Several weeks have passed since I read Roy Scranton’s War Porn. weeks punctuated by roller coaster rides; outpatient surgeries; hours of stories of lives lived, not-lived, and sadly-likely-never-to-be-lived; lists of French vocabulary; and the occasional cup of coffee sipped in a typical début de 21ème siècle college-town bistro. Like the one I’m sipping now.
Perhaps I’m ready to write about the book, finally. Perhaps.
Truth be told, I’m deeply enjoying being just another doc in small-city America. When one is unimportant, one’s weekends are so much quieter. Yet it has its drawbacks: when one wonders what’s au courant in the world, one is always subject to the vagaries of editor-publishers’ whims and the algorithms of Google searches.
Thus, I cannot say, with certainty, what the current status is of Professor Scranton’s (in)famous essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper‘” in the littéraire-guerrier world (give me a break: where else will I use all that French vocabulary?) Yet the professor-author in both essay and novel continues to question me:
Will I be able to listen to all the voices of War, even those suppressed in any particular narrative, the voices of those killed in addition to those who survived the killing? Those harmed and those who did the harming?
In War Porn Americans and Iraqis are harmed. Americans and Iraqis do harm.
There are a lot of voices to be heard in War.
Trust me: War is a metaphor for Life for a reason. When I listen to stories of veterans and non-veterans, part of my job is to hear what is not spoken, i.e., hear, if only in my mind, what those who interact with the person in front of me might say were they in the room. There is, after all, a truism among some in my field: every vicitmizer has been a victim, and every victim has been a victimizer. You have to be careful with truisms, of course. One must be wary of blaming the victim. One must be wary of crucifying the victimizer. Yet one writes off the sentiments underlying truisms—at least occasionally, if not often—at one’s peril.
As a psychiatrist, my job is to listen. Listening does not equate with not-judging, but it does equate with keeping one’s mouth shut, even if for only a time. Never think that I don’t struggle with the moral complexities of silence, that I don’t constantly question myself as to whose pain should be more relevant at any point . Yet I live with my daily decisions as to when to shut up and when to talk, and so far I keep showing up to work for another day. If the day comes when the silence-part is too hard, it will be time take another job. And talk more loudly and often.
War Porn is, in one way, the story of two American soldiers, one in-war, the other post-war, and one Iraqi man, a mathematician caught up in War, whose English was probably as good as my French. Woe to him. Being bilingual, even if imperfectly, has its pros and cons.
Yet it is the Iraqi mathematician, not so much in his starring role, but rather in his cameo appearances in the lives of the two Americans who will forever stick with me. It is precisely my knowledge from his starring role that creates my feelings about those cameos, feelings about him, about those two soldiers, feelings about judging, reading, and listening, about saying something and keeping quiet.
In his LARB essay, Professor Scranton warns readers against glorifying any particular story of War, the story of the “trauma hero” as much as the story of the “war hero.” The anti-hero has a tale to tell as well, after all. After reading War Porn, don’t I know that.
I’ve met war heroes, trauma heroes, anti-heroes in my work. Sometimes in the same person. As I finish my essay in my college-town coffee shop, considering the multiple characters (and I do mean characters) I’ve seen pass through here this morning, I think of how far the mathematician’s native Basra had once seemed from his academic life in Baghdad; of how far my weekend seems from the more-important ones in Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles; of how miles can mean so little in times of War; of how I have been both victim and victimizer; of how I have no clue what depth of pain those words can create, both in times of peace and times of war.
And on Monday, I’ll head back to work. And War Porn, in some way, will be there with me.