For as long as humans have been telling stories, they have been sharing the experience of war. From Homer to Hemingway and after, their writings have left a record that has enriched our understanding of war's madness and how it affects the soldier. This section contains excerpts from the poems, stories and memoirs of veterans and a few first-hand observers - including Hemingway and Whitman - of the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. No doubt, as American soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, they will be adding to this remarkable literary cannon.
FRONTLINE thanks Dale Ritterbusch, an associate editor of War, Literature & the Arts and a visiting professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, for his assistance in compiling this selection. The WLA journal has been published by the Air Force Humanities Institute since 1989 and offers on its web site more than 15 years of the literature and art of war.
· The American Civil War
Sam Watkins was born in Tennessee in 1839 and enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army, Company H, in 1861. With two decades of hindsight, Watkins wrote his memoirs of those years, titled Company Aytch: Or, a Side Show of the Big Show and Other Sketches (1881). In this excerpt, Watkins questions the veracity of his recollected experience until the present is drowned out by memories of the past. Watkins died in 1901.
[From Company Aytch]:
And while my imagination is like the weaver's shuttle, playing backward and forward through these two decades of time, I ask myself, Are these things real? did they happen? are they being enacted today? or are they the fancies of the imagination in forgetful reverie? . . . Surely these are just the vagaries of my own imagination. Surely my fancies are running wild tonight. But, hush! I now hear the approach of battle. That low, rumbling sound in the west is the roar of cannon in the distance. That rushing sound is the tread of soldiers. That quick, lurid glare is the flash that precedes the cannon's roar. And, listen! that loud report that makes the earth tremble and jar and sway, is but the bursting of a shell, as it screams through the dark, tempestuous night. That black, ebon cloud, where the lurid lightning flickers and flares, that is rolling through the heavens, is the smoke of battle; beneath is being enacted a carnage of blood and death. Listen! the soldiers are charging now. The flashes and roaring now are blended with the shouts of soldiers and the confusion of battle. . .
After finding critical success with his 1855 volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman turned to nursing and journalism at the outbreak of the Civil War as a way of helping out the union cause. He published and anti-slavery newspaper and visited wounded soldiers at military hospitals in New York and Washington. In this poem, penned at the end of the war, Whitman describes how his dreams are haunted by memories of those wounded soldiers and of the home front carnage of war.
In midnight sleep of many a face of anguish,
Of the look at first of the mortally wounded, (of that indescribable look,)
Of the dead on their backs with arms extended wide,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Of scenes of Nature, fields and mountains,
Of skies so beauteous after a storm, and at night the moon so unearthly
Shining sweetly, shining down, where we dig the trenches and gather
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Long have they pass'd, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure, or away
from the fallen,
Onward I sped at the time -- but now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
· World War I
Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 into a wealthy English family and spent his early years enjoying the comforts of country living and writing romantic verse. These experiences left him ill prepared for the horrors of war -- including the deaths of a close friend and a brother -- but well suited to render the details of war in poetry. By 1917, Sassoon had become disillusioned by the war and began publicly protesting Britain's military leadership. Fortunately, friend and fellow poet Robert Graves convinced Sassoon's command that he was suffering from neurasthenia, or "shell shock," and Sassoon was sent to convalesce at the military hospital at Craiglockart, Scotland. While there, he met and encouraged the work of one of the greatest World War I poets, Wilfred Owen. Although Owen's poems reached wider public acclaim than his mentor's, Sassoon's poetry is important for illustrating the lose of innocence and disillusionment that accompany a soldier's war experience.
"Repression of War Experience"
Now light the candles; one; two; there's a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame--
No, no, not that, -- it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.
Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you're as right as rain. . . .
Why won't it rain? . . .
I wish there'd be a thunder-storm to-night,
With bucketsful of water to sluice the dark,
And make the roses hang their dripping heads.
Books; what a jolly company they are,
Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves,
Dressed in dim brown, and black, and white, and green,
And every kind of colour. Which will you read?
Come on; O do read something; they're so wise.
