Phaeacians were the mythic people who listened to the war veteran Odysseus on his way home from war. After 10 years of war and 10 years of thwarted homecoming it was the Phaeacians who finally helped Odysseus return home. This blog records notes from my ongoing study of modern day Phaeacians - civilians who make a point of listening deeply to the narratives of war veterans. It explores an old idea - that there is an important and necessary relationship between warriors and the communities of people that send them to war. The project asks, what happens or how are we changed (if at all) by listening to military and war veterans? It includes my observations and interviews with modern day Phaeacians and my own experience of listening to war veterans.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A military apart

The November 21, 2011 cover story in Time magazine claims that the U.S. military and American society are drifting apart. The article explains, “It's tough inside the civilian world to discern the drift. But troops in all the military services sense it, smell it -- and talk about it. So do their superiors. We have a professional military of volunteers that has been stoically at war for more than a decade. But as the wars have droned on, the troops waging them are increasingly an Army apart.”

Throughout much of human history listening to warriors and the stories of war and homecoming were viewed as important and necessary communal and societal activities. Warriors held a special place in society as the ones who defended against threats, used force and violence for common objectives and willingly sacrificed themselves when necessary. Warriors needed special preparation for the role – especially the role of killing – and high ritual, grand ceremony and elaborate dress accompanied war and war preparation. When warriors returned from war the society that sent them to war helped cleanse them from the toxicity of war and honored them through ritualized wound tending, remembering and storytelling.

Today listening to war veterans is no longer a communal or societal priority. In the last 150 years warfare has changed dramatically. With technological advances wars have become larger, more destructive and spread across the globe. Combat has become more impersonal with warriors often not seeing those they kill. But it is not only warfare that has changed. Contemporary militaries increasingly treat soldiering as merely a job. Returning solders are expected to shed their uniforms and quickly integrate back into civilian life. Those who cannot re-integrate are seen as abnormal, given medical labels and provided with symptom suppressing therapies. For many warriors the war experience is only discussed in veteran circles, with therapists or as entertainment in commercially viable books and films.

Most civilians in America have little or no connection with war. They approve and fund wars that have little impact on their daily lives. War and the war wounded are viewed as the responsibility of government. Beyond posting flags, affixing “Support Our Troops” stickers to vehicles, and thanking veterans in an airport, most civilians have little contact with the war experience. As one civilian commented when I invited her listen to an eight-minute audio recording of veteran storytelling, “No thanks. That sounds really depressing. I’ve got enough trouble without thinking about that.”

And yet war continues. As I write this the war in Afghanistan continues and the soldiers from Iraq are coming home. What might we learn if we were to listen to veterans? The Time article concludes by stating, “War is the most extraordinary enterprise in which the national government engages. It's long past time the public engages in it, as well.”

Friday, November 4, 2011

The journey begins

In 2009, as part of graduate education fieldwork, I attended a four-day retreat for returning war veterans as a civilian witness. The role of witness is one of listening deeply to the veterans’ narratives of war. At the end of the retreat a tall ex-Army master sergeant lifted me off the ground in a giant bear hug and said, “Thanks man, for listening.” As I returned the hug, I found myself saying, “You’re welcome, but I need to be thanking you.” And I meant it. The veterans’ presence and narratives had been gifts.

While the veterans' stories had been painful to hear they provided startling insights into the wounding nature of military life, what it means to be trained to kill, the moral dilemmas of combat, and the difficulties veterans face in returning to civilian life. Listening stirred many questions – questions about my disconnection from war, the psychological and spiritual wounding of war, our insistence that psychological wounding is an individual problem, the emptiness of our consumer driven culture, our disconnection for each other, our refusal to remember and our contemporary flight from death and the tragic nature of life.

But amid all the telling, hearing, insights and stirrings, an unexpected sense of community emerged among retreat attendees in which the burden of awareness seemed to find more equal carrying between civilians and witnesses. As the retreat concluded veterans had lighter burdens, civilians were carrying more and everyone was grateful and amazed at the powerful hopeful sense of connection.