Talking the Talk, After Walking the Walk

Started reading Matt Gallagher‘s novel, Youngblood, this week, and even now I struggle, just as I have all week, with a question:

If an author has been to War as a combatant, even if only as a potential combatant, whether or not that author lifted even a finger against someone else, an author, though, who has been more than well-trained to lift such a finger, and to do so more-than-effectively: does that author somehow speak of War differently—profoundly, meaningfully differently—than do those of use who have never similarly lived War?

I began Mr. Gallagher’s book soon after I had finished Peter Van Buren‘s Hooper’s War, a novel that I liked, as I have written. Furthermore, Van Buren is no stranger to War-ravaged lands.  He made his literary name, after all, in a memoir that got him into more-than-a-little trouble with the United States Department of State, his long-time employer and end-of employment adversary:  We Meant Well: How I Helped to Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

Yet there was something about Gallagher’s prose.

Consider the following opening lines:,

The war tried to kill us in the spring.

There is nowhere to go in a landing craft except where it takes you.

rage forth, bold here & man of war, you have no flood documenting her lament, no legal recourse in re: administrative decisions on the matter of torture TV rage the rockets red not singly but in global consensus

The men of Bravo are not cold.

It’s strange, trying to remember now.

Three of those lines were written by those who had been sent to War as combatants.  Two by those who were not.

Each of the three books written by those sent as combatants weaves its tale in a voice different from the others.  Yet there is something about their voices.  Something that I hear every day as I sit in my office. Something, as the novels proceeded, that I did not hear, or at least did not hear quite as sharply, in the other two.

Yet, honestly, I could not have picked out which is which were I, beforehand, to have been offered these five sentences on a quiz.

I have been listening to men and women, as a psychiatrist, for thirty-five years.  I surprise myself as I write that sentence.  How many of my fellow young psychiatrists I still so intensely remember from those early years in Durham and Boston.  I wonder: what have they heard through those years?  How often through those years have I been hearing only what I had been expecting to hear, rather than what was conveyed to me?  How would they have heard differently all those whom I’ve heard?

Yet I have to say: once I began listening to combat veterans, to those who had been trained to lift those well-trained fingers, whether or not they did, I began hearing something—something—that I had not previously heard.  A couple years ago, I took a brief professional hiatus from them, listened instead to those who had never been to War, yet whose lives had been, in every figurative way, war zones.

Nonetheless, I did not hear from them, as painful as their figurative zones had been, what I had heard from those men and women whose war zones had been literal.

Different does not mean better or worse.  But it does mean different.

It’s so easy to overgeneralize.  It’s also easy to underestimate.

So I keep reading.  And listening.


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