In the autumn of 1992, having just returned from a semester in Moscow, I enrolled in my senior seminar, where I had the good fortune to study with Lawrence Weschler, then a staff writer with The New Yorker. Almost twenty years later, I can’t say for sure that it was Mr. Weschler who opened my eyes to the war in Bosnia, where Sarajevo was then under siege, but he certainly played a role in introducing me to war as a personal concern. Bosnia became my war. And yet I did not even set foot in the former Yugoslavia for another twelve years. A braver young woman, a bigger risk-taker, would have found a way to be there. Some foreigners (writers) did—as civilians, aid workers, and journalists. (Susan Sontag, Anthony Loyd, Heidi Postlewait, and Janine di Giovanni are among those who rendered compelling and passionate accounts.) Instead, I wrote an essay or two. I clipped newspaper articles. I met a Bosnian emigré in a Ukrainian bar on Second Avenue, a man I spoke with for perhaps half an hour, whose haunted and hunted eyes have stuck with me since.
My father died two years later, in 1994, and I was distracted by a different kind of violence. Guns and the body’s war with depression became my preoccupations. A few years after that, I was reading trauma narratives, primarily accounts or analyses of the Holocaust and of World War I (“the war to end all war”), diving into lives of civilians and soldiers. War and suicide became linked in my mind, through studies of survivors of both. (See “What we want to say—when someone else is grieving” or “‘See that my brain’—a suicide note’s mixed message” for more about “suicide survivors,” a confusing term referring to family and friends of someone who has died by suicide.) Gradually, I came to understand that survivors, of war (and of suicide too), later sought respite from what they remembered—and what they couldn’t—and what they could not bear to, relief sometimes difficult to come by. I pondered the life of Primo Levi, a man who lived through Auschwitz, forty-two years later tumbling to his death (with probable intent) from a landing in his apartment building. A few years after that, on September 11th, I watched as the second tower of the World Trade Center crumbled like an accordion, a mirage of impossible dust in lower Manhattan. Steel reduced to rubble. People simply gone, the acrid smell of burnt—I hardly dared think what—enduring in the air outside my apartment, sometimes in it, for days. The feeling, the smell, of death was personal and familiar; the aftermath of my father’s suicide perched on my shoulder, resided still in my senses.
September 11th was my father’s birthday: seven years after his death, he would have reached the august age of sixty-seven on that day in 2001, a thought I could hardly attend to in the midst of so much new death around me. A few years after this, visiting friends in Vienna, I read Jarhead, Anthony Swofford‘s illuminating account of his time serving in the first Iraq War. I visited Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, saw buildings and sidewalks still pockmarked by bullets. I wrote about Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, both fiction and fact. A few more years, and again I was writing about the Holocaust, and about Russia, though I at first thought I would stick to something lighter, a surprise chase, a mystery, a marriage. But always there is something heavier to explore or explain. Violence, human cruelty, human suffering, the choices people make about living or dying, the guns they use for the purpose. People caught in the cross-hairs: of history, of depression, of trauma. People trying to outwit themselves or someone else.
Why this list of personal interests and obsessions? Pursuits of knowledge, of understanding. Even before my father’s suicide, I saw some violence in him—that he then turned against himself. His story, as it were, is finished. Elsewhere, I look for solace, for menace, for evidence—of the irredeemable cruelty of man—I look for hope. In the story of Iraq war veteran Brad Eifert, as told recently by Erica Goode on the front page of the New York Times, there is some of all of this, but most especially hope. Not just hope for a person, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (from trauma) and depression and suicidal feelings. But hope for a system that knows how to punish violence, but falters when it comes to preventing it and backs away when it comes to acknowledging some of its roots. We send men and women to war, ask them to kill, to obey, to act first and think later, or not at all. And then we bring them back and ask them to mow the lawn, chat with a neighbor, buy groceries, never thinking of, never dwelling on, what they have seen and what they have done, ask them to leave behind the instinct for protection and aggression that their training and tasks have so expertly honed. How absurd. And we see this absurdity in the form of higher suicide rates, aggression, sometimes murder, alcoholism and failed marriages when soldiers return to civilian life. (This topic comes up again, on 8/3/11, in the NYT, “Antipsychotic Use Is Questioned for Combat Stress,” by Benedict Carey.)
Brad Eifert’s story not only gives deserved attention to the subject of post-traumatic stress in the military (on the front page no less), but also shows how a police officer, a lawyer, and a judge, in working together, offered a man who almost killed himself, and who came too close in the process to killing someone else, a second chance. Erica Goode’s account, “Coming Together to Fight for a Troubled Veteran,” is even-handed and compelling, journalism at its best.
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My thoughts this week have been frequently on London, the riots there and in other cities in the UK. While abhorring the violence and thuggery I see in the news and hear of from friends, imagining and seeing places I love burned or blighted, my mind also turns to other real problems, economic, social—issues of poverty, lack of education and opportunity, and racism that underpin the unrest. (The New York Times article “London Riots Put Spotlight on Troubled, Unemployed Youths in Britain” analyses some of this. As the authors note, “Economic despair, racial tension and thuggery converge.”)
And yet, the senseless violence, quickly divorced from any righteousness or cause, harms innocent people (also those perpetrating it, once the heady rush of outlaw rebellion passes—which it will), only embedding fear, anger, more damage and blight. How quickly rage and a mob mentality erupt; how little it accomplishes. We still await the extent of the damage and its effects.