Eloquence and war

“Contemporary war, in America at least, is now defined as much by coming home as it is by shipping out” (Cook).

I read a 2010 review posted on themillions.com about Brian Turner’s 2nd book, Phantom Noise. Considering his book touches on the after effects of war, rather than focusing solely on the act of war itself, I thought that this quote from the reviewer was perfectly appropriate. We often don’t think of war as an effect, but merely a cause– an ongoing process without end. We don’t think about the soldiers after the war– when they are forced to come home and are met with uncertainty.

I could be wrong, but I feel like I read somewhere once that PTSD was not considered an actual disease that needed treatment, and that men who suffered from this were simply put in institutions. It’s nice to see an author shine some light on such a fragile subject in such an eloquent way like poetry. War is seen as ugly and crude, so for it to be talked about in such a way makes it almost haunting. I think, however, that may have been Turner’s point in choosing to use poetry to describe his experience in the Iraq war. Because war is haunting.

I would like to draw a parallel, however, between Turner’s poetry after his return from the war and that of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Pilgrim suffered from PTSD, and we are given glimpses of the war through his flashbacks and ramblings which transport us and make us feel as if we are there with him. Like Phantom Noise, Vonnegut uses language to describe an ugly reality and make it accessible for those who do not understand that realm. The realities of war, though troubling, are something that should be remembered even if talking about it does make us uncomfortable. Ignoring it will not stop it from continuing. So it goes.

Cook, Josh. “The Millions.” : War Comes Home: Brian Turner’s Phantom Noise. 20 July 2010. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <http://www.themillions.com/2010/07/war-comes-home-bryan-turners-phantom-noise.html&gt;.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. 1969. Print.

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4 thoughts on “Eloquence and war

  1. It’s true, what you read was true. PTSD was only recognized as a real disorder (by legal standards as well as medical), in the 80’s. In Vietnam, it was called, “Post-Vietman Syndrome”. It goes all the way back to the civil war, where I think it was called “Soldiers Heart.” The point is that every major war has had people come out of it as victors, but the scars were not always worn with pride, nor visibly. This is most likely why we, as a race, embrace the idea that war is unethical, and should only be used as a last resort. However, these feelings only seem to be held by the ones actually doing the fighting, where the ones who start the wars rarely have to dodge bullets or wipe the blood of thier friends from thier face in order to see. PTSD is real proof that nobody wins in a war. In another Era, PTSD may be renamed yet again, and will be the ‘new’ thing to bother soldiers, just so they can be swept under the rug. What a shame.

    • Wayne, I didn’t know that about the history of war and the ever-changing term for what we now call “PTSD”. One of the poems I really liked was “Al-A’imma Bridge” because it traces war throughout history – and if I’m reading correctly, the references are to just that area of the Middle East. When I was reading your reply to Kristan’s post, that poem sprung to mind right away. The poem isn’t dealing with PTSD in particular, but it summons many sad images of lives lost throughout, reminding the reader, in strong ways, the consequences of war.

  2. Kristan,
    I am so glad you brought up Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I think another parallel between these two authors is the seamless transitioning between the past and the present or the war and life after returning. In Slaughterhouse-Five you can’t even tell what the present reality is. I think that is a really important aspect to consider when discussing PTSD. It is such an overwhelming disorder that soldiers suffer and they cannot tell what reality is during those moments when they have an episode. We don’t take this seriously enough or provide returning soldiers with the help they need to heal and cope from the emotional damage they suffer during war. Turner describes his experience with PTSD in such an eloquent way that it defamaliarizes the reader and causes them to be jarred by the causal integration of such awful memories into the peaceful and normal everyday life.

  3. I think you’re absolutely right that the soldiers’ post-war experiences often go overlooked, and I’m not sure what to chalk it up to, exactly. On the one hand, I think it has something to do with how much our culture values the life of each individual soldier: every homecoming is cause for celebration; every combat death, cause for some sort of grand, military burial (and rightfully so, right?). I remember learning that that was one of the major cultural differences separating American troops from Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong — the value placed on the individual life relative to that placed on the success/achievement of the group as a whole. So maybe we just get so excited when a soldier comes home that we don’t want to even acknowledge the psychological and emotional suffering that can take hold after their homecoming. I think as civilians, it’s tempting to think of a tour of duty or something as a sort of finite experience: go fight for a year or so, and if you survive then that’s it; there’s nothing else left to overcome.

    In the USA Today article I posted in my blog post, there’s mentioned a soldier who was turned away from a military clinic when he sought help for coping with PTSD. Which I guess completely undermines the “valuing the lives of soldiers” point I just made. Although I do think that continuing to turn a blind eye to the severity and prevalence of PTSD in soldiers is what allows the US to continue to fight so many wars. I’ve often heard the War on Terror and the War in Iraq defended by people who cite the low death tolls for American troops, as though that’s the only measure of how many soldiers’ lives have been ruined, or at least made significantly worse, by their war-time experiences.

    – carly

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