Editor’s Choice: War, Literature & the Arts

Maggie Jaffe

Tal, Kali, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1996. 296pp.

Reviewed in War, Literature and the Arts: W.D. Ehrhart. A Special Issue. Volume 8, Number 2 (Fall/Winter 1996): 159-166.

Kali Tal’s Worlds of Hurt is a thoughtful and scholarly analysis of literatures of trauma by survivors of the Holocaust, of the Vietnam War, and of rape/incest. All three trauma survivors use writing as one of several ways of coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, whose symptoms almost always include depression, anxiety, rage, hyper-alertness or exaggerated startle response, insomnia, guilt, substance abuse, suicidal or homicidal thoughts, as well as emotional conflicts about trust, intimacy, authority, and isolation. Contrary to popularly held beliefs, PTSD is not caused by sustained exposure to warfare alone: according to the American Psychiatric Association, the recent clinical definition of PTSD is a distressed response to life-threatening and traumatic events, such as earthquake, plane crash, rape, torture or military combat that are out of the range of the usual human experience (119). For this reason, Tal argues that trauma narratives are distinct from other literary genres because “the tension between the drive to testify, the impossibility of successfully conveying the experience, and the urge to repress the experience entirely” is an underlying characteristic of this particular writing (78).

Tal not only cites the striking similarities between trauma narratives, she also describes how the dominant culture interprets these texts for its own end. “The subject of this work is psychic trauma; its cultural-political inquiry moves back and forth between the effects of trauma upon individual survivors and the manner in which trauma is reflected and revised in the larger collective political and cultural world” (5). The Vietnam War, for example, was called a “quagmire,” “a swamp,” “morass,” “a slippery slope,” “a tragedy,” a “nightmare” that “entrapped us,” as well as a “syndrome” of a disease that the body politic must “get over” as quickly as possible. For Tal, “Both ‘experience’ and ‘syndrome’ metaphors are ahistorical: experiences are entirely subjective and emotional, and syndromes partake of the ‘objective’ terminology of a ‘science’ based in ‘natural law,’ and thus lie outside of history” (61).

Along those lines, the much-maligned Vietnam veteran has metamorphosed from a “crazed baby killer” into both victim and belated hero. Why now? With the demise of communism and the renewed militarism of the Reagan-Bush regimes, as well as the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, the Vietnam veteran was “rehabilitated” in conjunction with the renewed build-up of United States military power. Under Reagan, for example, defense spending went from 144 billion dollars in 1980 to a grossly disproportionate 293 billion dollars in 1988.

Like every other aspect of the Vietnam War, Americans could hardly agree on anything, and the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or “the Wall,” was no exception: Arguments between conservatives and liberal Vietnam veterans and their respective political supporters over the appropriateness of the severe black design (created by a young Chinese-American woman named Maya Lin) and the placement of a representational statue (sculpted by Frederick Hart) … clearly delineated the lines of debate. The ambiguity of the Vietnam Memorial Wall upset conservatives. All those names engraved on the flat, black surface would most likely fail to evoke the patriotic and heroic images upon which our national mythology is built. As Jan Scruggs noted, ‘Aesthetically, the design does not need a statue, but politically it does.’ (61-2) Even the Holocaust has created dissension among Jews themselves. “[Noam] Chomsky asserts that the American Jewish community is ‘deeply totalitarian,’ and that American Jews use accusations of anti-Semitism and the specter of the Holocaust to silence critics of Israel as part of a carefully engineered political strategy” (28). Furthermore, a number of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, such as Bruno Bettelheim’s Surviving and Other Essays, de-historicize the Holocaust by positing it as unique from other genocidal policies. For Bettelheim, any disagreement with this assessment exonerates the Nazi’s “Final Solution.” And to some extent, this depoliticization of the Holocaust justifies Israel’s domination over Palestine. Worlds also describes the challenge to the “Holocaust hegemony” by several African-American scholars who insist that historically there are many “holocausts.”

