The Importance of “Serious Talk” for Readjusting Veterans

As part of my dissertation exploring Iraqi military experiences during the Iran-Iraq War era, I researched anthropologists’ experiences with veteran communities. Strikingly, many came to similar conclusions regarding what one anthropologist identifies as “serious talk.” That is, the process of communicating a personal war experience to a formal or public audience serves a critical role in the readjustment of the veteran. My own experience speaking and writing about my war experience confirms this for myself. While this may seem like common sense to many veterans, the research suggests that engaging in “serious talk” may ease the transition veterans face when returning to civilian life.

Perhaps naively, before deploying in 2003, I thought that when I came home from war there would be a formal “debriefing.” In the movies, I remember soldiers were routinely “debriefed’ after a mission. I pictured a process that would take place over the course of a week or two. We’d show up in the morning, conduct physical training, eat breakfast, and then stroll into a small darkened theater, clutching mugs of strong coffee. Like a cross between an AAR and a counseling session, the unit would be guided through a deconstruction and reconstruction of the entire deployment. Maps, photos, and video would augment the process. It would be informal, conversational, and involve everyone.

This imagined debriefing would give everyone, from private to commander, the opportunity to speak and relate their experience, for the sake of getting it out. It would not simply discuss the mechanics of war (the AAR does that), but would focus on the human experience of war, for which no amount of training creates experts.

Likewise, I imagined sitting in the dining room with my family, letters, maps, and photographs strewn about the table, where I would discuss at length what the experience was like - from boots on the ground to wheels up. We’d stay up late drinking coffee or beer and I’d lay it all out, once and for all. The ultimate war story.

Neither of these things happened. Maybe the first happens in some places, with some units. I’ve read stories about adventure vacations that platoons take to decompress.[i] Admittedly, I could have forced my family to sit down and listen to me tell them everything. But I never wanted to do that, and despite their assurances that they were always ready to listen, I’m not sure they really wanted it either. I just imagined that it would happen shortly after returning home.

Instead, my war experience has leaked out in small anecdotes over the course of several years. If I’m in a giving mood, a familiar sight or smell might compel me to quickly tell a story to my wife or parents. Even when I see other veterans, war talk is usually sparse, or spoken about in generalizations since war experiences are vastly different. Speaking in generalities (“man, Iraq was hot”) makes it easier to accommodate the different experiences of other veterans, while acknowledging that there is a shared service between us.

My difficulty in speaking about war is not unique. War talk is a subject that has received significant attention from anthropologists studying veteran communities. Anthropologist Theresa[1]  O’Nell worked with a community of Native American Vietnam veterans and wrote about their process of “coming home” (1999).[ii] O’Nell’s important contribution is her identification of “profane talk” and “serious talk” as two modes veterans use to speak about war.[iii]

“Profane talk” is the dominant mode, usually done with other veterans, and consists of jokes, cursing, and the retelling of war stories, often with the purpose of establishing dominance among other men.[iv] These are the “no shit, there I was” stories. “Serious talk,” on the other hand, usually takes place in public or ceremonial settings. It is characterized by a more thoughtful and reflective tone. A speech at a Memorial Day event, an Op-Ed in a local newspaper, and blog posts can be forms of “serious talk.” This essay is a form of “serious talk.”

O’Nell offers that veterans who only engage in “profane talk” are “confined to that generation, trapped in that time and place.”[v] They are forever in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. For those who engage in “serious talk,” however, “war memories undergo a semiotic transformation within which they are detached from combat-based meanings of death and survival, and become reattached to the sense and flux of ongoing intergenerational and transhistorical tribal life.”[vi] In “serious talk” the veteran is usually speaking to a non-veteran audience. Words and ideas must be reconstructed to be understood. This process of deconstructing and repackaging stories for general consumption forces the veteran to reflect and work through his or her own experiences.

