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.


Hooper’s War, My War

A longer piece today, reviewing a book well worth reading.

In Peter Van Buren’s book, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, 2017), history changes.  Yet history never changes, even when it does.

What might have happened had the atomic bomb never been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? he asks. Had the Allies invaded Japan instead, taking first the southern island of Kyushu, establishing then a beachhead on the main island of Honshu?  Had the ancient capital of Kyoto, until that point spared aerial attack, become the scene of a firebombing that would leave behind nothing but ash posing as February snow, to be taken up by the wind and then returned in torrents of black rain upon a teen-aged American soldier screaming, “Get it off me, get it off me.  It’s people, get it off me.”?

What might have happened had a ninety-year-old American tourist, years later, stopped hearing that boy’s cries?

While visiting a Buddhist temple north of Kyoto in 2017, former Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper tells an elderly Japanese women he meets there that he had “outlived them all, and usually in a war that means I won.” She doesn’t seem to mind: she is there to talk to ghosts, after all, the spirits of her two children, while pouring water onto one of the many small Buddhas scattered throughout the garden, comforting souls that had years before thirsted until the heat had finally consumed them.

It is the image of that old American man that sticks with me: his bending down toward those small statues outside the one temple that had managed to survive not only earthquakes, but also heavenly conflagrations, the shrine having been scuffed around the edges only by some, shall we say, fateful artillery fire. His then reaching into his pocket, his pulling out a yellowed scrap.

My wife refused to return to Kyoto herself, but insisted I do something for her, after her death.  Doctors say someone can’t technically die of a broken heart, but I know better.  It just takes a long time.  So my final obligation in Kyoto was to leave behind an old photo of two Japanese children.  I’d helped take care of it for 70 years, but it was never mine.  It was a treasured possession of hers, and it needed to return home, before the next change of season.  They were together. It had just taken a long time.

“Words were all I had,” Hooper tells us. And so Van Buren adds words to that image, moving backwards in time as his American protagonist encounters Naoko Matsumoto, the woman with whom he shared those seventy years, and Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, the man for whom, perhaps, he did.

For in the end, whatever each man did, he did for her.

Hooper’s War is anything but a romance. It is not an action thriller, either. It’s not the ending at the beginning that matters, after all.  It’s the beginning at the end.

Van Buren calls it a tale of “moral injury,” the au courant psychological term for what War does to a man’s, a woman’s soul.  I’ve heard that some are trying to quantify the term these days. Data is always so helpful when it comes time for reports to the Budget Office. That means we won. I think.

Words can only qualify an image, however, not replace it.  Van Buren makes no promises otherwise. Yet with his words, he delivers, such as when the American soldier and the Japanese soldier play chess, literally and figuratively, mediated by the words and the heart of the young Japanese woman, fully bilingual, fully willing to live out the values that both men would have preferred had remained hidden in the pasts of southern Japan or middle America, pasts that Van Buren slowly unfolds for the reader, until youth is rediscovered, histories that will never again be.

And it was at that moment of discovery, in the final pages of the novel, that Hooper’s War became mine.

If as a practicing psychiatrist all I do is hear the wars of others, if I do nothing to make some small part of their War my own, then really I’m just a cleaned-up version of “First  Warrant Officer Rand, 20th Army Air Force, strategic bomb damage assessment branch, acting deputy chief assistant assessor”—by the way, also a high school math teacher from Nebraska.

“So, Rand, you’re saying [all this destruction] is good?” [asked Hooper.]

“No sir, not good,” Rand said.  “I’d have to score it pretty close to perfect to be honest about it.  Almost nothing left standing. That’s an achievement.”

“If you’re so smart, Rand, tell me, why are there so many logs blocking up the river?  What caused that?” I said.

“Oh, those aren’t logs, Lieutenant.”

Yet in Van Buren’s book, it was not the Nate, Naoko, and Eichi outside Nishinomiya Station, south of Kyoto, who first claimed me.

No, first it was a Japanese housewife, whom I met briefly in the closing pages of the book.

My father told me [Eichi] that because Japan had freed Korea and China from the west, our markets were flooded with new goods from those faraway places.  Mother especially loved the Korean plums, quietly insisting they were juicier than Japanese ones, even as my father would shush her for fear a neighbor might overhear her being what he said was disloyal.

Then it was some (likely) high-school track coach from, of all places, Reeve, Ohio.

I [Nate] was 14-years-old in December 1941, sitting in an overheated classroom hearing about Sherman’s Burning of Atlanta and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, asking my equally bored teacher numbing questions about why we had to learn this stuff.  Every minute dragged like a week’s worth of Mondays.

The novel made War mine through these passing mentions of adults who, without much thought, were living what they were living because someone else, somewhere, had died to give them that opportunity, both soldier and civilian.

The dead aren’t that choosy, one way or the other, which side they might once have been on.   Plums, classrooms, all the same to them.

I am Eichi’s mother, Nate’s teacher. I am the one who has eaten those plums in those classrooms, who even now nibbles on a sticky bun in a quiet bed and breakfast as my Twitter feed narrates more deaths in Afghanistan, acknowledges final words uttered somewhere, whether in English or in Dari.

