storytelling as dissent

youngblood-9781501105746_hrYesterday’s War Horse post only spotlit one small share of the vast number of veteran writers and artists, like the one pictured,  charting the forever war. They’re musicians, they’re poets holding incredible slams, they’re winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards.

The current bounty has me thinking about how the presence of such artists forms an arc throughout the history we’re charting — one that likely starts with Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, continues with e.e. cummings and Lewis Milestone and and busts out after World War II as Randall Jarrell, Joseph Heller, John Huston — until Vietnam givesi us Bill Erhart, Tim O’Brien and so many others (now on my cutting-room floor). If I include journalists and filmmakers to the mix, it becomes a cacophony.

Why the increase? And does the plentitude of stories just release tension, or begin the process of creating dissent as personnel know they’re not alone?

I don’t know if these questions are for trauma studies,military history or English class. But I do think they’re worth tracing. And maybe we can send today’s veteran stars a questionnaire, to find out if Bierce and Jarrell really do whisper in today’s texts.

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some musings on moral injury

stfrancisI’ve been talking to the new startup The War Horse about working together. And now I’ve been authorized to come up with a refreshing reporting strategy to explore “moral injury,” a concept that in 2011 seemed so fresh even as it was very very old.

Very old, of course, just as Jonathan Shay points to Homer and Virgil  and Logan Isaac to the Bible’s martial saints – highlighting war’s damage to one sense of self as a moral being. It could even be conceived as one of humanity’s core dilemmas. (Above:  squire Francis of Assisi returning from Perugia.)

But it has taken this generation, armed with 21st-century tools and the  voice of boomer/GenX parents, to demand that when such conflicts are burned into their bodies, it needs to be examined and treatments explored. And the VA, to their credit, has started asking smart questions, including what brings this on?  In 2011, a group of Palo Alto researchers asked veterans, in an effort to trace some of the damage:

 Emerging themes included betrayal (e.g., leadership failures, betrayal by peers, failure to live up to one’s own moral standards, betrayal by trusted civilians), disproportionate violence (e.g., mistreatment of
enemy combatants and acts of revenge), incidents involving civilians (e.g., destruction of civilian property and assault), and within-rank violence (e.g., military sexual trauma, friendly fire, and fragging). The authors suggest that an important next step would be to directly interview Veterans about their experiences to help expand this list.

That last sentence has sent a score of other researchers, journos like me and assorted therapists scuttling toward that ground, with predictable pushback from the PTSD skeptics. (Sally Satel, never to be ignored, even twists the concept into another partisan tool, accusing the rest of us of inflicting “moral injury to the nation.”

There are nonetheless solid thought leaders on the issue, from those Palo Alto researchers including Shira Maguen; theologians from Brite Divinity School and Logan Isaac; pioneers like Tyler Boudreau, who’s declared himself done with this discussion but whose work on it still cuts close to the bone, and the recent work of Michael Yandrell.

And we’ve had good discussions since, including this week at Stars and Stripes, Shay himself and others on NPR,  and Army Surgeon General Elspeth Ritchie, who I interviewed in 2006 for my masters’ thesis “Saving Sgt. Aguilar” and who usefully explored moral injury for TIME Magazine.

So what’s left for the War Horse to do? I’m looking at that list of “possible causes” listed earlier, and wondering if I might be able to reach out to combat-trauma survivors and see what speaks to them. I want to leave the spiritual aspects to the theologians, but hope there’s some moral/political language left un-despoiled by Internet tropes.

I’ll keep thinking. Anyone reading this who might have thoughts about what’s next, in the context of post-9/11 wars? Any feedback would be hugely appreciated.

 

 

 

 

Ron Kovic’s Convention speech

Kovic at Florida Memory

Which no one ever heard, because the networks had stopped filming in 1972. (They’d already wrecked the candidacy of WWII veteran Edmund Muskie. ) We’ll never know if that speech might have rocked the world of Richard Nixon.

Now, thanks to Studs Terkel’s chat with Hunter S. Thompson, you can hear it starting at minute 36.

The rest of the discussion is worth listening to, especially the conversation about “objective journalism.”

Many thanks to the vets who corrected my initial mistaken impression that this was the Democratic Convention. This was just as Kovic was starting out as an activist, long before we all knew his birthday.

