Now, About that Mosque . . .

A couple days ago I finished Matt Gallagher‘s Youngblood.

Even now I sit before the screen and wonder how to speak what I heard spoken.

In her January 2016 review of the book, the New York Times‘chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, wrote :

On one level, the novel is a parable — with overtones of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” — about the United States and Iraq and the still unfurling consequences of the war. On another, it’s a story about how we tell stories to friends and strangers, trying to convey experiences they will never know firsthand, and how we tell ourselves stories to reckon with the past — or, perhaps, to live with painful memories that are difficult, if not impossible, to assuage.

I agree wholeheartedly.  Yet, somehow, her sentences are so, what, normal.  I admire her capacity for linguistic ease—elegance, even—after having come to the novel’s end.

I am finding myself not so fluent.

The key phrase for me in the above is:

a story about how we tell stories to friends and strangers, trying to convey experiences they will never know firsthand

Well, true enough. So would be a story about my watching my maternal grandmother make egg noodles from scratch. Shoot, I can even add the “painful memories”part, for the heck of it.  Grandma could often be on the difficult side, after all.


Indeed, Mr. Gallagher tells a story—not a war story particularly, as you’ll find no climactic battle between the forces of Light and Dark at book’s end.  No, as Ms. Kakutani notes, his story is part coming-of-age, part mystery, and part tragic romance. It has a protagonist, Lieutenant Jack Porter, the California ROTC grad who had once protested the War until some mouthy Leftie in the car made one too many aspersions on his older brother, the Army officer with the Silver Star.  It has an antagonist (well, of sorts), Staff Sergeant David Chambers, the hardened veteran of multiple tours, the NCO with the shady past and the five skulls tattooed on his forearm. There’s the requisite sidekick, Qasim, AKA Snoop, the Sudanese interpreter.  There are the love interests, for both our hero and his nemesis: Rana, Marissa, Sergeant Griffin.

All is written well. I left the novel feeling that all three genres had been adequately narrated.  I left the story and its characters saddened, but I understood why what was, had to be.

Yet because of Youngblood, I may never hear many combat veterans’ stories the same again.

Most days, combat veterans only allude to me of War’s tragedies, rather than describe them.  Many days, in fact, some combat vets do not even allude. They have found their peace. They have satisfied their need-enough for understanding. War does not visit them regularly.

Such veterans tell stories, just as Ms. Kakutani writes criticism: fluently.

Others struggle more with their storytelling, but they do their best to be fluent-enough with me. They acknowledge  that War still visits them, during the day, the night, both sometimes.  They assure me, though, that they keep moving, keep trying to write a life story that works. They work every day to do just that.

Combat veterans like, for example, Jack Porter.

At story’s end, Mr. Gallagher has Jack narrate a scene reminiscent of the end of (at least the movie version of)  Doctor Zhivago, where Omar Sharif’s Zhivago desperately runs after a woman who might have been Julie Christie’s Lara, never to reach her (although, fortunately for now-veteran Jack, he doesn’t keel over with a massive coronary, as did his Russian counterpart). The scene in Youngblood, like the scene in Pasternak, works well as tragic romance. Jack tells it fluently.

I imagine Jack sitting in front of me, speaking to me the novel’s final words: “But there was nothing there, just the faint echo of my own steps.” I imagine how I would let those words sit between us, how I could possibly then hear him say “And that’s what happened, Doc,” I imagine saying, “Thanks, Jack.  That makes so much sense.”

Yet I also imagine that were Jack to walk out of my office at that point, I would not be hearing balalaika music strumming “Somewhere My Love,” even if it were played with a Middle Eastern tonal scheme.

For Mr. Gallagher gave me a Jack Porter who not only roamed streets in search of a past that might became a future. He gave me a Jack Porter who had a past that, I strongly suspect, would not, as Faulkner once quipped, reliably remain past.

How could I tell?  Because it can’t stay past for me. Even now, I remember.

I, unlike Jack, unlike Mr. Gallagher himself, have never known how War can upset a good story.  Mr. Gallagher did, however, reveal to me hints of the experiences that can defy fluency.

Of the scenes that hijack otherwise linear narratives, rip them apart, then taunt all the characters within the scene (and without) to go ahead and just try to get back to a semblance of a coherent tale.

You do that, pal.  Give ‘er a whirl.

You know, after the mosques that blow up under your feet. After the American soldiers with the funny names who long to make a difference in a world in which snipers take aim at them.  After the Iraqis who find their intestines hanging from a tree.  After the girls who prove that it really isn’t that hard to serve falafel when you don’t have a nose left to smell it.

Yes, let’s get back to our story.

I strongly urge all to read Youngblood.  I strongly urge all to ponder a tale of endurance, secrets, and love.

Nonetheless, I warn you: you may not feel very fluent afterwards.

But then, neither, I suspect, does Jack Porter after such a tale. Neither, I know, do many, many others after their tales.

Yet if men and women like Jack could sense that, just perhaps, we lucky ones might be willing to imagine a sliver of War’s senselessness in the midst of such tales, they might be then willing to hope that, indeed, their own stories of senselessness might, just perhaps, one day make a sliver of sense.

Don’t Go Arguing with Neurons

As I continued reading Matt Gallagher‘s Youngblood, I also happened upon a trending article from The Atlantic,  “Power Causes Brain Damage,” by Jeremy Useem.  Well-written, the article’s background premise presents no surprise: when people attain positions of power, often they display diminished capacity to empathize with the sufferings of others.

Anyone who’s taken an Intro to Psychology course since about, say, 1965 should be able to tell you as much—just as those folks who came across Stanley Milgram and his Yale shock machine in the early Sixties. True, the point of that particular experiment was more about social pressure, but power sure makes social pressure much more, say, sociable.

Mr. Usheem, though, reports that the background premise now lights up a screen in (literally) living technicolor.

He writes about current work in the neuroscience of empathy, especially concerning mirror neurons, brain structures that appear to be triggered when one is watching someone else doing something or even experiencing something. They’re sort of like our species’ built-in “There, but for the grace of God” mechanism.

According to the researchers quoted by Mr. Usheem, when folks feel powerful, their mirror neurons don’t feel so inclined to fire. Or so it seems.  Obliviousness, at least in such cases, appears to have a neurochemistry.

Neuroscientific psychology, psychological neuroscience: take your pick. If you want a good intellectual bar fight to break out, link those two words together, publish them, and then check out the comment section. Trust me: someone will eventually snarl “biological reductionism,” after which another will pipe in with “mentalistic presuppositions,” or some such, and you’ll be off to the races.  Like a charm.

Academia is so predictable.  At least something in this world is.

I’ll confess, though: I’m a linguistic mercenary when it comes to neuroscience. We live in such a Cartesian society, no hour of my professional life  goes by without my meeting persons who assume that what happens in their mind has little to do with what happens in their brain, let alone their body. People might pay  lip service to “mind-brain”, but that and $3.50 gets you a latte, most days.

So you’ve got to be straightforwardly sneaky.  This is how the mercenary mission goes:

If you think something, feel something, or will yourself to do something—while also connected to a snazzy machine—your brain will light up (or not).  No light-up-brain, no think-feel-will.

Simple as that.

Correlation, not causation, you say?  Perhaps.  But  when one is a linguistic mercenary, one need not let a trifling like that stop the show.

For one advantage to our societal allegiance to Descartes, at least in the early twenty-first century?  Most folks in the West are so impressed with the bells and whistles of machines, once you mention the word body, they stop nitpicking with you about the word mind.   Biology trumps psychology, every time.

For combat vets, for example, all you then have to do is say something like:

1. The body registers what happens to us, whether we want it to or not.

2.  The body doesn’t forget.  Even when you order it to do so.

3.  Neither does it take orders from Central Command as to how it will or will not respond in any particular situation.  Training takes you far.  But only so far.

4.  Your body tells your mind what will happen far more readily than your mind tells your body.

5.  But then, my combat vet friend:  you already know that.  You live it every day, down to your last cell. Sometimes every night.

6. You don’t just remember War. You relive it.

Point not just made, but felt.  Mission accomplished.

To take the body seriously is to take seriously that language can only do so much to express the body’s depths of experience.  Power is a social phenomenon, true, like words, for it happens between at least two people, whether any words are spoken or not.

But to realize how power feels in the body of the powerful—while being oblivious to the feel of that power in the body of another, less powerful? Ah, that’s inside a single mind, inside the neuronal compromise between a single brain and a single body, a series of neuronal firings that convinces the brain not to waste too many neurochemicals on cells that, ultimately, will never get the mind, i.e., you, what you want.

So forget empathy, soldier.  This is War. It is what it is.  Mirror lights off.  Onward.

The researchers tell Mr. Usheem, in fact, that if those series of obliviousness-neurons fire together often enough, the pesky mirror neurons might not bother you again for quite a while.  Maybe never.

But caveat miles, let the soldier beware: mirrors in the brain can start picking up the reflections of others at the most inopportune of times. Maybe even in an instant of battle.  Maybe in the days, even the years back stateside.

I’m about halfway through Youngblood now.  Already Lieutenant Jackson Porter is struggling with the biology of power as it ebbs and flows throughout his cortex, his midbrain, his brainstem, his lungs, his hearts, his guts. However it turns out for him, War has changed not just his outlook, but also his physiology.

Since Lieutenant Porter narrates in the first-person, though, we may also assume that he has learned another truth about neurons:  once they have fired together, they may once again reunite for good—or bad—times’ sake.  That’s called memory.  It is often not a friend. Only the few can claim the luxury of days, months, even years of enjoying power’s oblivious biology after War.

For the many, like the good Lieutenant, those oblivious times must eventually be confronted during later times less oblivious, as they face the memories of their bodies that might have been present fully at some particularly memorable moments, yet the realities of their minds that might have been far less so at those same moments.  They may have known exactly what they were doing, what they were saying at those times, in other words, while at the same time not having been fully they. 

As they face memories of minds that were the products of brains that, at least at some moments, were not firing on all cylinders.

And so the linguistic mercenary doctor fires off once more:

1. It was both you, and it wasn’t you back there, Lieutenant Porter

2.  That’s just how the body works.

3.  But, thankfully, biology is not destiny.  It’s just biology.

4.  Memories may feel like present reality, but they too are just biology.

5.  Present reality, fortunately, is far more than biology.  And, fortunately, it can be a spot from which new biology can be formed.

Trust me: it wouldn’t be “mission accomplished” for our good Lieutenant.  But it would be start.

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.


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.

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