Like[2]  O’Nell, Eyal Ben-Ari identified “serious talk” as therapeutic. An anthropologist and reservist in the Israeli military, he wrote an analytical essay on his experience as a soldier during the first Palestinian intifada (1989).[vii] In a section titled “At the Edge of My Society,” Ben-Ari writes about the reasons he wrote the article. He writes “Telling this tale - or more precisely relating my personal story to the more distanced analysis - has provided me with a means for confronting the experience of Hebron as well as for facing some of the deeper implications of my actions and those of my friends and comrades.”[viii]

In his essay on survivors of the attack on Peal Harbor, Geoffrey White also identifies “serious talk” as a way of healing and reconciling the past (1999).[ix] The survivors, US Navy veterans, work as tour guides at the memorial for the attack, and are themselves living memorials. White has observed the importance of public performance of “traumatic, repressed, and hidden” memories as a means of healing for war veterans.[x]

The process of packaging military experiences and presenting them to a public or formal audience serves a role in settling the veteran’s conscience.

A few years after leaving the military, I had the opportunity to participate in a museum project called It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq. The project consisted of a sparsely curated gallery of pictures from post-2003 Iraq and the husk of a car destroyed in a bombing. In the center of the gallery a person with some connection to Iraq would sit or stand surrounded by a small crowd of museum-going New Yorkers and tourists. The role of the speaker was simple: speak about their Iraq experience. As a veteran, my experience was war. Confronted by a crowd mostly ignorant of the military and hostile towards the war, my challenge was presenting my experience in a way that was easily understood, nonpolitical, and humanizing.

The experience was a strange one, because I was essentially a live, speaking exhibit. People asked me questions, and I answered. Some questions were dumb; the standard “did you kill anyone” type questions that you expect from high school kids, not the aging New York art crowd. Others were more complex and required thoughtful answers, like being asked to recall the level of cultural and language training provided and how that affected tactical operations. Or, how I personally reconcile my participation in an unpopular war with pride in military service (the assumption, of course, that it must be reconciled). Over the course of about a month, I spoke on four or five different occasions. The experience forced me to think about my Iraq experience in a critical way and then communicate that to a public audience. I remember watching the face of an NYU graduate student quizzically contort as she realized I was not a monster. She told me she protested strongly against the Iraq War and was antimilitary, but had never actually met someone who served before.

While the exhibit was designed to inform the general public about Iraq, I believe that the process was more beneficial to me than anyone who attended. This was the first time I was forced to present my memory and experience to a critical public. I survived, and left each night feeling charged and better sorted than the night before.

Since then, I have continued to share my war experience through public writing. It is still challenging, but the process allows me to communicate everything that I wanted to communicate in the debriefing theater and at the dining room table in a safe and manageable way. While this process may not be helpful, appropriate, or needed for all veterans, it has been helpful for me, and previous research suggests that it may be helpful for others as well.


[i] Srinivasan, R. 2010. After Afghanistan: Risk-Averse, The New York Times ‘At War’ Blog, [Online], Available: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/ 5 Oct. [27 Aug 2011].

[ii] O’Nell, T. 1999. “Coming Home" among Northern Plains Vietnam Veterans: Psychological Transformations in Pragmatic Perspective, Ethos, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec), pp. 441-465.

[iii] O’Nell uses the Native American terms iglata and waktoglaka for “profane talk” and “serious talk,” respectively.

[iv] Ibid: 455.

[v] Ibid: 456.

[vi] Ibid: 457.

[vii] Ben-Ari, E. 1989. Masks and Soldiering: The Israeli Army and the Palestinian Uprising, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Nov), pp. 372-389.

[viii] Ibid: 384

[ix] White, G. 1999. Emotional Remembering: The Pragmatics of National Memory, Ethos, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec), pp. 505-529.

[x] Ibid: 513.

 [1]

8/27/11 12:29 PM

 

II. Literature Review

  1. Anthropology of War

      c. O’Nell

 [2]

8/27/11 12:29 PM

 

II. Literature Review

  1. Anthropology of War

      d. Ben-Ari

 

 

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Comments

Hi Don, What a great piece. This all makes sense, and very much echoes my experience in being with veterans from WWII and onward in the many years we had our private surgical practice. Back then, we had any number of stories of GI's coming home from WWII or Korea on a boat and having several weeks to process things with their mates. Now, with everything going at war speed, not only are you home in record time, there's a certain type of "normalcy" expected and a "hop to it" to transition quickly. Unfortunately, this doesn't do the soldier nor the family any good.

