Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bookends: The War at Home

Citing a new book about the Iraq War by a harshly critical war veteran, President Obama says Americans need to think more clearly about the costs of sending troops into our Middle Eastern wars.

“Over vacation, I read a book of short stories by Phil Klay called Redeployment," Obama said Sunday on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS program. “And it's a quick but powerful and for me painful set of stories about the experience of ordinary soldiers in Iraq. And I think it's a reminder, particularly important for a commander in chief, that the antiseptic plans and decisions and strategies and the opining of pundits that take place in Washington, you know, is very different from war and conflict as it's experienced by people on the ground.

“And part of the reason that I am deliberate about decision making when it comes to foreign policy, and part of the reason that I do think it's important to aim before you shoot is because I've met enough young men in Walter Reed [Military Medical Center] and talked to enough families who have lost loved ones to remember that there are costs to the decisions we make,” Obama continued. “Sometimes we have to make them, but they are real and they are serious. ... If we're going to deploy folks to war, it better be for a darn good reason. We better have a very clear objective that is worthy of the sacrifices that these folks make.”

As noted in a Politico commentary on Obama’s comments: “The president’s praise for the book comes months after he ordered several hundred American ‘advisers’ back to Iraq, although not in a combat role — and months into a public debate over how to best fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Phil Klay’s book was previously lauded by jaundiced war correspondents and literary critics. “’Redeployment’ is military for ‘return,’ and Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought,” George Packer wrote in The New Yorker.

A few days before Obama’s shout out, the author drew a standing-room-only crowd for a discussion about his book, which won a 2014 National Book Award, with students and faculty at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Klay said he wrote this work to explore dilemmas that 12 characters in the short stories faced during deployment in the war and after coming home. “The beauty of fiction,” he said, “is that you can bring someone into the head of someone else as they try to choose what to do.” 

He credited readers of his early drafts—at NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop and at Hunter College’s MFA program—for prodding him to clearly state what he felt should be drawn from various experiences he was part of or learned from others.

In response to questions from the audience, Klay said he didn’t come home from Iraq traumatized but rather uncertain what he felt. “One of the problems coming back is you were part of this massive global thing that you didn’t yet know what you felt about it,” he said. “Writing the book helped me get a better perspective on it.” 

To illustrate his point about the complexity of the war for many veterans, he told a story about another vet speaking at an event, who said “he used to be proud of being a Marine in Iraq. Now he felt the war was an evil thing. So what did that make him?” Klay said. “That guy felt he had to bear the weight of an enormous thing.”

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Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Big Game

"Throwing the Bomb"   Watercolor by Jan Barry

Super Bowl Sunday. 
A classic clash of football titans. 
The ultimate razzmatazz of pigskin pummeling. 
My wobbly right knee often sharply recalls playing this game 
decades ago in great delight despite incredible pain. 
A high school classmate at a reunion years ago 
enthusiastically remembered seemingly every move in every game. 
I’ve forgotten most of the details, but my body still feels the pads, 
the cleats, the helmet, the uniform, the hard smack of blocks and tackles, 
the exhilaration of running and maneuvering until smacked to the ground. 
And so it went on the crowd-roaring road to war. 
Choose sides. Cheer, cheer, jeer: 
Throw the bomb. Destroy the other team.  


Saturday, January 31, 2015

Selma: America’s War at Home

Library of CongressImages: civil rights marchers in Selma

The historic march for civil rights featured in the new film, “Selma,” was sparked by the death 50 years ago this February of a Vietnam veteran, Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by an Alabama state trooper. As chilling scene after scene in the film shows, Alabama in 1965 was a dangerous place for a black-skinned war veteran to join a peaceful demonstration for the right to vote.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death in seeking to exercise the rights of democracy he fought for in Vietnam was the tip of cascading war casualties at home.

“A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said at Jackson’s funeral. “He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law… He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote…”

As noted by historians and featured on the King Center website, “Jackson’s death was eulogized by Dr. King and was the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery March that occurred a few days later, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

“Selma” is a rare feature film that puts viewers into the harrowing setting of Americans demonstrating peacefully for a just cause and taking vicious beatings from police officers and fellow citizens who hate people challenging long-established traditions. 

While critics debate aspects of the film, the events it depicts were the real deal—an historic clash of cultures in which hard-eyed men with guns lost the battle to peaceable protesters willing to endure brutal violence and death for their cause.