Tal also suggests that the linguistic distance between the writer of trauma literature and the untraumatized reader, even the most sensitive reader, might be insurmountable. The word “oven,” for example, is certainly benign enough, but not so to a survivor of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, or any number of other concentration camps. Even more frustrating, trauma narratives are often times disjointed and fragmented, a point underscored by Tal.

For women traumatized by rape and incest, the dominant culture denies, or worse, blames the victim for her own oppression. Besides blaming the victim, Tal, an acknowledged feminist, also grudgingly admits that rape/incest narratives are largely produced by middle-class white women. The following anthologies—Bass and Armstrong’s I Never Told Anyone and Toni McNaron’s Voices in the Night—do not satisfactorily explore the double censure that women of color face by police or by the law courts. In her book’s introduction, Tal relates the following:

I am a white woman. I am a Jew, born of Jewish parents and brought up in their completely secular household. I was raised in a multiethnic, multiracial extended family—my mother’s father divorced his Jewish wife and married my Episcopalian Puerto Rican step-grandmother… I was exposed to elements of Puerto Rican and black culture, as well as to the ways in which racism is manifested in a close-knit multiracial family. I was sexually abused as a twelve-year-old by adult friends of my maternal grandfather. My sexual identification is primarily heterosexual. I was raised in an upper-class environment, with all the privileges that entails. (4)

The above quotation is not a gratuitous “confession” but a calculation by Tal to acknowledge her subjectivity: after all, this is literature about felt pain, her own personal pain as both a Jew and sexual abuse survivor.

Tal’s connection with Vietnam veterans is more tenuous. Still, as editor of Viet Nam Generation, founded in 1988 to “promote and encourage the study of the Viet Nam war era and the Viet Nam war generation,” she has contrived a multidisciplinary vehicle for vets to publish their poetry, fiction, and scholarly articles about the war (see also her Sixties Project Web page). In fact, Viet Nam Generation published the award-winning poet, Leroy V. Quintana, whose Interrogations remained out of print for twenty years because of the poems’ “shocking content.” Viet Nam Generation has also published W.D. Ehrhart’s Just For Laughs (1990).

In the chapter “The Farmer of Dreams,” Tal uses Ehrhart’s work to test the three defining characteristics of literatures of trauma outlined earlier—the need to retell the trauma, the frustration in conveying it to untraumatized readers, and the desire to repress the memory altogether.

For those familiar with Vietnam veterans’ writing, Ehrhart’s military service and work is well-known. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 when he was 17 years old and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. In 1968, he participated in many combat operations and was wounded in Hué City during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Ehrhart’s poetry was first anthologized in 1972 in Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, edited by soldier-poets Larry Rottman, Jan Barry, and Basil Paquet, who were also founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (77-8). WHAM, “the first collection of dissident poems in US history produced by soldiers during wartime” (Bibby 147), was originally published by 1st Casualty Press—a reminder that “In war, truth is the first casualty” (Aeschylus 525-456 BC).

Ehrhart and Jan Barry later edited Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam (1976), and Ehrhart individually edited Carrying the Darkness: American-Indochina; The Poetry of the Vietnam War (1985) as well as Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier Poets of the Vietnam War (1989). His non-fiction includes the memoir-trilogy Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983); Passing Time (1987) and Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (1995). Other publications are too numerous to mention here.

