Best Defense

Violence, veterans, and apple pie

Violence, veterans, and apple pie

Here is a note I wrote to a friend who was working on producing a play that got into the themes of how combat changes those who wage it. I sent this in January but noticed it on my laptop the other night and thought it might be worth sharing here.

First, violence is American as apple pie. This is a nation built on extraordinarily large-scale violence, especially against slaves and Native Americans, as well as settlers against each other. And it was pretty recent — the last Army massacre of Indians, at Wounded Knee, occurred only 121 years ago. Covering the military in this country, I used to joke, was like covering wine and cheese in France — that is, it goes to the heart of the culture. I only found out on Saturday after I drove all day and checked into a motel on a snowy evening in Massachusetts that another episode in our national violence had happened, with the shooting of a federal judge, a member of Congress, and a little girl, among others, in Arizona.

Second, and more specifically, on the military and violence: One of the things that astonishes me is how we teach young men (and some women) to go overseas and kill people, and expect them to be "normal" when they leave the military a year or two later. Killing people changes those who kill. Two of the things I have learned from a Marine who did four hard tours in Iraq are:

–The best thing we can do for these people is listen to them, intently.

–The best thing we can say to them is "welcome home." (Not, to the surprise of many, "thanks for your service.") He wrote about this for my blog under the provocative headline, "You can go strangle yourself with that yellow ribbon."

Third, I’ve been surprised at the art the Iraq war already has sparked. I thought The Hurt Locker, the movie about the bomb defusers in Iraq, was uneven but pretty good in capturing the vibe. Still, I think the best film "about" the Iraq war remains Battle of Algiers, made in about 1963, and one of my all-time favorite movies. A related thought: My wife and I went to see Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. Terrific play, set in the spring of 2004 in Iraq, but I flinched and nearly left the theater when the bomb went off, with the Scottish soldiers flying slow-motion into the air. I was in a convoy that was bombed and machine gunned on the west bank of the Euphrates in the spring of 2004. I found out a day later that my father had died of a heart attack at almost the exact moment of that ambush.

Finally, on the supposed newness of PTSD: Yes, there has been a lot of discussion about it lately, but the problem of the mental aftershocks caused by war has long been recognized. The insane asylums after the Civil War were chockablock with veterans suffering from what I think they then called "soldiers’ heart." And a lot of the atmosphere of the Old West of the 1870s and 1880s grows out of the Civil War, I think — not just outlaws, but also people who fled society to become near-hermits in the mountains or deserts. My friend Jonathan Shay, a veterans’ counselor, has written two terrific books interpreting the Iliad and the Odyssey as being about the psychological trauma of combat. In a nutshell, he argues that the voyage of Odysseus is basically a metaphor of what it is like for the combat veteran to seek re-entry to civilized society — the visit to dead comrades in the underworld, being captured by drugs or sex, feeling adrift for many years.