I live in my Society.  I profit from my Society. My Society has sent troops to other Societies, for reasons good or ill, depending on whose viewpoint you assume.

Either way, I have therefore sent them there as well

In his “alternative universe,” Van Buren has forced me to to realize: I too am morally injured.  Even more,  I have morally injured. Yes, I still can enjoy a rose garden and a Lake Michigan breeze. Yet I don’t get a pass, either.

Neither Lieutenant Hooper nor Sergeant Nakagawa indict me, their families, their Societies for the acts they themselves, as soldiers, committed or did not commit.  They chose their fates as much as they were chosen by them, and they lived with those choices—and died with them.

Yet, somehow, I cannot but feel indictment, not from the young men in wartime Japan, perhaps, but rather from a boy who had his picture taken with a girl years before, when they had both enjoyed Sakuma, the fruit drops in the metal tin, made in the factory so far away from their hometown. From a boy in Ohio who “left the house in the morning always knowing [he’d] be back in time to wash up for supper.”

Those two boys–and the girl whom, at different times in different worlds, they together loved–they say to me, “You, Dr. Deaton, you helped make this story. We were merely playing our parts, understudies to much older folks like yourself, taking direction, falling on cue.”

The Buddhas, the old man, the photograph, quiet Japanese villages and rustic Ohio towns: may the images last with me, even longer than the words. Thank you, Mr. Van Buren, for having, in Hooper’s War, given both to us all.


Two Kooks and a Coward

Odd title, I know.

I’m using the blog partially as an on-line diary, if you will: a place to keep my thoughts, to which I can turn later to ruminate, adapt, clarify.  Also, I’d like it to be a place of “confession,” a place where I put ideas out in public, if only to force myself to remember that there might be one or two people out there in cyberspace who remember “didn’t you say once …?” and who would force me to keep (at least a few) of my resolutions, or perhaps re-think what I was once so sure that I thought.

Such as, for example, writing a book.

At one point, as a few of the faithful few might remember, I’d thought of pulling together a book out of the blog posts, but once I actually took that project seriously, I ended up realizing that, no, that was not the book for me to write.  I allude to that on the Welcome page.

No, instead I wish to challenge myself to write a book that, I have to admit, few people will likely read, but that I wish to write: a well-researched, carefully thought-out book (or two) on understanding better the experience of Listening to War, on understanding how theory (both with a small and a capital t/T ) can make Listening better—and, of course, worse.

A book in which the standard of better or worse will be the standard of making it more likely that those who have been to War will feel heard, truly heard, by those, such as myself, who are willing to listen.

So who are the kooks?  Well, although it is passé in so many circles, psychoanalytic thinking still draws me in, challenges me always to ask the central question in my life:  What’s missing?  What lies deeper? What lies beyond that?

Now, many, if not most, modern mental health folks assume from the get-go that “psychoanalysis = kook.”  I’ll probably do little in my musings to dissuade such folks of that conviction.  I could stop right there.  Kook = me.

But even the “kooks” have their own “kooks” whom they can slander, and believe you me, psychoanalysts can disparage with the best of them. And two of the greatest “kooks” in modern, American psychoanalytic thinking?  The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, and the French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan.

Trust me: these men are anything but kooky. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But the very fact I put those two men’s name in the same sentence makes me the kook par excellence.  Trust me on that as well.

So who’s the coward?  Well, that’s me, too.

The nice thing about writing a blog that few read is that you actually have folks take an sincere interest, while not having to constantly defend yourself.  I can say “kooky” things, throw out “kooky” ideas, and the world’s not worse for the wear—nor am I.  The nice folks who are willing every once in a while to read the blog can keep me on the straight and narrow, but I don’t have to be brave enough to make a fool of myself in a public setting in which people are actually looking directly at me while their eyes roll like bowling balls toward the pins.

For thinking of Jung and Lacan, two men who could probably not be more unalike, does somehow draw me, at least at this point, toward thinking about my challenges in Listening to War.  It’s the very fact that they are both so unlike, yet both so willing to look at what we might rather not look at.  I like that.

And who knows: maybe at the end of months and months of essays, I might find myself writing a book about that.

And since I’m a coward, maybe if I do so in the quiet public of a quiet blog, I just might finish it.

You never know.  Kooky, but possible.

Speaking Soul-Fully

As I said in the previous post, I am reading Peter Van Buren‘s most recent novel,  Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan,  It is structured as a story told from end to beginning, both ending and beginning as narrated from a retirement home in Hawaii by a ninety-year-old Nathaniel Hooper, looking back on an eventful several days of his life, seventy years (and an alternative universe) behind him.

With Former Lieutenant Hooper on my mind, it was no surprise, then, that I was especially open yesterday to a real combat veteran, some twenty years younger than the fictional officer.  It was only our second meeting, but he was anxious to tell me a tale much shorter than Hooper’s, yet perhaps, for him, just as profound.