 

 

The real Happy New Year’s of 1863

Emancipation-Proclamation1-5I’m glad I found the previous post via CNN, so actual experts set the scene on what happened 150 years ago yesterday.  It was, of course, pivotal to many of the figures in Ain’t Marching– from Quaker CO’s like Jesse Macy to Lewis H. Douglass.

So in writing my Civil War chapter, I couldn’t resist from painting the scene myself, including its immediate aftermath. We can go on for days about who therein counts as a dissenting soldier, but how not?

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On New Years’ Day 1863,  Boston’s Music Hall on Hamilton Place held 3000 people, twice the norm. Frederick Douglass and his friends Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson listened eagerly as the Boston Philharmonic played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The crowd huddled with Douglass, waiting for news over the telegraph from Washington.

But Douglass also kept running around the corner to Tremont Temple, where he had first burst to public prominence, to calm down a similar-sized crowd of largely black people hoping for word. Ten o’clock approached and passed. At 11:00, both crowds were was growing restive, and Frederick Douglass took the stage. In the caramel baritone they loved so well (so unlike that man Garrison’s soprano), he said that if necessary, “We won’t go home till morning.”

They didn’t have to wait that long. Douglass wrote later about the “scene of excitement that baffles description,” when the ceiling seemed draped in “all the Hats and bonnets hurled in the air.”

Young Jesse Macy, now studying at a small Quaker college in Ohio, writes that the same day, “A mass meeting was held to celebrate[…] The Academy was soon after depleted of nearly all its men suitable for military service.”

And in Boston, Lewis H. Douglass and his brother Charles listened with one scary reality in mind: that both were old enough to fulfill their dad’s explicit promise, made in an article in the very newspaper Lewis worked on every day.

.. that colored men in Rhode Island and Connecticut performed their full share in the war of the Revolution, and that men of the same color, such as the noble Shields Green, Nathaniel Turner and Denmark Vesey stand ready to peril everything at the command of the Government. We would tell him that this is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; that this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied.

Harriet Tubman acted right away, crossing both color and gender lines. To busy to celebrate — “I had my jubilee three years ago” — Tubman received one hundred dollars “secret service money” from the Union Army a few days later, and was sooncollecting data, paying for information from slaves in Confederate territory, and recruiting.112  The Secretary of War would soon be informed that 750 blacks waiting to join the Union Army “had been rescued from slavery under the leadership of Harriet Ross Tubman.”

The units organized to receive them were commanded by white officers including George Garrison, William Lloyd’s wayward son, and Robert Gould Shaw, who’d agreed to assume command of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Infantry.
Douglass senior, now a one-man recruiter of free blacks for the Massachusetts 54th,  said proudly that the troops, including his two oldest sons, would “by striking down the foes which oppose it, strike also the last shackle which binds the limbs of bondmen in the Rebel States.”

For Lewis and Charles, who had grown up in mostly white Rochester attending desegregated schools, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Artillery Companies were the first time they had ever been entirely surrounded by other black men. After finishing training in June, they headed to South Carolina to the hottest temperatures the brothers had ever known.

Lewis Douglass wrote to his father every week, mostly asking for money to supplement the paltry $5 a month the 54th’s enlisted men were being paid, and whenever he could to his fiancée Amelia Loguen. To Amelia that he wrote his most famous letter about the an assault on Fort Wagner, which sat like a Bavarian castle above white, terrifying cliffs: “I have been in two fights, and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe to-night.”

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But what everyone should be reading about the Proclamation, of course, is the peerless Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose nonfiction novel on the war is likely to rock our world. His smart exegesis concludes with something we all need to remember:

With something as dramatic as emancipation, there should be some break point, some specific document that freed the slaves. But as [Eric] Foner points out, emancipation is a process (one that I would argue begins with slave abscondance and the Underground Railroad), not so much a point. And emancipation is itself a part of an even larger process — integrating African Americans as citizens of equal standing. That effort continues even today.

Saving Breanna Elizabeth Manning

If you just looked at  my Twitter feed (at right) you might think that my book is about the eponymous private that’s in the title — that all that came before, from stories of 1781 mutinies to Phil Ochs tributes, was all marshaled in support of one 24-year-old charged with treason by the national security state.