I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence: on the ceiling
There's one big, dizzy moth that bumps and flutters;
And in the breathless air outside the house
The garden waits for something that delays.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,
Not people killed in battle, -- they're in France, --
But horrible shapes in shrouds -- old men who died
Slow, natural deaths, - old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
You're quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You'd never think there was a bloody war on!...
O yes, you would. . . why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud, -- quite soft. . . they never cease --
Those whispering guns -- O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop -- I'm going crazy;
I'm going stark, staring mad because of the guns.
No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're "longing to go out again," --
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died, --
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride. . .
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
Craiglockhart. October, 1917
"Does It Matter?"
Does it matter? -- losing your legs? . .
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? -- losing your sight? . . .
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter? -- those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
Have you forgotten yet? . . .
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow.
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same -- and War's a bloody game. . .
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz --
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench --
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.
Wilfred Owen was born in England in 1893 and enlisted in the British army in 1915. In 1917 he was posted to the front lines in France, where for six months he witnessed intense bombardment before being diagnose with neurasthenia, or "shell shock." Sent to convalesce at the military hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, Owen turned his attention to writing poetry about his war experience. Much of his most famous poetry was written in this one-year period and shows a cynical view of the grisly nature of war. While there, he met the more established poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged his talents and introduced him to other prominent British writers. In June of 1918, he was deemed fit for service and returned to the front lines in France, where he died while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre Canal in November 1918, less than two weeks before the armistice.
"Dulce Et Decorum Est"
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets' tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance's strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies' decimation.
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror's first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Drying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men's placidity from his.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls' teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,-but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands' palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men's extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.
In 1917, the United States had not yet joined the war in Europe, but 18-year old Earnest Hemingway joined the American Red Cross as an ambulance driver in an attempt to participate in the action. However, just a few weeks after arriving in Italy, he was severely wounded by a mortar explosion. After a long convalescence, he returned home and before long began writing fiction based on his experiences, some of the greatest war prose ever written. The following story, "Soldier's Home," written in 1925, tells of a soldier who returns to his family in the Midwest only to feel shame and isolation because they persists in seeing only the romantic side of war.
Krebs went to the war from a Methodist college in Kansas. There is a picture which shows him among his fraternity brothers, all of them wearing exactly the same height and style collar. He enlisted in the Marines in 1917 and did not return to the United States until the second division returned from the Rhine in the summer of 1919.
There is a picture which shows him on the Rhone with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture.
By the time Krebs returned to his home town in Oklahoma the greeting of heroes was over. He came back much too late. The men from the town who had been drafted had all been welcomed elaborately on their return. There had been a great deal of hysteria.
Now the reaction had set in. People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over.
At first Krebs, who had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel and in the Argonne did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it. His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities. Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie and after he had done this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it. A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had told. All of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves.
His lies were quite unimportant lies and consisted in attributing to himself things other men had seen, done or heard of, and stating as facts certain apocryphal incidents familiar to all soldiers. Even his lies were not sensational at the pool room. His acquaintances, who had heard detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine guns in the Argonne and who could not comprehend, or were barred by their patriotism from interest in, any German machine gunners who were not chained, were not thrilled by his stories.
Krebs acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration, and when he occasionally met another man who had really been a soldier and the talked a few minutes in the dressing room at a dance he fell into the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers: that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time. In this way he lost everything.
During this time, it was late summer, he was sleeping late in bed, getting up to walk down town to the library to get a book, eating lunch at home, reading on the front porch until he became bored and then walking down through the town to spend the hottest hours of the day in the cool dark of the pool room. He loved to play pool.
In the evening he practiced on his clarinet, strolled down town, read and went to bed. He was still a hero to his two young sisters. His mother would have given him breakfast in bed if he had wanted it. She often came in when he was in bed and asked him to tell her about the war, but her attention always wandered. His father was non-committal.