Exhorting the crowd of angry black people infuriated by a state trooper shooting Jackson as he tried to shield his mother and grandfather from troopers chasing down and beating demonstrators, King said, “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution … We must not be bitter, and we must not harbor ideas of retaliation with violence.”

This is not typical Hollywood fare, in which the hero saves the day with guns blazing. 

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Rod McKuen, Love and War Poet

Rod McKuen, 1933-2015     (www.rodmckuen.com)

Rod McKuen was one of my go-to poets when I felt black and blue after serving in Vietnam. I stumbled across some of his early poetry collections in bookstores in New York and gravitated to the poems he wrote about love and loss and Army service in Korea.

There are some wounds I never
                        speak about.
Some things that words have done to me
that none will ever know…

McKuen wrote in a sequence of poems set during his tour in the Korean War, published in Listen to the Warm in 1967. Obituaries popping up in the wake of his death yesterday, at 81 in Beverly Hills, California, make little note that this prolific songwriter and poet was a war vet who battled depression by crafting a monumental collection of sweetly soaring and melancholy love songs.

I was as thrilled to discover his translated from the French lyrics for “If You Go Away”—famously sung by Frank Sinatra, among others—as I was to find his scarcely known war poems. I tried to emulate his lyrical songwriting style, with no success. What provided my poetry better grounding were his grunt-level takes on military affairs.

Who made those wars romantic in the first place?
Who led us down the line in patriotism’s name…

Who told us that as huddled masses yearning to break free
we’d have to kill a man for every foot of ground we gained?...

McKuen wrote in a poem in a sequence called “Did You Say the War Is Over?” published in In Someone’s Shadow in 1969. Even in death, this poet/songwriter mocked by critics for his often sunny lyrics has much to say about the darkness he struggled to rise from.

The first combat I saw was at Fort Ord,
down the coast from San Francisco.
During sixteen weeks of basic training
thirty-six men in my division were killed
                          or killed themselves…

Six weeks into basic,
long after the infiltration course
would take another nine men’s lives,
Corporal Garner, I think that was his name,
got up from bed while the barracks slept
                                          and hanged himself
from the rafter just above his bunk….

The shape of him that morning still circles
                                        in my mind. …

McKuen wrote in “It Was Always Winter in Korea,” published in The Power Bright and Shining in 1980. This poem is posted on McKuen’s website, A Safe Place to Land, dated November 11, 2014.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The War at Home

It has become a cliché that “18 veterans a day”—and then “22 veterans a day”—die of suicide in America. These appalling figures of the VA’s estimated daily average of military veterans who kill themselves have been reported in the news media for years. Telling the story of one of those veterans, and how his family battled the US government to change how it treats returning soldiers, will hopefully shake up enough people to truly make a difference.
That’s the aim of the authors, editors and publisher of The Wounds Within: A Veteran, a PTSD Therapist, and a Nation Unprepared.  It focuses on Jeff Lucey’s death at home after serving with the Marines in the invasion of Iraq. This is a still startling tragedy, which has been widely told before in news accounts, his parents’ testimony to various government entities, and in previous books, notably The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans, published in 2009.

The new element in The Wounds Within are the insights of co-author Mark I. Nickerson, a private psychotherapist who was trying to help Lucey navigate the VA treatment maze when the 23-year-old Marine reservist hung himself in his parents’ basement. 

“Never before has a client of mine taken his or her own life while working with me,” writes Nickerson, whose faith in his professional training and skills was shaken. “In hindsight, I was learning about a higher level of risk that can exist for veterans in the aftermath of war.” He was assisted in writing this book by author Joshua S. Goldstein.
Nickerson stayed in close touch with the Lucey family and worked at learning and teaching others how to better assist military veterans beset by nightmares, grief, depression and other symptoms of a mysterious malady that government agencies bureaucratically labeled post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to churn out, over the next decade, a generation of “lost” soldiers who killed themselves in greater numbers than died on the battlefields. Lawsuits by the Luceys and by veterans groups helped uncover a hidden crisis of VA mismanagement of treatment programs for veterans of all ages, with Vietnam veterans accounting for the vast majority of reported suicides.
The Wounds Within also tells the story of Kevin and Joyce Lucey’s campaign to change the system that they felt killed their son. I first heard them speak, in Boston in 2004, when they joined with Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in challenging the war policy that harmed so many of our own troops as well as terrified Iraqis. They challenged the VA health care system with numerous allied groups. They continued raising these concerns for the next decade, including a meeting with White House officials last summer. 

