a world still recovering from the immensity of WWII. Vietnam brought Americans to the jungle in the midst of a countercultural revolution, forming a narrative of protest and anti-war sentiment in the face of political corruption. Veterans became victims of both the draft and the demoralizing treatment they received upon returning home, which initiated the controversial stereotype of the Broken Veteran.

What, then, will be the narrative of the Wars on Terror? For the first time in history, we have troops who, before they even deploy, are already familiar with terms such as “PTSD,” “re-experiencing,” “trauma studies,” “triggers,” “Veteran Suicide Rates,” and “hyper-vigilance.” After their tours, veterans come home to a ready-made post-traumatic lexicon waiting for them to use for interpreting their experiences. The lens of pre-reflective awareness that is now brought to war, and the very real dangers these traumatic terms represent, have both had profound influences on the way war is experienced and written about. A great passage in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato explains how the protagonist, through television and magazines and newspapers, anticipated the ugliness and poverty of war, that “he had seen it all before seeing it,” which caused his experience to seem muted and familiar, a simulacrum. We now have soldiers who expect to be broken by war, are acutely aware of the breaking as it happens, and then return, broken by the war but comfortable using terms such as “my trauma” because they have come home to the tools and vocabulary with which to explain their experiences—they “had seen it all before seeing it.”

This is an important shift in the history of war writing, and, as a result, it has lead to an abundance of stories told retrospectively by self-proclaimed Broken Veteran narrators. The problem with this is that it tends to produce narratives that interpret experiences before explaining them. When veterans expect to be broken by war, and then their expectations are met, it can translate into writings that simply trace this arc backwards—the veteran begins their novel or memoir or short story by explaining they have been broken by the war, and then they explain how this happened. This narrative can portray a one-dimensional archetype of the veteran-as-victim, which seems borrowed from the draft and the Vietnam experience. War writing can be therapeutic, and there’s merit to that aspect alone, but the Broken Veteran should play a role in the modern narrative and not be the narrative itself.

Despite the abundance of attention it receives, the current hyper-focus on trauma only constitutes half of the contemporary war narrative. Frustration makes up the other half—veterans are frustrated with multiple deployments, frustrated with fighting an insurgency of indistinguishable enemies who seemingly vanish into thin air, frustrated with the disconnect between society’s proud, emphatic Support The Troops platitude and the large number of veterans who nevertheless are struggling, frustrated with the struggle of re-integration into society or with families (the ubiquitous and unchallenged use of the term “re-integration” is telling), and, maybe most of all, frustration with the possibility that personal sacrifices (and the sacrifices of the dead and wounded) were for nothing.

Veterans are granted privileges now that they did not have after previous wars. The Every-Service-Member-Is-A-Hero mentality that took hold after 9/11 has created an environment where it is blasphemous to question veterans. Critical analysis is strictly forbidden if you haven’t experienced war firsthand. Only other veterans are allowed to ask important, uncomfortable questions, but they usually don’t. These conditions have helped create the cocoon in which the prevalence of Broken Veteran narratives and over-traumatized writings have formed.

The risk inherent in this type of writing is that the modern war narrative could end up being defined solely in terms of post-trauma, rendering it generic and repetitive. When experiences are interpreted before they are explained, it replaces the ambivalence that is central to war writing with a bland certainty. The Post-Traumatic Wars deserve a narrative that is as complex and definitive and enduring as they have been. Great war writing seems to tell the reader, “War can’t be understood unless you’ve experienced it,” a statement intended more so to draw attention to the gravity of the subject matter than to be taken literally, but it also crucially implies, “but let me tell you about it anyway.” This is where some modern narratives fall flat—instead of telling, they seem to say that war truly cannot be understood without personal experience, and therefore they tell readers what should be understood (and in what terms it should be understood) before any experiences are described. The modern narrative could use a shift back toward ambivalence, which allows readers to interpret experiences for themselves. The purpose of war writing, after all, is to share experiences without expectations for change—to tell without interpretation, as Erich Maria Remarque brilliantly states in his preface to All Quiet on the Western Front, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

 

 

(Featured Image: Steve Beales / In Duty Comes Honour & Excellence / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)

I Am Travis

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

I’m home. That’s a weird thing to think about, home. The place that you dream about when you’re sitting in Iraq with five minutes of quiet, or in the bay at Ft. Benning in between the smoke sessions. Almost twenty years ago when I was home, I was just “Travis.” “Travis” smoked dope and skipped class. He had a girlfriend and a little rental house and a car. “Travis” was a fucked up kid with a lot of friends and no future. “Travis” ran away from a girl by joining the Army. “Travis” swore he would never return.

“Ski,” what they called me when I was in the Army. I guess like most kids with a name that utilized the entire alphabet I was relegated to being called a portion of my surname. So, “Ski” it was. In the beginning it was simply a means to identify me from the other camouflage clad, high-and-tight-headed guys in my platoon, a way of singling me out by name for details or for the entertainment of my leadership. In my first four years of service I was “Ski” to my leaders and buddies, but I was still “Travis” in my mind.

“Ski” eventually became more of a persona than a name. It morphed into an identity much stronger than the three letters implied, borne of a need to distance “Travis” from the evils and immorality of “Ski’s” chosen profession. “Ski” became “Sergeant Ski” followed by “Staff Sergeant Ski,” “Sergeant First Class Ski” and – God help us all – “First Sergeant Ski” for a time. “Ski” in all of his Sergeant forms took on a whole new way of life and image. The Sergeants “Ski” were no longer that skinny, loud-mouthed kid from Anacortes, Washington, but a heavily muscled, loud-mouthed, maniacal bully who terrorized Soldiers and victimized lieutenants. “Ski” was a guy who head-butted Soldiers and subjected them to all kinds of cruel and unusual punishments in the name of training. He was a guy who back-mouthed officers and got away with it. “Ski” was known to run head-on into gunfire with little regard for his own safety. “Ski” was fucking crazy.

It was nineteen years ago I left my home in the Puget Sound. This year I celebrated my first Christmas and Thanksgiving here since leaving. I’ve spent time with people that I haven’t seen since I graduated from high school twenty years ago. The funny thing is that, here, in this small little town floating on an island in the Sound, I’m still “Travis.” My good friends Joe and Zach simply refuse to call me “Ski.”  I remain “Travis” to them, something which I find strangely comforting. It occurs to me that I’m in the middle of an identity crisis. Am I “Ski” or am I “Travis?” I barely remember what “Travis” was like twenty years ago, but I’ve been discharged long enough that “Ski’s” shenanigans sound fictional. Guys from the Army will send me emails asking, “Remember when you did that?” I am embarrassed by their memories of “Ski.” I have no idea who they are telling me about, though I believe what they say is true. Here at home, folks have memories of skipping class and smoking weed with me. When we talk now, they look at me with a strange curiosity as if I have two heads on my shoulders.

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a story about a guy named George Webber who writes a book that makes references to his home town. The book is a wild success, but the depiction of his home angers the residents, and he begins to receive death threats. Reading into it, though, it’s more about Wolfe’s view of the unfair passage of time that prevents Webber from “going home again.” In a way, it is much the same situation for those “lifers” or “near lifers” like me who have returned to their home physically. None of us can really, ever, go home again. There’s simply too much time gone by for it ever to be the same. There are too many personas and layers to shuck off for it to be the way it was. Being home has taught me that “Ski” was a front, an act for other people and the greater good. “Ski” was not a person, but an entity that over time has become enigmatic even to me. “Ski” is an anachronism. He belongs to a different time and place.

“Travis” is a grown-up now, a true victim of the unfair passage of time. I am Travis. I work at a Catholic church. I make time for my friends who knew me when I was a fucked up kid and accept that I ran away and had life experiences that they can’t even imagine. I have breakfast with my father every other week.  He doesn’t look at me with a worried stare that says “I hope he turns out okay,” but with one of satisfied accomplishment. My family sees me as a man who has overcome great obstacles despite my internal identity crisis. I’ll never be “Ski,” and I’ll certainly never be eighteen year old “Travis.” I, quite honestly don’t ever want to be “Ski” or “Young Travis” again. That shitty kid can stay back in the late nineties and “Ski” can live on in the minds of those with whom he served. Instead, I’ll just keep plodding my way through the middle ground version of the two. I’ll never be able to go home, but I think I can bridge the gap between this place, who I was, who I pretended to be, and who I am now.

(Image: “Untitled” by Ron Whitehead)

Becoming a True Warrior

by David Chrisinger

As far as most traditional societies are concerned, being a warrior was a noble and honorable thing. For men especially, being a warrior was the highest of statuses—and rightfully so.

This word—“warrior”—has gotten a lot of play in the media and in the veteran community since the Global War on Terror began. If you pay attention, you’ll see headline after headline referring to post-9/11 veterans as warriors, regardless of their branch, rank, MOS, etc. And in terms of non-profit organizations that serve veterans, we have the Wounded Warrior Project, the Warrior Brotherhood Veterans Motorcycle Club, Homes for Wounded Warriors, K9s for Warriors, Connected Warriors, No Barriers Warriors, Hope for Warriors, Operation Warrior Wellness, and so on.

I wonder, though, whether this word is going the way of “hero”—a word that has, through overuse, lost most of its original meaning.

Dr. Charles Hoge has worked with thousands of post-9/11 veterans and wrote a valuable book about transitioning veterans titled Once a Warrior—Always a Warrior. He says that any service member, veteran, government worker, or contractor who has ever deployed to a war zone is a warrior—that they have “warrior tendencies” that will need to be refined as they transition back into civilian life.