Before Krebs went away to the war he had never been allowed to drive the family motor car. His father was in the real estate business and always wanted the car to be at his command when he required it to take clients out into the country to show them a piece of farm property. The car always stood outside the First National Bank building where his father had an office on the second floor. Now, after the war, it was still the same car.
Nothing was changed in the town except that the young girls had grown up. But they lived in such a complicated world of already defined alliances and shifting feuds that Krebs did not feel the energy or the courage to break into it. He liked to look at them, though. There were so many good-looking young girls. Most of them had their hair cut short. When he went away only little girls wore their hair like that or girls that were fast. They all wore sweaters and shirt waists with round Dutch collars. It was a pattern. He liked to look at them from the front porch as they walked on the other side of the street. He liked to watch them walking under the shade of the trees. He liked the round Dutch collars above their sweaters. He liked their silk stockings and flat shoes. He liked their bobbed hair and the way they walked.
When he was in town their appeal to him was not very strong. He did not like them when he saw them in the Greek's ice cream parlor. He did not want them themselves really. They were too complicated. There was something else. Vaguely he wanted a girl but he did not want to have to work to get her. He would have liked to have a girl but he did not want to have to spend a long time getting her. He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics. He did not want to have to do any courting. He did not want to tell any more lies. It wasn't worth it.
He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences. Besides he did not really need a girl. The army had taught him that. It was all right to pose as though you had to have a girl. Nearly everybody did that. But it wasn't true. You did not need a girl. That was the funny thing. First a fellow boasted how girls mean nothing to him, that he never thought of them, that they could not touch him. Then a fellow boasted that he could not get along without girls, that he had to have them all the time, that he could not go to sleep without them.
That was all a lie. It was all a lie both ways. You did not need a girl unless you thought about them. He learned that in the army. Then sooner or later you always got one. When you were really ripe for a girl you always got one. You did not have to think about it. Sooner or later it could come. He had learned that in the army.
Now he would have liked a girl if she had come to him and not wanted to talk. But here at home it was all too complicated. He knew he could never get through it all again. It was not worth the trouble. That was the thing about French girls and German girls. There was not all this talking. You couldn't talk much and you did not need to talk. It was simple and you were friends. He thought about France and then he began to think about Germany. On the whole he had liked Germany better. He did not want to leave Germany. He did not want to come home. Still, he had come home. He sat on the front porch.
He liked the girls that were walking along the other side of the street. He liked the look of them much better than the French girls or the German girls. But the world they were in was not the world he was in. He would like to have one of them. But it was not worth it. They were such a nice pattern. He liked the pattern. It wis exciting. But he would not go through all the talking. He did not want one badly enough. He liked to look at them all, though. It was not worth it. Not now when things were getting good again.
He sat there on the porch reading a book on the war. It was a history and he was reading about all the engagements he had been in. It was the most interesting reading he had ever done. He wished there were more maps. He looked forward with a good feeling to reading all the really good histories when they would come out with good detail maps. Now he was really learning about the war. He had been a good soldier. That made a difference.
One morning after he had been home about a month his mother came into his bedroom and sat on the bed. She smoothed her apron.
"I had a talk with your father last night, Harold," she said, "and he is willing for you to take the car out in the evenings."
"Yeah?" said Krebs, who was not fully awake. "Take the car out? Yeah?"
"Yes. Your father has felt for some time that you should be able to take the car out in the evenings whenever you wished but we only talked it over last night."
"I'll bet you made him," Krebs said.
"No. It was your father's suggestion that we talk the matter over."
"Yeah. I'll bet you made him," Krebs sat up in bed.
"Will you come down to breakfast, Harold?" his mother said."
"As soon as I get my clothes on," Krebs said.
His mother went out of the room and he could hear her frying something downstairs while he washed, shaved and dressed to go down into the dining-room for breakfast. While he was eating breakfast, his sister brought in the mail.
"Well, Hare," she said. "You old sleepy-head. What do you ever get up for?"
Krebs looked at her. He liked her. She was his best sister.
"Have you got the paper?" he asked.
