A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.
After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.
The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.
This is probably the place to say that Roy served in the US Army in Iraq 2002-2006, studied at the New School for Social Research, and in 2010 embarked on a doctorate in English at Princeton – although, as you will soon see, this runs the very real risk of claiming that ‘he knows what he writes’ by virtue of these experiences.
Roy traces the myth of the trauma hero to eighteenth-century European Romanticism, and argues that it achieved its mature form in the twentieth century. Accordingly he follows its development through Wilfred Owen in the First World War, Ernest Hemingway in the Second and Tim O’Brien in Vietnam until he reaches its contemporary form in Afghanistan and Iraq – and, in our own immediate present, in a film like Eastwood’s American Sniper.
It’s a beautifully composed contribution, and it’s made me re-think the basis for my ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘Natures of War’ essays (DOWNLOADS tab) because Roy’s central thesis turns on a critique of the sacralization of trauma in ways that, at first sight, collide with my own attempts to develop what I’ve called a corpography (also DOWNLOADS tab) that can make us attentive to the corporeality and materiality of modern war:
‘Most Americans seem to believe that war can only be known through direct, physical, sensory experience on the battlefield, such as the moment of vision Owen describes in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Ernest Hemingway, who in contrast to Owen’s long front-line service lasted only a few weeks as a noncombatant before being wounded and returning to the US, stands in American letters as the high priest of combat gnosticism. In Hemingway’s work, the emphasis on physicality, embodiment, and materiality we see in Owen’s representations of the soldier’s truth opens into a metaphysical bias against representation itself.’
In effect, Roy suggests, ‘being there’ becomes a privileged position from which truth cannot be communicated – only felt, and so only shared between those who were there. The assertion of ethnographic privilege run through multiple fields from anthropology to journalism, of course, and it bedevils any attempt at historical reconstruction, but here it is heightened by the appeal to the supposedly inexpressible experience of trauma. This could be developed still further through the reflections of, say, Elaine Scarry or Giorgio Agamben. I take this very seriously, and yet if you work your way through the letters, diaries and memoirs of those who returned from the wars there is, I think, a sustained (and diverse) attempt to convey the corporeal – viscerally traumatising – experience of military violence.
But Roy’s point, I take it, is that this dilemma can function – can even be invoked – to exclude commentary and criticism. And he concludes by emphasising the work that the ‘trauma hero’ continues to perform hors de combat:
‘[The most troubling consequence of our faith in the revelatory truth of combat experience and our sanctification of the trauma hero [is] that by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for… Understanding the problem of American political violence demands recognizing soldiers as agents of national power, and understanding what kind of work the trauma hero is doing when he comes bearing witness in his bloody fatigues.’
I understand this concern too; there are – as I’ve argued in ‘The Natures of War’ – moments in many memoirs, novel and poems that reach towards the redemptive, even the exculpatory. But I’ve also been deeply affected by those that disclose a more complex sense of the soldier as victim and vector of military violence: one of the recurrent motifs of the texts from the Western Front that I’ve worked with, for example, is the description of the fighting as ‘murder’.
So, much to think about – not least for the ways in which Roy’s ideas about the contemporary trauma hero complicate theses about a supposed transition to ‘post-heroic war’. Those claims have a special resonance in the drone debates where, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Grégoire Chamayou has suggested that the trauma reportedly suffered by drone operators is ‘being mobilised to restore to war the ethico-heroic temper [critics] insisted it had lost through trauma’.
If you want to know more about the genealogy of post-traumatic stress, I recommend David J. Morris, The evil hours: a biography of post-traumatic stress disorder (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). You can read an extract over at Salon here. The book is particularly relevant to this discussion because it suggests that where trauma was once mediated through philosophy and literature it is now constituted through psychology and psychiatry. David is very good on the arguments that raged over ‘shell-shock’ during the First World War, but if you want a ‘biography’ of that then you should turn to Michèle Barratt‘s Casualty figures: how five men survived the First World War (Verso, 2007).
Finally, Roy’s Learning to die in the Anthropocene is due from City Lights in the fall; you can get a taste of it from his essay in the New York Times with the same title here; this was the final installment of a five-part series on War and the city in which Roy retraced his footsteps from civilian to soldier to civilian.