Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Reading War and Its Trauma

Michèle Barrett's Casualty Figures: How Five Men Survived the First World War (Verso, 2007) chronicles the life-long impact of war on three British soldiers and two medics. Barrett mined their personal papers, which reside in London's Imperial War Museum.

Like many service members today returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, the Brits struggled with the after-affects of what was then called shell shock. Barrett writes,
I came to feel that shell shock, which has been extensively studied by historians in terms of its causes, diagnosis, treatment and interpretation, is frequently isolated from its broader human implications. So I tell these men's stories in such a way as to bring out the connections between "shell shock" and other mental consequences of their war experiences--which include depression, exhaustion, bitterness, alcoholism, chronic illness, self-destructive behavior, unexplained or ambiguous early death and failings as parents and partners.
Barrett allows her subjects to share their own eloquent and horrible words. After the war, surgeon Lawrence Gameson battled alcoholism the remainder of his life. As a young medic in France, he recorded the following scenes:
Many dead lay hidden in the wheat. I kept stumbling over bodies, for I was looking ahead and not at my feet. Corpses were ripening rapidly in their humidly hot resting place. On that close windless day the evil-sweet stink oozed, so to say, into one's central nervous system and brain. Similar sensory stimuli were by no means unfamiliar, yet the stench of corruption hovering above that cornfield cannot be classified by any standards known to me.
There is a continuous stream of wounded through at all hours. The pips on my tunic cuffs are shiny with polished blood, blood of someone else, of infantry mostly. Although but a middleman, one gets sick of blood's smell and of the endless everlasting processing of red raw human meat passing through our hands.
Incidentally, Navy doctor Richard Jadick, who volunteered with Marines in Iraq and served in Fallujah, describes similar experiences in his military memoir On Call in Hell (NAL Caliber, 2007):
We settled Ziolkowski onto the cinder-block platform we had built to support our stretchers, and I took his helmet off, carefully. One look and I knew I couldn't save him. The power of a Russian Dragunov sniper rifle round can be amazing ... I could feel the plates of his skull moving under my hands as I tried to hold his neck aligned to place an airway. The smell of brain tissue was overwhelming, and I had to work hard to keep going ...

There was blood all over the floor, and Masino said, "Sir, there's blood on the floor, how we gonna get this out?" I completely lost my temper ... But I wasn't just annoyed with him; it was the blood on the floor that made me crack. We had lost too many good men and the blood was like a rebuke, like an accusation of failure ... sometimes, no matter what we did, we could not provide [help].
Joseph Boyden's novel Three Day Road (Viking, 2007) follows the hardships of Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, Cree Indian friends from Hudson Bay. After enlisting in the Canadian Army, they serve as snipers in France and Belgium.

Boyden brings to life the clash of cultures, the brutality and courage displayed on the Western Front, and the lasting damage inflicted on soldiers and their loved ones:
In the long hours of hunting [Germans], Elijah tries to understand what is growing in him. He talks to me about this through the nights we spend out in the damp and mud. Mist rises from craters and swirls in the stink. In the end, the answer that comes is simple. Elijah has learned to take pleasure in killing.

Elijah says that something in me has hardened in the last months. I talk even less than before, do not smile at all any more. He knows that I want to be home, that I am sick of all of this, but he tells me I must realize that the freedom of this place will not present itself again. But this freedom he talks about, this freedom to kill, is a choice I no longer want.
Barrett and Boyden expertly capture the human dimensions of war and conflict and how survivors cope thereafter.

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Curious for a local take on World War I? Try the Nettie Dorothy (Irle) Mills Papers, held in the Champaign County Historical Archives on TUFL's second floor. Mills served as a nurse with the American Expeditionary Force's Army Nursing Corps (ANC) from 1918 to 1919.
Her account does not emphasize the trauma and hardship of war, for herself, her patients, or the French citizenry, as the fighting is very nearly over by the time she arrives overseas. She does, however, observe and recount various instances of attitudes and behavior of recuperating soldiers that suggest their intense experiences.

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