She handed him The Kansas City Star and he shucked off its brown wrapper and opened it to the sporting page. He folded The Star open and propped it against the water pitcher with his cereal dish to steady it, so he could read while he ate.
"Harold," his mother stood in the kitchen doorway, "Harold, please don't muss up the paper. Your father can't read his Star if its been mussed."
"I won't muss it," Krebs said.
His sister sat down at the table and watched him while he read.
"We're playing indoor over at school this afternoon," she said. "I'm going to pitch."
"Good," said Krebs. "How's the old wing?"
"I can pitch better than lots of the boys. I tell them all you taught me. The other girls aren't much good."
"Yeah?" said Krebs.
"I tell them all you're my beau. Aren't you my beau, Hare?"
"Couldn't your brother really be your beau just because he's your brother?"
"I don't know."
"Sure you know. Couldn't you be my beau, Hare, if I was old enough and if you wanted to?"
"Sure. You're my girl now."
"Am I really your girl?"
"Do you love me?"
"Do you love me always?"
"Will you come over and watch me play indoor?"
"Aw, Hare, you don't love me. If you loved me, you'd want to come over and watch me play indoor."
Krebs's mother came into the dining-room from the kitchen. She carried a plate with two fried eggs and some crisp bacon on it and a plate of buckwheat cakes.
"You run along, Helen," she said. "I want to talk to Harold."
She put the eggs and bacon down in front of him and brought in a jug of maple syrup for the buckwheat cakes. Then she sat down across the table from Krebs.
"I wish you'd put down the paper a minute, Harold," she said.
Krebs took down the paper and folded it.
"Have you decided what you are going to do yet, Harold?" his mother said, taking off her glasses.
"No," said Krebs.
"Don't you think it's about time?" His mother did not say this in a mean way. She seemed worried.
"I hadn't thought about it," Krebs said.
"God has some work for every one to do," his mother said. "There can be no idle hands in His Kingdom."
"I'm not in His Kingdom," Krebs said.
"We are all of us in His Kingdom."
Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always.
"I've worried about you too much, Harold," his mother went on. "I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold."
Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.
"Your father is worried, too," his mother went on. "He thinks you have lost your ambition, that you haven't got a definite aim in life. Charley Simmons, who is just your age, has a good job and is going to be married. The boys are all settling down; they're all determined to get somewhere; you can see that boys like Charley Simmons are on their way to being really a credit to the community."
Krebs said nothing.
"Don't look that way, Harold," his mother said. "You know we love you and I want to tell you for your own good how matters stand. Your father does not want to hamper your freedom. He thinks you should be allowed to drive the car. If you want to take some of the nice girls out riding with you, we are only too pleased. We want you to enjoy yourself. But you are going to have to settle down to work, Harold. Your father doesn't care what you start in at. All work is honorable as he says. But you've got to make a start at something. He asked me to speak to you this morning and then you can stop in and see him at his office."
"Is that all?" Krebs said.
"Yes. Don't you love your mother dear boy?"
"No," Krebs said.
His mother looked at him across the table. Her eyes were shiny. She started crying.
"I don't love anybody," Krebs said.
It wasn't any good. He couldn't tell her, he couldn't make her see it. It was silly to have said it. He had only hurt her. He went over and took hold of her arm. She was crying with her head in her hands.
"I didn't mean it," he said. "I was just angry at something. I didn't mean I didn't love you."
His mother went on crying. Krebs put his arm on her shoulder.
"Can't you believe me, mother?"
His mother shook her head.
"Please, please, mother. Please believe me."
"All right," his mother said chokily. She looked up at him. "I believe you, Harold."
Krebs kissed her hair. She put her face up to him.
"I'm your mother," she said. "I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby."
Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated.
"I know, Mummy," he said. "I'll try and be a good boy for you."
"Would you kneel and pray with me, Harold?" his mother asked.
They knelt down beside the dining-room table and Krebs's mother prayed.
"Now, you pray, Harold," she said.
"I can't," Krebs said.
"Do you want me to pray for you?"
