WickedEye's Quotient

5/31/2010 at 21:56

Memorial: Dark Night of the Soul

My mother and I were talking about Eckhart Tolle and St. John of the Cross this morning, and now I'm thinking about Memorial Day.

No, it's not your normal breakfast chat. (Few of my mother's and my conversations can be considered "normal.") This one was spurred by a discussion of suffering and the duties of a healer, and thence to those who have written on suffering.

We both regard Tolle and his ilk as new-agey Johnny-come-latelys. It sounds odd to hear snobbery over spiritual literature by someone who's not a deist or theist (though my mother is). But to my mind the single human being in all of literature who has best described suffering and despair—the terrible vulnerability of the human mind as it endures physical agony and considers the ideas of mortality and eternity—was a Spanish monk who endured nine months of brutal torture at the hands of his superiors.

San Juan de la Cruz. St. John of the Cross, who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul.

I reread a little of it this morning—and then read of the torture that prompted it: Of his barely-body-sized cell, of his public lashings, of starvation, of a thirst so great he often considered drinking his own blood.

And it is he that made me consider today—Memorial Day—more carefully.

The phrasing of the official description has always bothered me a little: Remembrance and honoring of "soldiers who died while in military service." It's one of the major national holidays, and deservedly so; our country has paid a heavy price in blood for everything from its land to its economy, and the toll keeps mounting—will always mount—because of the way tribal societies function.

The official description bothers me because of its exclusivity; another phrase, more popularly used, and describing today as honoring "those who gave their lives in service to our country," highlights an ambiguity that's often ignored: "Those who gave their lives."

Well, now. Those who sacrificed who are now dead, or those who are still living?

There's more than one way to give your life for, or to a cause. One is to die—to feel your existence flicker out like a guttering candle—to give up every sunset, every drink of icy water on a hot day, every kiss or laugh or child's hug that you might ever have. Such a sacrifice is very great indeed.

But to me there are sacrifices that can be just as great. To live in uncertainty and dire fear, to hear screams in every dream and to wake never knowing whether or not your nightmares are the reality around you—to endure torment and terror and anguish and come home to a place full of people who cannot comprehend what you've endured. A place that expects you to take "we're so grateful to you—thank you for your service" and mediocre healthcare and sketchy-to-nonexistent guidance back to normalcy and weave them together with what you've suffered to fashion a happy, productive life for yourself.

Yes. A grave, grave sacrifice. A lifetime of suffering.

I've known happy, productive, normal ex-soldiers, it's true. But not many. And few of them were enlisted men. And a recent NIH study* documents that those soldiers now fighting in Afghanistan have a much higher exposure to trauma than soldiers in previous wars did.

I have several friends who were married to soldiers whose post-service trauma was so great it destroyed their marriages and their livelihoods. I was involved with a soldier who, though he knows he couldn't hear the screams of the people in the buildings he was shelling, still hears them anyway—in his dreams. I've seen the men and women at the VA—amputees, paraplegics, people with permanent and dreadful injuries. People wounded gravely in body, and treated for it—mostly. (Healthcare for veterans and soldiers is a disgrace, a far worse reprimand to our consciences—as the citizens being protected by these men and women—than anything other than our treatment of our children.) 

And, of course, people still struggling with what has happened to their minds—though able now, for the first time ever, to seek organized help for that as well.

Saying this, on Memorial Day, is probably far past unpopular. I'm supposed to be waving a flag, I know. Families of soldiers who've died are like to come and spray-paint obscenities on my house. I'm not sure that, were I they, I wouldn't do the same.

The outrage isn't going to improve when I say that I'm an antimilitarist in the formal sense. War between states is a terribly inefficient and unfair way to solve any dispute; the waste in human lives alone suggests it's, well, a really bad idea. But I also study realpolitik and evolutionary biology, and they tell me that militaries are necessary as deterrent. And that war, which originated as—and for the most part remains—a very highly organized form of theft, is not going anywhere as a tool of human intertribal relations.

Make no mistake: I honor soldiers, and soldiering. It is an ancient and honorable profession. One that, when its laws and traditions are followed, allows even the conquered noncombatant to feel that s/he is not in danger of death or pain. (For a crash course in the difference between soldiers and armed government thugs, read about the taking of Berlin—by both waves of Allies.)

I just think that we should pay more attention to the living soldiers. To the ones who continue to suffer, either in body or mind. That more attention is needed to craft something worthy of giving to these men and women. That we should think of those still giving, still sacrificing, as they walk amongst us. Armed Forces Day, or Veterans Day, just aren't enough, or widely enough observed. Certainly nowhere near as widely as Memorial Day.

Our honored dead are exactly that—honored, today and always. No-one questions that.

Only the dead have seen the end of war: Like so much else Santayana said, it's true. As long as there are human beings, there will be wars. We can moderate only their frequency and their objectives.

But there's no reason that a soldier should have to continue to dwell inside war once s/he's managed to live through it.

We need to pay tribute—care, attention, honor—to the living, too. To the ones who walk within a dark night now.


To send care packages and letters to soldiers on active service, people who don't get mail. Started by two ex-soldiers whose son was in the military, and now serving all five branches of the U.S. military. This is a great idea.

Provides comfort items for troops recuperating in military hospitals and rehabilitation centers from wounds and injuries. Immediate help with beginning the transition back into civilian life.

Donate clothes to wounded soldiers returning stateside, or donate to long-term rehabilitation programs for wounded veterans. This organization also distributes clothes to Iraqi schoolchildren. An incredible program.

(*Sareen, January 2010 issue of Psychiatric Services.)

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