“After ten years, the reforms still don’t go far enough, but they are extensive,” Nickerson writes. “Quite possibly, if today’s systems had been in place when Jeff returned from Iraq, he would be alive.”
Among the treatments for PTSD that Nickerson feels the VA is getting right are stress management and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which he specializes in. Yet he acknowledges that many veterans were turned off by how they were treated in seeking VA care.

“An important advancement in treatment over the last ten years is the realization that the old model of deferring trauma treatment until a person is clean and sober is misguided,” he notes. This is one of the VA policies in 2004 that added to Jeff Lucey’s despair that no one could or would help him, as he tried to self-medicate with booze.
Another program the VA is getting right are the Vet Centers, which provide stress management, anger management, and various other treatment programs to vets of all eras in community settings. This is a program, which Nickerson writes the Luceys were not aware of until too late, that deserves a book of its own.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Holidays 2014

When light returns

From winter’s darkest night

Earth rejoices, as do we…

Happy holidays

And new year!

Jan & Paula 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Truce Centennial

Christmas Truce     (Painting by Angus McBride)

"When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages … behind the lines … something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other … and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham,” a German soldier, Richard Schirrmann, wrote of a memorable event in the First World War.

This spontaneous truce took place on Christmas 1915, a year after such truces sprang up in so many places where armies of several nations were faced off in trenches bristling with massed rifles and machineguns backed by artillery barrages that the world war Christmas Truce was enshrined in history books.

One hundred years later, this soldiers’ truce is being commemorated big time in England, which lost a generation of men in the war. Speaking at the unveiling of a statue at the National Memorial Arboretum, Prince William lauded the story of the Christmas Truce.

"We all grew up with the story of soldiers from both sides putting down their arms to meet in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914 - when gunfire remarkably gave way to gifts,” he said. "It remains wholly relevant today as a message of hope and humanity, even in the bleakest of times,” reported the Daily Mail.

The statue’s design of two clasped hands inside a soccer ball frame commemorates accounts of British and German soldiers singing familiar carols across the battlefield, then climbing out of their trenches, exchanging gifts and playing football or soccer.   

In commemoration, this year British football leagues organized Football Remembers events involving thousands of professional, amateur and youth football players. Information packets about the historic significance of the Christmas Truce were sent to more than 30,000 schools, the BBC reported.

This story has yet to stir much interest in the US, aside from an Associated Press story picked up by The Salt Lake Tribune.

“This Christmas, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has taken the idea and turned it into a blockbuster ad, showing opposing soldiers living the truce amid a football match at the center of the heart-tugging, some say sanitized, view of that Great War day,” the AP noted of a stunning video that has been circulating on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the news agency continued, “Michel Platini, the president of Europe soccer’s governing body, underscored that unique mood of brotherhood at the unveiling of the Christmas monument on Thursday on the former battlegrounds known as Flanders Fields in western Belgium, scene of some of the most horrendous killing. The monument is a steel ball sitting on the remains of a World War I shell.”

But some Americans get it. Singer-storyteller John McCutcheon is performing a series of “Christmas in the Trenches” concerts this month in Knoxville, Seattle, Kansas City, and New York.

As the Seattle Times reported today, “McCutcheon’s most treasured memory of ‘Christmas In the Trenches’ having a real impact comes from a concert he gave in Denmark 30 years ago.

“’I met four German men who traveled from Berlin because they’d heard the song on the radio and wanted to meet me. They were in their late 80s and had been a part of the Christmas Truce. They were just kids when it happened. They’d tried to tell people about it and weren’t believed. I was gobsmacked that they wanted to thank me,’ he recalled.”

McCutcheon’s tribute to the World War I truce will be the highlight of his “Christmas in the Trenches” concert at the Great Hall of The Cooper Union in New York on December 20. McCutcheon’s audience will include many veterans who fought in numerous wars since The War to End All Wars.

The 7:30 pm concert is sponsored by the Veterans Peace Council of Metro New York, whose member organizations include Veterans For Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.


Hopefully, this centennial call will be heard in this season of Christmas celebrations, amid seemingly endless US military operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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