Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial for Pop Pop and Other Victims of War That Lingers After the War

Memorial Day always makes me think of my grandfather who was a paratrooper in the 82nd airborne during WWII. This is a post that I wrote in the first few weeks of this blog, but I'm not sure I can say it any other way, so for those who have read these words, I apologize, but it is something I still think is worth saying.

I was very, very close with my grandfather who passed away from cancer while I was in graduate school. I was very fortunate that he lived only minutes from Johns Hopkins where I was finishing my dissertation and that his last couple of weeks were clearly his last couple of weeks, so that I and the family as a whole could be with him.

He had lived a full life: raising a family, running a business, raising orchids and making bonsai trees, kibitzing with everyone he met. But the defining time of his life had been World War II, jumping behind the enemy lines before D-Day. As a teenager, I would mow my grandparents lawn and then sit with him for hours listening to old Yiddish jokes, arguing politics, and hearing the war stories. He always made sure that I knew that it was the convicts, colorful criminals with off-color pasts, let out of jail so they could serve in this unit that brought him home alive. And though it remained unsaid, it was always clear that in some indirect way I owed my existence to these people I was very lucky not to have had to associate with. Big Boy Buchanon, Jimmy D, the whole cast of them led to stories that might have been left on the editing room floor after shooting the Dirty Dozen. They were exciting, they were funny, they were poignant. Those were Pop Pop's stories and I heard them all countless times.

But when he was dying -- it was the cigars, not the Nazis that finally got him -- even though he was surrounded by the people he loved most in the world, it was the war that commanded his attention with a ferocity I had never experienced. My parents, my brother and his fiance, my soon to be wife, my aunt and uncle, all my cousins, we all sat with him up in his bedroom; but in his last two days he drifted back to Europe and the war. Sometimes it was hallucinatory, other times he knew he was in his bedroom, but he couldn't pull his mind off of the war. I saw in my grandfather's face something I had never seen before, fear. Beyond fear, it was true horror. And he would not talk about it. I tried for two days, hoping that describing it would exorcise it from his spirit. His agony was not from the disease of his body, but something in his mind. It was so painful to see my beloved Pop Pop in this anguish that I gladly would have taken the burden. But he would not speak. He would not dare expose me to whatever it was. His last act on Earth would be to protect his loved ones from his deepest demons the way he had protected the country decades before.

I will never know the particulars of it, but I know full well what it was. It was post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. In America, we think of the homeless Viet Nam vet mumbling to himself when we think of the problem. It is a soldier's ailment; a sad, but necessary part of defending larger abstract principles. But that is wrong. In our comfortable lives, it is only our military who are most often exposed to the sort of trauma that gives rise to the disease.

And this underlying assumption about PTSD came out last week when we had Pacifica radio correspondent and author Aaron Glantz on campus for a talk (please read his book How America Lost Iraq.) He is a very insightful person who has spent much time in Iraq as an unembedded reporter seeing first hand what real life is like for real people in Iraq. As several of us sat and chatted, someone mentioned one of the lingering costs of the war being returning troops with PTSD. His response was to look curiously and say that, yes, many of our soldiers will likely come back with it, but did we not realize that we are leaving an entire nation with it.

Much of the entire current generation of children in Iraq right now will have the same time bomb planted in their minds that my grandfather had. And it is not only Iraqis: children in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, wherever the tragedy of war is allowed to exist. They will be able, most of them, if their political, social, and economic situation allows, to grow up and function, but the trauma of their past will never leave them. There is no closure or any other pop psychology notion that can be brought in here to smooth the edges -- their minds, souls, spirits have been unalterably affected. That change will incapacitate some, but for others will be more dormant, but still present.

Our two oceans are such an incredible luxury for us. It keeps us at a comfortable distance from most of the rest of the world so that the suffering need only be observed from our living rooms between game shows and sitcoms. But that suffering does not end when the cause is mitigated. PTSD is not just for soldiers. Political decisions have lasting human consequences with very long half-lives.