November 08, 2009

The Return

The New York Times has an op-ed today that both my boss and my mother will send to me if I am not quick enough to blog it.

WASHED onto the shores of his island home, after 10 years’ absence in a foreign war and 10 years of hard travel in foreign lands, Odysseus, literature’s most famous veteran, stares around him: “But now brilliant Odysseus awoke from sleep in his own fatherland, and he did not know it,/having been long away.” Additionally, the goddess Athena has cast an obscuring mist over all the familiar landmarks, making “everything look otherwise/than it was.” “Ah me,” groans Odysseus, “what are the people whose land I have come to this time?”


That sense of dislocation has been shared by veterans returning from the field of war since Homer conjured Odysseus’ inauspicious return some 2,800 years ago. Its vexing power was underscored on Thursday, when a military psychiatrist who had been treating the mental scars of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan went on a shooting rampage at an Army base in Texas.

The question of how the veterans of the Trojan Wars adjusted to life back on the farm -- or the island, as it were -- is one that has provoked a lot of thought and was one of the questions that allegedly inspired this movie:

But what is the author's remedy for the isolation veterans feel? Tell stories.

How to commemorate the living veteran? Again, some guidance can be found in epic, the crucible of heroic mores. Old Nestor, the iconographic veteran, is a teller of many tales of the many battles he once waged. “In my time I have dealt with better men than/you are, and never once did they disregard me,” he tells the entire Greek army in “The Iliad.” “I fought single-handed, yet against such men no one/could do battle.” Although he is a somewhat comic figure, his speeches are deadly earnest; Old Nestor knows that his is the only voice to keep memory of such past campaigns alive.


One suspects such lengthy recitations are rare today. Rarer still is the respectful audience enjoyed by Nestor; impatience with such reminiscences began well before our age. “Menelaus bold/waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys/’Twixt noon and supper,” wrote Rupert Brooke, cynically, during the years leading up to a later Great War.


Today, veterans’ tales are more likely to be safeguarded in books and replicated in movies than self-narrated to a respectful throng. Detailed knowledge of the experience in which a veteran’s memories were forged is thus made common. To learn these stories is both civilian duty and commemoration. Death on the field and the voyage home — both are epic.

Oh, goodness, this is going to make for a long Veterans Day at CNAS. "There I was, no %$#@..."