Since the ’70s, Ehrhart’s poetic and prose subjects include the invasion of Grenada, the US-backed “low intensity” wars in Central America, the Persian Gulf War, the contrast between the poet before and after Vietnam, and his postwar difficulty with relationships, especially with women. In the often-quoted poem “Invasion of Grenada,” Ehrhart conflates the Invasion with the building of The Wall, this way: I didn’t want a monument not even one as sober as that vast black wall of broken lives… What I wanted was a simple recognition of the limits of our power as a nation to inflict our will on others (quoted in Worlds 91-2). In several of his poems (“Just for Laughs,” “The Rat,” “The Hawk and Two Suns,” “What War Does”), Ehrhart uses the pain of animals as a metaphor to describe the pain of war. Tim O’Brien uses a similar device in “How To Tell A True War Story,” collected in The Things They Carried, which details the excruciating death of a “baby VC water buffalo” by a “crazed” soldier who just lost his best friend that afternoon. Even Otto Schubert, a World War I German artist-soldier, used animals metaphorically to depict war by drawing highly realistic sketches of horses suffering on the battlefield. The death of animals moves us; after all, unlike humans they are “innocent.” This empathy with animals—with all sentient beings—is in fact Buddhist in its inclination and brings to mind a key event which Ehrhart has written about numerous times. After he and his troops were ordered to loot a temple, Ehrhart presents a vase to the captain with these words: “You wanted a souvenir, sir. Here it is. Genuine Buddhist vase. Duty free. No waiting. Get ’em while they last” (101).

Ehrhart’s poetry is often cited as being too didactic or too polemical, which merely means “to teach or to instruct,” or “to argue or to criticize.” Critics who single out these qualities in his work are often defending the status quo and are wary of poetry that teaches, argues, or takes a position. In truth, unlike other veterans’ poetry which rightfully enumerates the horrors they witnessed, Ehrhart’s work engages in a dialogue with the power structure, forcing the reader to see the connection between imperialism, capitalism and war. And as an educator, Ehrhart knows too well the fascination young people have with war.

There was a boy, who in the midst of my 1982 history course on the Vietnam War, asked me when I was going to tell them ‘the other side,’ oblivious to the fact that ‘the other side’ is all he’s been hearing since the day he was born…. I’m so tired of paddling against the torrent that most days I wake up not knowing how I can possibly pick up a paddle even one more time…. Nothing I do will make any difference, but to do nothing requires a kind of amnesia I have yet to discover a means of inducing. The dilemma leaves me much of the time feeling like a failure at everything I do. (93)

The violence that Ehrhart witnessed, or that he himself caused, is tragically not relegated to the battlefield alone. After battering his girlfriends, Ehrhart “confesses” his brutality in this remarkable passage: Her eyes burned. They were the same eyes I’d seen the day I’d tried to knock Pam Casey’s head off, the same eyes I’d seen on the faces of the Vietnamese peasants whose lives I’d routinely made so miserable. I could hardly believe what I was seeing or the pain that I had inflicted. Was there no end to what I am capable of? (108) Perhaps Ehrhart’s urgent need to map out his transformation from warrior to peace advocate is his way of coping. Nevertheless, in re-telling his experiences, Ehrhart, like other victims of trauma, can never hope to be the same person he was before the war:

I remember the dead, I remember the dying But I cannot ever quite remember what I went looking for, or what it was I lost in that alien land that become more I than my own ever can again (“To the Asian Victors” 86). Yet to remain silent implies a complicity which Ehrhart cannot abide by: “For these authors, writing is not simply a therapeutic task, and the war is not simply ‘good subject material’: bearing witness is a sacred trust, and the product of a life of hard work. These men and women are the guardians of history, the voices of Cassandra, the ‘farmers of dreams'” (114).

With the escalation of both personal and political violence at century’s end, Worlds of Hurt is a timely book. Besides its importance in the fields of literature, linguistics, and psychology, Worlds also expands its range to demonstrate how literatures of trauma are used ideologically when they are interpreted and employed by the dominant culture. Just as Ehrhart’s poetry challenges the power structure which sent him to war, Tal, too, takes on discomforting positions by reminding us that the Holocaust does not exculpate Israel from occupation of Palestinian territories, that within the feminist movement there is a disparity between women, and that Vietnam veterans did indeed inflict “a world of hurt” on the Vietnamese people. In his “Preface” to Survival in Auschwitz (NY: Collier Books 1958), Primo Levi describes his need to “tell the story” as an “immediate and violent impulse in the order of urgency” (6). Tal’s work too possesses this heart-felt urgency.