So his mother prayed for him and then they stood up and Krebs kissed his mother and went out of the house. He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated. Still, none of it had touched him. He had felt sorry for his mother and she had made him lie. He would go to Kansas City and get a job and she would feel all right about it. There would be one more scene maybe before he got away. He would not go down to his father's office. He would miss that one. He wanted his life to go smoothly. It had just gotten going that way. Well, that was all over now, anyway. He would go over to the schoolyard and watch Helen play indoor baseball.
· World War II
Audie Murphy is famous for being the "Most Decorated Soldier in WWII," a record that stands to this day. The son of a Texas sharecropper, Murphy lied about his age in order to join the Army at 17. By the time he was released from service two years later, he had killed 240 German soldiers and was awarded every medal for bravery that the nation bestows, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. After returning from the war, Audie's story made the cover of LIFE magazine and was turned into a feature-length film starring Murphy himself. He went on to have a long Hollywood career, consisting mostly of B-level war stories and westerns, and was killed in a plane crash in 1971 at the age of 46. However, what is less well-known about Murphy, is that he suffered from PTSD for most of his adult life. In a 1983 Esquire profile, Thomas B. Morgan writes that Murphy was uncomfortable with the country's hero worship and unable to enjoy life after the war. He suffered from eight years of insomnia, an addiction to sleeping pills, a nagging sense of insecurity and emotional numbness. In this excerpt from his 1949 memoir, To Hell and Back, Murphy describes his experience just after he has left the front lines and as he is beginning to feel the on-set of what we know today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
[From To Hell and Back]:
In the Cannes hotel, I crawl into a tub of hot water and wallow around like a seal. Knotted muscles snap loose; and my eyes droop.
"Hey, there. You want to drown yourself?" My roommate, the restless lieutenant on the train, pauses in the middle of his shaving. "If you want to drown yourself, do it with champagne."
"I didn't know a body could get so tired."
"I'm out on my feet too. But a few snorts will fix that up."
"I'm going to take this town apart. You want to come along?"
"No, I'm going to hit the sack."
"Well, get out of the tub, bub. We've got a couple beds with sheets and everything, you know."
"I'll see you later."
"Okay. But remember, this burg's loaded with soldiers. If you want a dame, you'll have to hustle."
When I awake from the nap, it is mid-afternoon. From my window I can see the gulls wheeling over the Mediterranean and white breakers lapping the beaches. A hum comes up from the crowded city streets; and somewhere an orchestra is playing "Lili Marlene."
Turning to my pack in search of a necktie, I spy my service pistol. Automatically I pick it up, remove the clip, and check the mechanism. It works with buttered smoothness. I weigh the weapon in my hand and admire the cold, blue glint of its steel. It is more beautiful than a flower; more faithful than most friends.
The bells in a nearby cathedral start ringing. I toss the gun back into the pack and seize my necktie. In the streets, crowded with merrymakers, I feel only a vague
irritation. I want company, and I want to be alone. I want to talk, and I want to be silent. I want to sit, and I want to walk. There is VE-Day without, but no peace within.
Like a horror film run backwards, images of the war flicker through my brain. The tank in the snow with smoldering bodies on top. The smell of burning flesh. Of rotting flesh too. Novak rotting in a grave on Anzio. Horse-Face. Knowed an old girl once. The girl, red-eyed and shivering, in the Naples dawn. And Kerrigan. Kerrigan shuffling cards with half a hand. He was far luckier than Antonio. Yes, Antonio, trying to stand on the stumps of his legs with the machine gun ripping his body. And Brandon dead under the cork tree. Deer daddy, I'm in school. "I'll never enter another schoolroom," says Elleridge.
He was right. It is as though a fire had roared through this human house, leaving only the charred hulk of something that once was green.
Within a couple of hours, I have had enough. I return to my room. But I cannot sleep. My mind still whirls. When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief?
Not of all belief. I believe in the force of a hand grenade, the power of artillery, the accuracy of a Garand. I believe in hitting before you get hit, and that dead men do not look noble.
