Onward, Toward Glory

Reading Room: offering up the palace bards –

All men are brothers, like the seas throughout the world;
So why do winds and waves clash so fiercely everywhere?
Emperor Hirohito

WMD – I was in Trader Joe’s the other day when I ran into an old acquaintance – literally. Our carts, like unattended children within striking distance of one another, nearly came to blows while each of us were distracted, trying to remember all of the items on our own separate lists. Recognition flashed across her face as we each looked up out of our insular worlds. “Hey! I know you!” crowed the woman I’d almost just side-swiped.

Woman In Blue

"Woman in Blue" Paul Cezanne.

Blue Star Mothers – another cord of recognition worked itself loose as we chatted about what had been happening in our lives since we’d last seen each other. Her eldest son, on leave from his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, was expected home the next day, and she and her husband were planning a big “welcome home” party. My son, having served one extended tour in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, had been physically returned to us for a few years now, but in many ways, still hasn’t come back from the war. My comment to her was, “I haven’t gotten my son back yet.” Her response? “You don’t know how many times I’ve heard that from other mothers.”

New Dawn – it took Odysseus, famously rumored to have squandered his time and resources on foreign women, ten years to get home to from the Trojan War. Much literary criticism has been written, speculating on Odysseus’ need to “re-connect with his feminine side” in the ten-year interim of his personal journey home. Many literary theorists have also conjured sundry explanations for our hero’s capacity for mythic adventure. After all, next to the epic of Gilgamesh, and some of the books of the Old Testament, this story is perhaps the oldest surviving war story on the planet. However, what interests me more about Odysseus’ story, as relayed to posterity by the poet, Homer, is the non-linear narrative technique of The Odyssey.

Odysseus and the suitors

"Odysseus and the suitors" Greek Pottery.

Homeland Security – when the story opens, we find Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, at her wits end – ten years after the war has ended, her husband still hasn’t returned, and she’s had no word of his fate. His son, Telemachus, all grown up now and tormented with “father-hunger,” reared only on tales of his absent patriarch. And his kingdom, Ithaca, languishes in ruins – overrun by the various opportunistic hedonists seeking Penelope’s favor as his replacement, even though no one really knows for sure at this point whether its king and our hero, Odysseus, is dead or alive. In classic style, it takes four long chapters of exposition to give us (the audience) the “big picture.” It’s not until Book Five (i.e. chapter five) that Odysseus’ story is told, in third-person omniscient point-of-view, narrated by the poet.

International Support – but it’s not until three books (or chapters) later in the relaying of the narrative, when Odysseus himself finally seizes control of his own story and begins narrating it himself in first-person, that we’re tipped off as to the true nature of the conflict, (i.e. Odysseus’ inner struggle) and given a hint about the story’s outcome, or resolution of the conflict. What I find significant about this is that Odysseus’ story is not so much primarily a long, sad tale of woe, but that it’s not until this point in the epic, when Odysseus speaks up for himself and claims his own story, that he finally sees a way to get back “home.” As Gregory Orr tells us in “Wilfred Owen and the Horrors of War,” (chapter fourteen of his book, Poetry As Survival) the warrior’s journey (i.e. the archetypal “hero’s journey” of the warrior’s path) starts out “armored against experience” with an idealized conception of the rumored glories of war. After being exposed to the horrors of war, the soldier’s psyche undergoes an existential crisis, “entirely negative and destructive of the self,” a “no man’s land” from which modern soldiers still suffering from “shell shock” (as it was called in WWI), “battle fatigue” (as it was referred to in WWII), or “post traumatic stress disorder” (as it has been termed in the wake of the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) have yet to return from.

Shock and Awe – however, Wilfred Owen, as Orr goes on to explain, undergoes a second, more powerful personal transformation, as his psyche re-groups and speaks out against his “hellish experience” rather than greet it with denial or resign himself to suffering in “silent terror” as most American veterans are apt to do. In other words, he not only claims his own story despite the unmitigated destructive power of the guilt that is the direct result of the violence and horror he’s made to witness and/or feels responsible for, but he permits himself to speak the truth of it aloud. Thus, Owen, as Orr suggests, succeeds in taking “back the experience of war from the jabbering propagandists and patriots, who glorified and falsified it for their own purposes.” Similar to Odysseus, who in telling his own story secures the compassionate assistance of the Phaeacians, Owen “paved the way for soldier-poets after him. Showed them that they could, with luck and courage, incorporate their experience into poems and give voice to what they had gone through and the trauma they continued to endure long after the initial nightmare of combat.”

The Long War – it is precisely what combatants “continue to endure long after the initial nightmare of combat” that Brian Turner confronts and gives voice to in his second book, Phantom Noise. Punctuated by heart beats, literally, the book’s section breaks present what looks like an EKG printout in white on black pages, and gives the reader a graphic depiction of an abnormal heart rhythm, at that. In a constant state of heightened “readiness” for conflict, fueled by adrenaline and brought on by the body’s “fight or flight” response, the accelerated heart rate must not only be at least partially responsible for the resultant “battle fatigue,” or PTSD, but the stress is enough to shorten the soldier’s life considerably, should s/he survive combat. We each get approximately 2.5 billion heartbeats in a lifetime, so a person with a slower heart rate can expect to live longer than one whose heart rate is accelerated on a daily basis. Beyond the physical stress, however, and perhaps even more sinister, is the mental trauma, which doesn’t even show up right away, but lingers in shadows: “Through Venetian blinds/ I see the Iraqi prisoners in that dank cell at Firebase Eagle/ staring back at me. They say nothing, just as they did/ in the winter of 2004.” And on corners: “Parachute flares drift in the burn time/ of dream, their canopies deployed/ in the sky above our bed. My lover/ sleeps as Iraqi translators shuffle/ in through the doorway – visiting/ as loved ones might visit a hospital room,/ ill at ease, each of them holding/ their sawn-off heads in hand.” And in memory: “Dr. Sushruta lifts slivers of shrapnel, bits/ of coarse gravel, road debris, diamond/ points of glass – the minutiae of the story/ reconstructing a cold afternoon in Baghdad,/ November 2005.”

Yellow Ribbon

"Yellow Ribbon"

Safe Havens – and it is here, in shadows, on corners of memory that “phantom noise” echoes in the warrior’s mind, as his/her wartime acts continue to disturb whatever tenuous peace of mind s/he might achieve. Implicated in the atrocities of war, unable to reconcile his/her wartime acts with who s/he believes him/herself to be, the warrior must endure denial, guilt, and shame “long after the initial nightmare of combat.” In acute and constant conflict, the psyche split in two, (good/evil, loving/hating, mind/body) “where is the healer of the soul?” At the beginning of a public reading, Turner himself aptly observed, “war is a total communication failure.” I would suggest that as the narrative technique of Odysseus’ epic demonstrates, and the personal lyric of Turner’s poetry so eloquently lays bare, healing the soul from its private, internal war on terror starts with confronting one’s own horrific experiences, taking control of one’s own story, and, with courage, speaking it aloud.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks, Jim! Glad you enjoyed it. And I wish your son good luck, God-speed, and extend my heartfelt thanks to him for his service!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Jim Hodge on May 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Anne, Luv your latest. As an aside, my son just got orders to the 10th Mountain Division Fort Drum NY.

    Reply

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