The Twilight (War) Zone

It’s been a good few weeks with family and friends, even if it was a tad on the hot side in Orlando, Florida, USA.  Still, my years in the American South prepared me well, and survive, I did, enjoyably even.

(And, oh, yes, a couple of unexpected surgical procedures for family members, but all are doing much better, thank you, and all are more than ready to move on.)

Throughout this time I’ve been reading various short stories written by the late 19th/early 20th-century American author Ambrose Bierce, journalist, author, adventurer—and combat veteran of the American Civil War.  One of his more famous anthologies was Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published in 1892.  Some have compared Bierce favorably to a more famous fellow-writer of an earlier generation, Edgar Allan Poe.  Indeed, Bierce’s stories have a horrific quality to them, much as do Poe’s.  Ask, for example, the protagonist in one of the most-often anthologized stories in the collection, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“: Peyton Farqhar, a Confederate civilian who is to be hanged by Union forces—and who gives new meaning to the term twist ending.

Not only has that story often been anthologized, it has often been performed as well. Previously unbeknownst to me, though, was a fact that brought back memories not only of my childhood, but also of many hours of my adulthood: a French short-film version of the story had once run as an episode of Rod Serling‘s early-1960’s classic series, The Twilight Zone.

I have a special spot in my heart for The Twilight Zone.  As I recall all these years later, so did my parents, who must have spent many a Friday evening watching murderous, talking dolls; lonely grandmothers with habits of postmortem telephone conversations; a younger Colonel Kirk losing it somewhere in a sky much closer to Earth; and a hitchhiker who still gives me chills every time I think of seeing him in my rear-view mirror.  To this day I can while away hours on Netflix watching them.  The endings get me every time.

What also was unbeknownst to me, though, revealed only via the magic of Wikipedia, was that like Bierce, Rod Serling was also a combat veteran, having served in the Philippines with the United States Army during World War II.

The editor and writing guru Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, considers horror stories to be an end-of-the-line version of the thriller genre, stories that live out the values of life and death by eventually placing the hero at the mercy of the villain, with the winner of the contest determining whether you’ll either have a). a commercial success on your hands or b). a decent review in The New York Times.

In the horror story, though, the villain is not just your average, bigger-than-life bad guy. The villain is an Evil greater than any of us can imagine. Even when the hero survives, there is no turning back to a world that existed before the inciting incident.  There may be denouements after most climaxes, but some denouements, apologies to Orwell, are more denoue-ing than others.

As I said, ask Peyton Farqhar.  Or any combat veteran, for that matter.

As I read literature by combat veterans (and even as I think about watching old black-and-white dramas by them), I remain struck by the shifts between the language of the story-as-going-on with the language of the scenes-where-time-stands-still.   I often find the shifts in vividness and tone between them to be jarring.  Since I am a civilian, I can only assume what the veterans I serve tell me: they are jarring because, in fact, combat jars, not only the body, but even more the mind and soul housed within.

Neuroscientific, trauma research only verifies what veterans such as Bierce and Serling have long shown us in their art: when time stands still—even as, in the worst of ways, it does not—the body records sensations in the most minute detail.  Words might fail those sensations at the moment itself, but if the veteran can one day return to that moment (never just in mind, but always, to some extent, in body) and craft words around those sensations (never altering them, merely giving them new form), the veteran can create within a few paragraphs sensations that will change us civilians forever, give us a denouement the experience of which we owe to all those who were willing to take actions that we, in one way or another, participated in calling them to take.

In the short-story form, whether written or staged, writers do not need to face the challenge of war writers of longer forms: the challenge of somehow finding a way to link, with language, memories that (quite likely, literally) lack neuronal linkages in the minds of the protagonists (and perhaps authors?) narrating their tales.  Consequently, Bierce and Serling can become masters of the moment, the moment itself when War/Death gives merely a glimpse of itself, a glimpse sufficient to turn off not only the hippocampus, but also the very Self.

Peyton Farqhar, Ambrose Bierce, Rod Serling: go ahead, ask them about that moment.

But only if you’re prepared to listen.


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.

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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