But I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan; and all the men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent.
My country. America! That is it. We have been so intent on death that we have forgotten life. And now suddenly life faces us. I swear to myself that I will measure up to it. I maybe branded by war, but I will not be defeated by it.
Gradually it becomes clear. I will go back. I will find the kind of girl of whom I once dreamed. I will learn to look at life through uncynical eyes, to have faith, to know love. I will learn to work in peace as in war. And finally-finally, like countless others, I will learn to live again.
Lucien Stryk is a veteran of World War II, a prize-winning poet, and an editor and translator of Chinese and Japanese Zen poetry. In these two poems, from his collection, And Still the Bird Sings, Stryk writes about the power of memory. Though not necessarily about Post-Traumatic Stress, these poems touch on the issue of flashbacks, and how painful memories can return unbidden and without warning -- a symptom common to those suffering from PTSD.
"Watching War Movies"
Always the same: watching
World War II movies on TV,
landing barges bursting onto
islands, my skin crawls --
heat, dust -- the scorpion
bites again. How I deceived
myself. Certain my role would
not make me killer, my unarmed
body called down fire from
scarred hills. As life took
life, blood coursed into
one stream. I knew one day,
the madness stopped, I'd make
my pilgrimage to temples,
gardens, serene masters of
a Way which pain was bonding.
Atoms fuse, a mushroom cloud,
the movie ends. But I still
stumble under camouflage, near
books of tranquil Buddhas by the
screen. The war goes on and on.
Three deliberate shots
fire this quiet town,
scatter sparrows from
the willow-oak, touch
the scar where over thirty
years ago the mortar
fragment hit: I know
once more how good it is
to live. Thinking of the
boy struck down beside
me by that shell, I see
him sink into slow jungle
green, shock burned forever
in his eyes. Again I
crawl to comfort his last
breath. Even now there's
nothing I can do but,
as the bugle fades, remember.
Robert Mason was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam from 1965-1966. Soon after he returned, he began suffering from the effects of PTSD, which lasted 14 years. He has written several memoirs about Vietnam including Chickenhawk, about his combat experience, and Chickenhawk: Back in the World, about readjusting to post-war life. In addition, his wife, Patience Mason, has written Recovering from the War, a guide to PTSD for veterans, their families and caregivers, and publishes the Post-Traumatic Gazette, a quarterly newsletter. In this excerpt, from the beginning of his post-war memoir, Mason describes his mindset soon after returning from war, but before he learned he was suffering from PTSD.
[From Chickenhawk: Back in the World]:
By the Christmas break I had been an IP for a month and Patience and I were pretty well settled. We'd rented a house in Mineral Wells, an all-American place with a garage and backyard. This was the first house we'd lived in together. We were married in 1963, just before I joined the Army. Patience and our son, Jack, had endured crummy apartments and trailers while I went through basic training, advanced infantry training, and flight school. They seldom saw me while I was a trainee soldier, and then I went to Vietnam. Jack, two years old now, was getting used to me again. I'd been away half his life and had missed the previous Christmas. I wanted to make him a present to show him I was just a regular dad. I was home. I was going to build things, pursue hobbies, do well at work. Forget.
I wasn't thinking about Vietnam, but it was there. Awake, in quiet moments, I felt a familiar dread in the pit of my stomach, even as I angrily informed myself that I was home. Asleep, my dreams were infected by what I'd seen. The explosive jump-ups I'd been having since the last month of my tour were getting more frequent. When Patience and Jack saw me leaping off the bed, Patience would make a joke of it: "Daddy's levitating again." But it scared her. I had asked the flight surgeon about it and he said I should be okay in a couple months.
During the two-week Christmas break I spent most of my time teaching myself how to print photographs at the craft shop or building Jack's present -- a rocking horse I designed, which Patience said had to be big enough for her, too -- at the woodshop. I thought I could obliterate memories of Vietnam by staying so busy I couldn't think about it.
A collection of my photographs began to assemble on our dining room wall. A few were prints of pictures I'd taken in Vietnam, but most were of abandoned farm buildings, rusted farm equipment, and stark Texas still lifes taken when Patience and Jack and I went for drives. One of the Vietnam pictures was of a second lieutenant and three of his men, tired, dirty, but alive, sitting on a paddy dike. I called it "Ghosts." Patience asked why. "Because they are all dead. Everyone we dropped off in that LZ is dead."
The photographs were technically good.
The rocking horse turned out big and sturdy. Jack named it Haysup. Why Haysup? "It's his name!" Jack said.
I was staying busy, but fear, my familiar Vietnam companion, visited me at odd moments, even times when I should've been happy. Normal people didn't have these bouts with fear. I knew that because I had been normal once, long ago. I looked forward to flight school starting again so I could lose myself in my work, shake these feelings.
I drove Patience and Jack out into the country to fetch a Christmas tree. While I chopped it down and Patience and Jack happily collected small branches to trim our house, I searched the dark places in the woods where snipers could hide.
Dale Ritterbusch was in the U.S. Army from 1966-1969, the last year serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and an associate editor of their journal, War, Literature, and the Arts. These poems are from his collection, Lessons Learned.
"When It's Late"
Sometimes, when it's late
and the house is asleep
except for me
pacing from room to room,
I walk to the backyard,
look out across the ground
by a distant streetlamp.
I remember nights
in some Asian bar
drinking a few exotic beers
that sweat quickly
through the khaki's
We'd walk out late
go back to the base
sleep off as much
of the war as we could.
When you were killed
I drank for days,
made love until I
anything but the hot
sun, the red dust
Now, this late
under the circling stars
I see you walking
in the shadows
of these trees
the backyard playthings
of my daughter:
You pick them up --
they are your daughter's
you have a wife sleeping,
the rest of her life
with you: It is
this love I see
lost in the shadows
of this night, my
mind turning back
with the chill
of late spring.
This is the loss, the love
I bury each night in the shadows,
turning a spadeful of war
over and over, and always,
in the vigilant spin of this earth
digging it up before morning.
I have little sense of place
having grown up on the other side
of the world and returned home
to foreigners on foreign soil.
Not once does the family ask questions --
as if I'd gone off for the weekend
to fish or hunt. My place at the table
is the same, same chair, same silverware:
But as I glance up from my meal
I don't recognize the family portrait
hanging on the wall -- their faces unfamiliar,
their eyes from another time or country,
another race. Even my grandfather's words,
the words I'd lived by,
dissipate like a ghostly presence
passing through the walls.
my father stands on the front porch
staring at the lawn I had so often mowed
and played on as a kid:
We share the dark and the silence,
the silence of the world
in response to inarticulate horrors; I flick
a lighted cigarette, watch its red glow
as it traces an arc over the front yard,
land I cannot recognize as home.
John Balaban served two years in Vietnam -- not as a soldier, but as a conscientious objector. He worked for the Committee of Responsibility, which brought wounded children to the U.S. for treatment, many of whom he describes in this poem. After he finished his obligations there, he stayed to record Vietnamese folk poetry and has since made a career of translating these poems into English. In the following poem, Balaban describes the horrors he witnessed happening to children in Vietnam and how they have colored his relationship with his own daughter. And, in a related selection from his memoir, he recalls a conversation he had with the novelist John Steinbeck about PTSD.
"Words for My Daughter"
About eight of us were nailing up forts
in the mulberry grove behind Reds's house
when his mother started screeching and
all of us froze except Reds -- fourteen, huge
as a hippo -- who sprang out of the tree so fast
the branch nearly bobbed me off. So fast,
he hit the ground running, hammer in hand,
and seconds after he got in the house
we heard thumps like someone beating a tire
off a rim his dad's howls the screen door
banging open Saw Reds barreling out
through the tall weeds toward the highway
the father stumbling after his fat son
who never looked back across the thick swale
of teazel and black-eyed susans until it was safe
to yell fuck you at the skinny drunk
stamping around barefoot and holding his ribs.
