Once the Grill Cools Down

In his book The Greatest Generation Speaks, former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw wrote of sharing with a friend stories about those who had struggled through World War II.  The friend spoke a truth many of us would rather not have repeated in polite company:

You hear something like that and you’re resolved to keep it in your mind forever, but twenty minutes later you’re wondering what’s for lunch.

Memorial Day weekend in the United States is now past—dare I say long past, given the pace of today’s news cycle.  It’s Wednesday, after all. If you don’t heat those leftover burgers up in the microwave soon, you’re just going to have to stuff them down the disposal, and then all that money spent for what, right?  Might as well have picked up a couple of Whoppers and been done with it.

I have to say: I’m not so critical of us civilians for our ease in moving on from the stories of War. Believe me: no combat veterans actually want others to hold the memories they hold, no matter how angry at the world those veterans might be.

I’m more critical that we civilians are mostly unwilling to move even within ten feet of those stories in the first place, sit with them for more than the hour-long special on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, or whatever other station we pause upon between Netflix binges.  Perhaps if we were more willing to do that, all of us could get to lunch more quickly.

Perhaps, even, enjoy it.

Roll Call

Late yesterday I read two pieces:  a short story by United States Army veteran David Abrams, “Roll Call,” from the book Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, and an essay from the 30 August 2010 Esquire, The Things That Carried Him,” by Chris Jones.  Both are accounts of remembering the dead, the first one short, staccato, the second one long, more largo than legato.

Abrams’ story tells of a memorial gathering miles away from me, literally and figuratively, of a fictional group of soldiers remembering the dead in the midst of Death, reciting among themselves a list of names that almost certainly was not yet complete, for the next time outside the wire was yet to come, then the next and the next.

Jones’ story, on the other hand, tells of an actual memorial that once happened just down Interstate 65 from me, starting in a small southern Indiana town where the story of a young sergeant’s body ended; ending, via a backwards timeline, at a beginning in far-off Mesopotamia, the beginning that had seen the young man’s spiritual/psychological end with the triggering of an improvised explosive device (IED).

Then, today, I went back to work, and I heard stories from several men who had struggled this weekend, seeing lists of names in social media and news pieces, remembering their own lists of names from their pasts, calling roll and knowing exactly who would say “Here!” in their hearts and who would not, some silent because of War, some because of War’s aftermath.

Remembering the Dead of War is always a complicated matter.  It will always be, in some ways, a political matter.  What could be more political than War, after all.

But, like all politics, War is also so very, very personal. As a psychiatrist, my days are spent with the personal, whether in reading a fictional narrative or listening to a tale told sometimes sadly, sometimes blankly, by a man or woman only feet away from me.

Whether the name is one or the names are twenty, the silence in the roll call is always jolting.  I owe it to them whose names are called, indeed, to feel the jolt.

Even more, perhaps, I owe it to them to keep listening to those who seek some hope of a more fond remembering that will allow the living, if not with gusto, then at least with peace, to speak their own answer at the call of their names:  “Here!”

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