Dr. Edward Tick has also worked with thousands of veterans—mostly Vietnam-era veterans—and wrote a similarly valuable book about war and coming home titled War and the Soul. He says that a veteran of war does not become a “true warrior” merely for having been in combat. Instead, he says that a veteran does not become a warrior until they:

  • Learn to carry their war skills in mature ways;
  • Exercise restraint;
  • Set right their life again;
  • Discipline the violence within themselves;
  • Prioritize protecting life over destroying it;
  • Serve their nation in peace as well as in war making;
  • Use force only when they have absolutely no other choice;
  • Use their influence to dissuade their people from suffering the scourges of war unless absolutely necessary; and
  • Use the fearlessness they have developed to help keep sanity, generosity, and order.

“The ideal warrior is,” Tick writes, “assertive, active, and energized. He or she is clear-minded, strategic, and alert. A warrior uses both body and mind in harmony and cooperation. A warrior is disciplined. A warrior assesses both his own resources and skills and those arrayed against him. A warrior is a servant of civilization and its future, guiding, protecting, and passing on information and wisdom. A warrior is devoted to causes he judges to be more important and greater than himself or any personal relationships or gain. Having confronted death, a warrior knows how precious and fragile life is and does not abuse or profane it.”

So what should we call those who haven’t yet made this long and difficult journey?

According to Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, authors of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, veterans who have not ascended to warrior status are considered “shadow warriors,” characterized by:

  • A lack of control of aggression,
  • Insensitivity to relatedness,
  • Desire for vengeance,
  • Enjoyment of carnage and cruelty,
  • Scorn toward the vulnerable,
  • Hostility toward the feminine and everything “soft,” and
  • Compulsive and workaholic tendencies.

Which do you think we need more of today? Warriors? Or shadow warriors? Do we need one so that the other can exist?

There’s no doubt that we are living in some tumultuous times. We will, I fear, always need “rough men” ready to “do violence” to protect those sleeping peacefully in their beds, but what we also need—perhaps more than ever—are true warriors who know the cost of war and who are willing to bear witness to it, who wish to protect and nurture, and who can serve fearlessly to help alleviate human suffering here at home.

Easier said than done, I know, but no one to my knowledge has ever said coming home from war would be easy.

To start the process of becoming a “true warrior,” according to Tick, veterans must accept what has happened to them and “find the depth of character to negotiate” their resulting resentment—to grieve their “lost ideals and innocence, to say yes to new difficulties, to live for [themselves] and all their dead comrades, to make meaning out of the entire matrix.”

Until and unless veterans undertake such a journey, they will remain stuck in a shadow world of loneliness and bitterness.

What do you say? Are you ready to become a true warrior? I sure hope so. We need you.

 

 

 

 

(Featured Image: Steve Beales / Band of Brothers / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)

Keeping It Lively

by Michael Lund

Following a Military Experience and the Arts writing seminar for military, veterans, and family this fall, Blackstone, Virginia resident Thomas Bragg has produced a memorial booklet about his friend, Edward Bartholomew Lama.

Thomas and Eddie served in the same unit in Vietnam in 1968-69. While Tom came home to Southside Virginia, Eddie, a native of Mundelein, Illinois, was killed in action on 31 March 1969. Thomas portrays their friendship though pictures and story.

Working with workshop director, Michael Lund, also a veteran, Thomas was able to contact members of the Lama family in Illinois and Wisconsin. They sent photographs taken in Vietnam by Thomas, which had been sent home by Eddie to his family. Eddie had done the same thing, snapping photos of Thomas that he then mailed to relatives in Virginia.

The Lama family also sent a copy of an article from the 28 April 1969 Newsweek magazine that mentioned Eddie’s death, “A Quiet Week in Vietnam.” Two others were specifically identified from the 204 killed in those seven days.

Gordon Chaplin, the Newsweek journalist who wrote about casualties in 1969, is now a celebrated writer and conservationist. He wrote to MEA that, “It’s amazing and wonderful that you’re following up [on the story] after all these years.” Reading what Bragg has written about Lama’s personality, Chaplin added: “It was a long time ago, but I do remember that Lama’s story was by far the most dramatic of the three that I included in my piece. That was why I led with it. His buddies obviously loved him. His story’s resurrection after almost 50 years is ample testament to that love and to the kind of guy he must have been.”

In this 32-page booklet, a compelling portrait emerges of the two men, who were both a team of machine gunners doing their job and a pair of comedians trying to lighten the mood in their unit, which sustained a high number of casualties. “Keeping it Lively” was their motto, and that’s the title of Thomas’s tribute to Edward.

The Blackstone Conference and Retreat Center generously donated space for the workshop. Copies of Thomas’ booklet can be obtained from Michael Lund at Longwood University’s Department of English and Modern Languages, which co-sponsored the workshop.

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of “Keeping It Lively,” please contact Michael Lund at mlund@embarqmail.com