In another Asian war some twenty years later, this combat vet had come up the rear of a very famous battle, just as his fellow soldiers had broken through the lines. He readily admitted that he had thus been spared the horror of witnessing death occur right before him, next to him, behind him.  But at nineteen (the same age as young Lieutenant Hooper, miles and years away—and yet not), he did have not to only witness, but also to cross over and, even, at times to step upon the remains of what Death had left behind.  He stressed the words remains.

In Mr. Van Buren’s book, Mr. Hooper had a story to tell, to any who might be willing to listen. My patient also found himself having a story to tell, although found himself is indeed the right expression. For he narrated to me that, almost as an out-of-body experience, he had recently  spoken to a group of peers about his memories of that day.  Even as he told me of his conversation, he could not fully grasp, intellectually or, if you will, physically, that he had actually spoken the words that he had spoken.

He had wondered whether he had said too much.  His companions told him that he had not.  He was willing to accept their assessment.

I suspect that my patient’s tale was far less skeptical of War than was the tale of Van Buren’s Hooper.  Yet I could not help but recognize that both still spoke the same story:  once War has been, it is and will be. Whether fifty or seventy years later, it will still demand to be spoken, from out of a body and a soul that still can find itself filled with War’s remains, demanding those remains be emptied into a world, whether that world wishes to receive them or not.

Whether speaking in anger, in sadness, in distress—even, sometimes, in awe—War will have its say, in different voices, with different inflections, with stories coherent or not, with sentences complete or not.

The soul must tell its tale. And so I listen. And read.

Harvard Law School–and Private Jones

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.

And then our Hero . . .

Earlier this week I read Army veteran, memoirist/novelist Matt Gallagher‘s story, “And Bugs Don’t Bleed,” in the collection Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War.  It is a memorable tale, to say the least, of an Army scout, about to head out for another deployment, who ponders memories—and who, quite painfully, creates them as well.

Also earlier this week I sat with a young Army veteran who is trying to get better sleep.  A worthy goal, certainly.  Fortunately for him, he is not tormented by nightmares.  Rather he is tormented by an emotional edge that simply refuses to settle with the mere darkening of the environment.

Also, fortunately for him, his mind rarely edges back to War at night.  It edges around and into his day, his past, his tomorrow, his future, wandering with an edge, biding time with an edge, prone with an edge.

He did tell me, ever so briefly, of memories of his own, of ones he had not created, yet which he had had to watch, hear, clean up after. Memories of “Taps” that he refuses to linger over.  Who needs the brass section, after all, in a life of Hard Rock.

So what will happen to our Heroes, one in his fictional universe, one in his very real one?  I haven’t a clue.  I hope that one hero will sleep better.  I made him no guarantees. He’s been edgy at night since he was a kid, after all.  There’s only so much a poor little pill can do—or only so much one wants to put up with from a nasty little pill.  He and I will discover that together.

Yet it is the distant future I wonder about.  Believe me:  many a combat veteran has found ways to manage memories, both created by them and created within them.  I would say that the antidote often does have some element of motion, of edge to it.  Keep moving.  Even if the memories are following you, you can usually depend on the theory of relativity to keep up the illusion of their being immobile, willingly keeping their place on the third shelf on the left.

But it’s not always motion they must turn to.  Not at all. Sometimes memories, even quite painful ones, can perch on shelves and stay put.  Life is not predictable.

Yet I still wonder. Much of my days are now spent with combat veterans from the Vietnam War era who had thought that their memories had long ago melted in the subtropical heat. They look at me and ask me, “How is this happening?” There is an answer to that question: the brain is not predictable.

Not exactly satisfying as an answer, no matter how true it might be.

I hope my veteran friend finds sleep.  I hope his memories stay put. We’ll find out together—or he’ll find out himself, long after I’m gone.

And I hope somewhere in some fictional universe, Will, the Army Scout, the creator and creat-ee of memories, will find his peace, too.

Seeing Better Days

Today it was a woman whom I’ve only met a couple times. Yesterday it was a man with whom I’ve spent many hours.  Each gave me something quite wonderful, gifts that differed only in degree of mutual acquaintance, rather than in any kind of emotional depth.

Each gave me the gift of their now seeing better days.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to be willing to listen to the stories of fear, of sadness, of rage, to do what I can to show a fellow human being that a another fellow human being is willing to try to understand—and in an imperfect way, experience—what he can.

Fortunately, though, my job is not all fear, sadness, and rage.

Not only do combat veterans ask me to experience the darkness of War itself, many also invite me to experience the light of what Life can become after War, after people have been willing to listen to them, wiling to take the risks of knowing what civilians don’t want to know, yet must know if the combat veterans are to have any hope of finding that light.

They invite me to share with them the joy—not unbridled, certainly, but also not tenuous—of their moving into the world a bit wiser, a bit more willing to understand that there are indeed so many things not worth fighting about.

They invite me to experience that the world can again feel good, for meaningful periods of time, even after their having learned that the world can rapidly become very, very not-good.

Funny.  Both persons thanked me for what they perceived as my having given them a gift.  And true, in a way that I could, I gave them a gift of my knowledge, of myself.

Yet what I have received in return.  To both, I can only say:  for your service, for your willingness never to give up upon yourselves and upon those whom you love, thank you.

Here’s to even better days.

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