You've hit upon a touchy subject for families. How exactly do we talk to our loved ones about war. Most of us are very aware that certain things can act as triggers or stressers, hence, the worry that certain things could push someone back where maybe they don't necessarily want to be. So we often sit, waiting, because war can be the white elephant in the room. I think --whether family or not, what is needed is some kind of facilitated talk where the person doing the talking needs to be assured that they are not going to be judged. And above everything else --patience, which unfortunately is usually an afterthought in an increasingly self centered world.

I also agree with your assessment over talk that keeps you back, and talk that helps process things and helps move you along. The profane talk is easy, however, it's also in passing. The more serious talk allows both parties to relax, breathe, and process.

From what I've observed, writing and blogging can be therapeutic, unless one decides to substitute the self-exploration and self expression with politics or other things that can draw ire and judgment from others. Not that the prior can't, but there is much more a herd mentality with the later. However, writing in itself has always been therapeutic for most writers, and in the right environment, a writing group facilitated by a skillful wordsmith can be not only beneficial, but liberating. When you are in the groove of writing, your breathing calms down, the pulse slows. The relaxation response can kick in. Writing is as much an emotional act, as it is a physical one. But the trick now is finding people still willing to sit and write in any length. Many prefer the 144 character tweet, or the equally short Facebook. It's the longer stuff where we find our breath.

I'm going to toss this in there. According to research on PTSD done by Bessel van der Kolk at the Trauma Center in MA, stress and trauma stores itself in the body. I'm guessing that one reason your experience as a "living exhibit" was so successful, was that you were able to move and gesture, even call upon the people who wanted to talk. There was some physical movement that was probably helpful in calming yourself and finding your breath.

All in all, a fabulous article --so mindfully researched and written. I'll be sharing this with David Emerson. He works under Bessel van der Kolk at the Trauma Center. He and I recently finished our first War Photographers' Retreat in Cambridge MA. Check us out over here: http://warretreat.org

Holy citations! And a bunch of cultural anthropologists, no less...

Nice work. I hadn't thought about the specific effect of public speaking, but I guess it makes sense. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to it.

I would like a more detailed explanation of how you think this process works.

I think that the process of having to explain your service and experience to a non-informed, non-military audience does something. I don't know what that something is, but I imagine it is is like slowly taking down a wall, brick by brick. Whenever I speak publicly/seriously or write about war I almost always feel strange afterwards, like I just said something that I shouldn't have or that I might regret putting it out there. Over time though, this strange feeling has grown weaker and I think that's a result of doing it over and over again, and coming to terms with it.

What sucks, is that I don't think most veterans have an outlet for "serious talk." They don't write, or they don't speak publicly or seriously about their service. Since there seems to be evidence suggesting the importance of having this outlet, it might be helpful to push veterans to this (when they're ready).

This may sound callous and admittedly I have not had the heinous experiences that other vets may have had, but my overall impression is that most people really aren't at all invested in the experiences or the policy. The most their involvement comes to is listening to the radio or at public events where we get the obligatory genuflection. Stuff like Lee Greenwood's line "I'd proudly stand up next to you" which he never did, or the airport thank yous, etc, etc. The reality is that most of them wouldn't stand up, nor would they let their kids stand up next to us. Lee Greenwood made a bunch of money for singing it, but he never proudly stood up next to us either. I'm not asking for anyone to feel sorry for me, but the bottom line is that many people in the military expect America to "validate our sacrifice" by letting us keep at it until we "win." Most people don't want to make the sacrifice in the form of taxes or their kids that is required to bring the closure many would like to see. In any case, no matter what the sacrifice, I don't know that we can bring that closure in any case. I wonder what a movie like "The Best Years of Our Lives" from 1946 as a form of "serious talk" in a major forum? Some literature like "Achilles in Vietnam" suggests that the shared experience and sacrifice in WWII made for a different sense of the conflict than in Vietnam, where the experience was not shared in society.