Currently I’m reading a recently-published novel, Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan, by Peter Van Buren. An intriguing tale, it asks an interesting alternative-history question: what if the atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What if, instead, the Allied forces had invaded Japan? What if, soon after that invasion, the one city that had until then survived the bombings, the ancient capital of Kyoto, had instead become the city whose name we’d forever remember, not because of a single plane’s mission, but rather because of the mission of countless planes one particular night, lighting afire a city of wood and paper, turning the word Dresden into just another city that had had its share of War woes?
What if one particular American, Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper, had a story to tell of just such events?
Early in my reading, though, it is not yet Hooper who has grabbed me. It is Private Alden Jones, from outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. No spoiler here: within pages of the narrative, you realize that the War will not turn out well for PVT Jones. It is how it does not turn out well that pauses me this morning, sitting again on my quiet porch, somewhere in my consciousness hearing the wind chimes sing in pentatonic, do-la-sol-mi-do-mi-sol-la-do. Quite Asian, come to think of it.
“You much for praying, Alden?”
“Sometimes, sir. Not sure God always listens,” Jones said.
“He’ll hear you,” [Hooper] said. […]
“If God listened, I don’t think I’d be like this now,” Jones said. He looked away. “I wanna be older. I got a dog at home older than me”
So what does all this have to do with Harvard Law School, you might ask?
It’s been twenty-seven years since I graduated from HLS, as we lovingly know it à la acronym. After having been well indoctrinated into the intricacies of Medical-ese, it took me a while to acclimate to its distant Legal-ese cousin. I had an odd academic career at Harvard: I did moderately well my first year, well my second year, and very well my third year. By the end I could talk the talk with the best of them, magna cum laude, even. Not bad for a kid from Westside Indianapolis.
But I never was good at walking the walk.
That brings me back to Alden from Oklahoma.
I have known my share of Aldens through the years (living, thankfully), young men and women who took their military jobs seriously, even if they might have found them perplexing at times, young men and women who believed.
Many of whom still believe, even though so, so much has complicated that belief.
Harvard Law School taught me the words to allow me to speak beyond solely the private experience, big words like deontologic and consequentialist and communitarian, words that enabled me to speak fluidly for or against the desires and plans of swaths of people. It’s quite nice speaking for lots of people. You get to take intellectual selfies with such notables as Aristotle, or Locke, or the Founding Fathers. Heck, even with William Brennan and Antonin Scalia, God rest their souls. Pretty heady experience, I’ve got to tell you.
Yet I was never a lawyer at heart. No matter how much I tried to speak for the public, even for the private as one member of the public, I kept finding myself coming back to the private-private. In fact, to quite particular Privates.
Through the years, the young Privates and I have not always seen eye to eye when it has come to politics, to War. I’ve got me some pretty good words to talk about politics and War. I’m pretty good at using them. Trust me.
Yet they are the ones who have taught me, who still teach me what it can mean to be an individual caught up in a collective of one’s own choosing, only to find oneself in a situation that has turned out to be so much more than what one had thought of signing up for. They have taught me what happens in a soul, for good, for ill, when the collective suddenly becomes binary—a buddy, a child—and, even more, when the collective becomes all too private.
Yet they have also taught me what can happen in a soul, for good, for ill, when the private soon returns to the collective, so that the Mission might continue, in War, in Politics, in Life. Love and loyalty are complex matters indeed.
They are the ones who have taught me that, proud as I am to have learned to speak like a lawyer, I have been and am a doctor. I cannot abdicate the social, nor will I. Evil is Evil. The Common Good is the Common Good.
But when the moment comes, the moment, it is the patiens, the One Who Suffers, whose call I hear.
And at those very times, my snazzy Harvard words are—for this lawyer-psychiatrist, at least—just not the point.
Sorry, Mr. Justice Holmes. But come to think of it: you were a combat veteran. So I suspect you’d understand.