Another time, the Connelly kid came home to find
his alcoholic mother getting raped by the milkman.
Bobby broke a milk bottle and jabbed the guy
humping on his mom. I think it really happened
because none of us would loosely mention that
wraith of a woman who slippered around her house
and never talked to anyone, not even her kids.
Once a girl ran past my porch
with a dart in her back, her open mouth
pumping like a guppy's, her eyes wild.
Later that summer, or maybe the next,
the kids hung her brother from an oak.
Before they hoisted him, yowling and heavy
on the clothesline, they made him claw the creekbank
and eat worms. I don't know why his neck didn't snap.
Reds had another nickname you couldn't say
or he'd beat you up: "Honeybun."
His dad called him that when Reds was little.
So, these were my playmates. I love them still f
or their justice and valor and desperate loves
twisted in shapes of hammer and shard.
I want you to know about their pain
and about the pain they could loose on others.
If you're reading this, I hope you will think,
Well, my dad had it rough as a kid, so what?
If you're reading this, you can read the news
and you know that children suffer worse.
Worse for me is a cloud of memories
still drifting off the South China Sea,
like the 9-year-old boy, naked and lacerated,
thrashing in his pee on a steel operating table
and yelling, "Dau. Dau," while I, trying to translate
in the mayhem of Tet for surgeons who didn't know
who this boy was or what happened to him, kept asking
"Where? Where's the pain?" until a surgeon said,
"Forget it. His ears are blown."
I remember your first Halloween
when I held you on my chest and rocked you,
so small your toes didn't touch my lap
as I smelled your fragrant peony head
and cried because I was so happy and because
I hear, in no metaphorical way, the awful chorus
Of Soeur Anicet's orphans writhing in their cribs.
Then the doorbell rand and a tiny Green Beret
was saying trick-or-treat and I thought oh oh
but remembered it was Halloween and where I was.
I smiled at the evil midget, his map-light and night
paint, his toy knife for slitting throats, and said,
"How ya doin', soldier?" and, still holding you asleep
in my arms, gave him a Mars Bar. To his father
waiting outside in fatigues I hissed, "You, shit,"
and saw us, child, in a pose I know too well.
I want you to know the worst and be free from it.
I want you to know the worst and still find good.
Day by day, as you play nearby or laugh
With the ladies at Peoples Bank as we go around town
And I find myself beaming like a fool,
O suspect I am here less for your protection
Than you are here for mine, as if you were sent
To call me back into our helpless tribe.
[From Remembering Heaven's Face, 1991]:
A total of 8,744,000 Americans -- men and women, civilians and military -- went to Vietnam, twice the number engaged in World War I, half the number engaged in World War II. No wonder this war won't go away. It lives in varying degrees of intensity in all those heads. The average age for an American soldier in Vietnam was nineteen. As Steinbeck said, they grew up in Vietnam.
Some years ago, I was in Boulder, Colorado, to see Steinbeck at the Tibetan Buddhist center where he had lately taken refuge. We were walking outside as the Red
Zinger Bicycle Classic zoomed by us. We were talking -- of course -- about Vietnam, and specifical1y about Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which John had just written about for a magazine.
Often enough over the years, I have found myself at a window with tears in my eyes as I suddenly, without expectation, have been greeted by the naked nine-year-old thrashing on the stainless-steel operating table with his eardrums blown; often images from my COR days come floating up on mental backwater: the napalmed mother and her lovely infant daughter with the blackened arm; the pajamaed girl throwing her thigh over he old father to keep him warm as he lay dying beneath her; my carrying little anesthetized Thuy in my arms down the steps of Nhi Dong Hospital; watching a doctor unwind the turban of gauze from Thai, the scalped teenager. But somehow, if I believed at all in the existence of PTS, I thought of it as something that applied to GIs, like shellshock or battle fatigue. As Steinbeck and I spoke, however, a troubling thought overtook me. "John, do you think we've been damaged by Vietnam?"
"C'mon, Balaban, you're too smart not to have realized that."
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posted march 1, 2005
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