Sunday, November 3, 2013

Undertakers of Rain: Leaving the War

Falling Soldier: Magnum
Photographer Robert Capa, born Friedmann Endre on October 22, 1913 died on May 25, 1954 from a land mine in Vietnam. In his 40 years, he participated in five wars: The Spanish Civil War, the Second Sin-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and his last, the First Indochina War. His weapon, of course was the camera. It is, perhaps, a gruesome thought to consider the carnage of five wars. I would think it's one thing to participate in the carnage, and it's something else entirely to record it. The 20th century brought us enough wars to make a concise understanding of war, everything from petty skirmishes to entire world wars, not to mention the one war that really cold one, that fortunately, no one acted on. And as long as we're introducing the concept of war with photographer Robert Capa, let's just say that the record of war, and the method of documenting war changed considerably from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of it. Early photographic prints around 1900 were significantly different from satellite digital imagery complete with ticker-tape CNN banners so prevalent in first world homes by the 1990s. And I cannot speak of the technological advances we see today. Today we have more than Life Magazine, we have more than TV. Computers and smartphones give us video and news as it's happening. It sends us war from the remotest parts of Earth instantly. So, the recording of war has change, and war itself has remained the same. 

Images are one thing. War is one thing. What we're talking about here is something else. This is the question I pose today, much like Robert Capa's famous Spanish Civil War photograph, The Falling Soldier, we retain war images long after the war is over. After peace treaties and armistices are reached, we still have images of the battle. 

We have the images. We also have words as documentation. War correspondents go back to the Greeks, or the Norse and their poets. And writers who participated in war tend to write about war: Stephen Crane or Ambrose Bierce if we're talking the American Civil War. Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is one you might want to read on a sunny day, this is an account of the German experience of the Great War that war to end all wars. Dalton Trumbo's book Johnny Got His Gun is another good World War I book. All of these books and all of these writers are very anti-war. Rightly so. When you go to war, you tend not to want war to continue. When you go to war, you see how futile and stupid it really is. It's costly both in human life and in money. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. never really left Dresden. Dresden, as you know was completely knocked down in a matter of hours. Slaughter House Five and many stories in Armageddon in Retrospect and the writer's accounts of Dresden, of the blitz and it's odd, if not a little sad that the writer's perspective is strikingly Dresden. I love Once there was a War, which is John Steinbeck's collection of WWII writings. He was a correspondent in his own right. His stories were more human, or character based, as is all of his fiction. The Moon is Down is a wonderful novella set in occupied territory. This slim volume caused Steinbeck plenty of trouble here in the USA, but possession of the book in Nazi occupied territory was a capital offense. The Nazis were book burners anyway, and I won't tell you what I think of book censors today, or the name that I call them. 

The Things They Carried made me love Tim O'Brien. 

It begs the question, do veterans of war, whether they are soldiers, or doctors or nurses, or victims, or correspondents, or photojournalists ever really leave the war? If the average person can see the photographs in Life Magazine, or see the violence second hand via the TV or even read about it in a book, does it really convey the experience? And if these veterans of war do not really leave the war, what does that say about those who caused or started the war? And for those patriotic souls out there, those who proudly display “support our troops” stickers and ribbons, what do they really mean? I secretly suspect that those who support our troops, only think about them during wartime. Postwar is really when they need the most support. 

My war happened long ago, 1990-1991. It was a funny little war called Desert Storm. Some of you may remember it, some of you may have watched it on TV, and some of you may have participated in it with me. Although it happened years ago, I think about it. I think about my buddies: I think about Sgt. McGill, and Hahn and Baty, I think about Covaleski. I think about our average age being 20 years old. I think about the night sky in Iraqi. I think about the missiles Baty and I watched one night, the night before the invasion. I think about the conversations I had with my buddies. I think about the springtime and the wadis, and how beautiful I thought they were. I think about the Bedouins I met and how interesting I thought they were. I oftentimes have dreams that I'm back in the middle east, it's me, present day and I'm forced to be with the military. I'm too old for war now, and the dream really bothers me. I wake up and think about the day to come, today. And I'm somehow left in a funk. I will not bore you, terrify you or solicit pity from you by telling you the flipside of my memories of war.

I will not write about either. There's no need. I don't think it's interesting, and I don't think it's worth my time writing. I don't particularly care for memoir, and I don't think the world needs another war story.

However, I have no problem writing about returned war veterans.

This is how it happens. Once returned home from war, a veteran sees that life has continued on in their absence. The vet then mixes with family or old friends who make one faux pas after another. The alienation begins. The vet stays out all night and drinks a lot of beer. The vet finds solace in drugs and sex. The vet does what is expected, goes to school, gets a job, starts life. And somehow, just under the surface, things just aren't quite right. And this is where the conflict lies, the conflict lies, just under the surface where things do not quite jive between outer-reality and inner-reality. This is why I think there is an inclination for vets to return to war, get high stress jobs or become firefighters and police officers. The latter are also professions that favor vets, and rightly so.

Let's move forward, shall we? 

Available Here
Years later, the vet feels like it's okay to talk about it. The vet feels like it may be time to return to the place of war. Years later, there is a crack in the facade. There is something that makes the interim years feel like there was a problem, but just not one easily identifiable. People make assumptions, PTSD. They give it a name. They make it a disorder, or a syndrome. 

But there it is. PTSD, shell shock. Some vets do not return home, and all vets never really leave the war. 

For me, it took ten years to realize there was a problem. Ten years after that, I wrote Undertakers of Rain.

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