Not so. But it’s been clear, for a very long time, that the case of “the Wikileaks guy” did contain many of the elements that make this topic so compelling: the ethical challenge thrown up by dissent, the mixed motivations, the charged gender subtexts and faux-masculine performances assumed by people in authority.

This is not the blog in which I try to unpack any of that.

But this was the week in which Private Manning gave personal testimony under oath for the very first time: I had no choice but to pay as close attention as I could, even though I couldn’t go to Fort Meade and watch the proceedings.

In a courtroom sketch, Bradley Manning explains his Qauntico marine brig cellManning’s attorney, David Coombs, was presenting a detailed case for reducing or dropping charges against Manning due to the over-long term of pre-trial confinement and the conditions of hir confinement at Quantico, with the governmen repeatedly asserting that they’d done so for justified reasons. And for the first time, with full knowledge of Manning and counsel, the gender issue that has tormented me from the beginning was brought into the open — thus the title of this post. (Tormented for reasons of confidentiality and respect, not for any reasons of transphobia.)

The only real news this morning is that Manning’s court-martial has been delayed until March (from Feb), which means that the trial might not be decided before three full years have passed since his arrest. (Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, is speaking about it publicly this evening, broadcast on C-SPAN: I can’t wait.)

In  case you don’t follow my parallel site on Facebook, here are some links to get you up to speed:

  • The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, as brilliant as they come. Her title: ““I’m Stuck Inside This Cage”: Bradley Manning Testifies.” She starts with Manning’s testimony about his Kuwait detention and makes us feel it from there.
  • Alexa O’Brien at Second Sight, who tweets at @carwinb, has been there every day with sharp reporting, and shared important trial documentation as well.

Continue reading

Bradley Manning: WIRED folds, and my dilemma is moot.

WIRED has just released the full transcripts of the conversations between Manning and that snake Adrian Lamo – meaning that everyone that cares about Manning, thinks him hero or traitor, has no way of not knowing about the gender issues. They’re mesmerizing reading, though I agree with Gawker that Lamo turns out to be even more unethical than we knew before (and as much of a scumbag as Glenn Greenwald has said all along.)

And here I just got my letter from David Coombs, basically refusing to discuss it – and I was trying to figure out if that was a coded request to honor what was left of his client’s privacy. Now, I feel that writing about this respectfully is the only way to show that respect. What do you think?

More later when I’ve finished reading the transcripts:  comments sorely requested. Was it Hemingway who said, “The writer’s job is to find out the truth and then write it. But that can be very difficult.”?

Operation Recovery’s Oleo Strut

About a year ago, Iraq Veterans Against the Wars began a campaign that sounded almost conservative: Operation Recovery, against the deployment of traumatized troops. The celebrated Camilo Mejia, when he and I talked in Philadelphia, was skeptical : “Sounds like the VFW.”

Actually, it’s a sign that IVAW gets it, in a very deep way.

Photo: New York Times

By “it” I mean the confluence of dissent-ingredients I’ve been tracking in my book, most especially the multifaceted effects of combat trauma. This week, a team at Fort Hood in Texas reported on what they saw:

–       We listen to the Military Police Sergeant talk about her soldier that is only 21 years old and after one deployment just can’t function any longer. He needs help and treatment, and their commander makes his every attempt to get help harder as opposed to easier.

–       We listen to the Medic Sergeant talk about the number of suicides and attempted suicides that no one is talking about.

–       We listen to the soldier on extra duty talk about being shot on his third deployment, needing to take pain relievers, running out of pills, taking his wife’s pills to get through the day, and then getting courtmartialed for taking the wrong medication.

–       We listen to the soldiers talk about their non-commissioned officers that are shaken and struggling with anxiety and memories but are gearing up to deploy again.

All of the above is often greeted with “Suck it up and drive on,” at least in the Army. To insist that the Pentagon do otherwise is actually quite a sucker punch to the machine that relies on obedience to that one instruction.

My friend Luis Carlos Montalvan, told TIME Magazine (published this week): “There are 18 suicides a day among veterans. I’d do anything to help prevent that tragedy.” We all know now that the numbers for active-duty guys are just as troubling. Luis and his amazing book (buy it!) are on a mission of essential if non-controversial service. Op Recovery, as I said to Camilo, is just as essential and potentially revolutionary. Dave Cline, founder of the Vietnam-era Oleo Strut, would have been proud of them.