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.
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.