Take-a-Book-to-Work Week(s)

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.

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.


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.

The Trauma Hero

Late last night I finished combat-veteran Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  Memorable title. Even more memorable book.

I’d warn the faint-of-heart to be prepared.  Not for the reasons they might imagine, though.

Professor Scranton is no stranger to controversy, whether in book titles, book content—or literary reflection. Anyone who has read his 2015 piece in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper’” knows exactly whereof I speak.

For in the essay he asks us, after all, to question whether our “war literature” should embrace the “wounded warrior” more than the ones whom the warrior wounds.

Trust me:  in War Porn, he practices what he preaches.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to experience the story that walks through my office door. My job is not to be overwhelmed by that story (easier said than done, some days). My job is not to script it (although, granted, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that). My job is to experience it, and not just its words, but its sounds, its muscle twitches, its eyes, sometimes even its smell. I’m charged with taking those experiences and translating them into a language (and, sometimes, a neurochemistry) that is supposed to ease Life’s motion forward.

Again, often, too often, easier said than done (although, again, often and, yes, too often, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that).

Don’t for a moment think that everyone who walks through my door is traumatized.  A few who drop by wouldn’t even mind heading back and doing a bit more traumatizing if they could, truth be told.  Not most, by a long shot.  But a few. Power has its allures.

Plus destruction has certainty to it, after all.  At the end of the day, there’s always a record somewhere out there in the physical world, fragmented and motionless, such that it is.

Life and certainty, on the other hand…

I’m not one of those mental-health types who guides people toward what to tell me (again, more disagreements…) I’ve always had enough to do just with what they’ve willingly told me. I’ve never found it rare to encounter veterans who have been more than willing to allude to darkness in their souls.  Real darkness, nothing the veteran or I would quibble over.

After all, the painful physiology of darkness is part of what I’m there for.

We do so love our reason and cognition, though, don’t we?  Thank God for the Greeks who bore us those gifts.  Words, words, and more words.

Yet just like the Trojans, again and again we finds ourselves surprised by the chemical-spiritual forces hidden within those concepts.

For us humans, War colonizes what is within us, what is between us, what is among us. Just as I must remember that I will only hear askew those who have been traumatized, so will I only hear askew those who have also traumatized.

Equally, however, I must hold within me that I am, not could be, both Traumatizer and Traumatized. Otherwise I’m just playing a cruel hoax on everyone who does walk through that office door. After all, I just have the good fortune of brandishing the plausible deniability of my having never wielded a literally-lethal weapon in my hands.  That’s all.

My words, on the other hand…

The good professor reminds me that I must always be willing to be created by the stories told me, even if I don’t like the resulting product. He also reminds me of my obligation, in just such cases, to create something more human in return.

Easier said, yet still must be done.  No disagreements.


Moving Day

My eldest got married last fall, and until today she and her husband had been house sitting for a couple who has been spending the past school year in South America.  Today, however, was moving day, into a place of their own, finally.

Dad (in-law) only had to supply an old SUV for transportation, so I was able to enjoy watching my kids’ friends in action, all while remembering younger years when similar friends, now old like Dad, filled cars and trucks, eked sofas around treacherous corners, chowed on pizza and beer in later celebration.  I’m glad that their future is ahead of them.  I’m glad that, at least for some adventures, my past is behind me.

On the way to and from their house I continued to listen to Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  People are also on the move in that narrative, in Iraq, in the United States.  So far, they’re not faring as well.  I’m doubtful for much reprieve.

I sit on the back porch and ask myself:  why am I reading this today, this weekend, Memorial Day weekend in the US?  Why not relax, perhaps remember War in a quieter state of mind?

Good question.

Yet so many combat veterans have to reflect this weekend on Life’s realities and live within them:  reflect and live successful moves, yes, perhaps, topped off by a slice of meat-lovers’ and a cold, microbrewery pale ale.

Yet also, perhaps, reflect and relive death and destruction long ago or just months ago, experienced for reasons that—that what?

A burger on the grill here, an anger-filled/tear-filled/empty-filled midnight walk there.  Life, Death, now, then, back, forth, hour after hour.

I at least get to enjoy my sunset today with a glass of Malbec.  I need to be thankful. I am.  For my family.  For my life.

And I owe it to the living and the dead to be only so relaxed.  Moved, maybe.  Yes, moved.

It’s the least I can do.

Listening to War

Well, for the faithful few:  I’m back.

I guess this would be what my kids would call 2.0.

If you’re an old friend, first of all: thank you.  Truly.

Second of all, though: you can see that quite a bit has changed.  Welcome to Listening to War:  Reflections on Words Heard Only Askew.  For a fuller explanation, see the Paving the Road Back tab above, or click here.

If you’re a new friend:  good to meet you.  On my new Twitter account (@deaton_rod), I advertise myself as “just a country psychiatrist trying to make a living by listening, reading, and thinking.”

Welcome to just that.

Recently I’ve been listening to Roy Scranton‘s debut novel, War Porn.  Good way through it, at this point.  The ugly stuff is ramping up.  I suspect that Professor Scranton, who teaches down the street from me at Notre Dame, might argue that, well, that’s War for you.

This morning, though, I heard the Audible narrator read former President George W. Bush’s speech to the United States at the time of the initiation of the fighting in Iraq.  The narrator gave a nice rendition of the President’s twang.  I had to admire it as I pulled into the parking lot of my clinic.

I parked the car.  I listened to the speech. I turned the book off. But not the car.  Not yet.

Fourteen years it’s been since that speech.  At the time I was working out of a nondescript office in downtown Indianapolis, occasionally walking down to the local Starbucks on Mass Ave to enjoy a latte in the corner of the store, staring at the latest in the window of the toy store across the street.

But this morning, some two and half hours away from that cafe, miles and miles away within my soul, I heard words I must have heard some time around then, must have, spoken in my native tongue, assuring me that all would be…

Yes.  Would be.

I turned off the car and headed into work.  Too many words ahead of me to think anymore about those words.  Too many words, too many lives since those were first spoken.

I’m a much older man now.  So is Professor Scranton.  So are we all, men, women, the then-infants who are now leaving middle school.

If only would be were not still is.

But it is.

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