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.


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.

%d bloggers like this: