January 04, 2018
(+++) REOPENING WOUNDS
Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided. By Daniel P. Bolger. Da Capo. $28.
The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live after a Child Dies? By Nisha Zenoff, Ph.D. Da Capo. $16.99.
It is somewhat difficult to figure out the intended audience for Daniel P. Bolger’s Our Year of War. Bolger has a unique perspective on modern warfare – he retired as an Army lieutenant general after 35 years of service – and he writes well about battlefield strategy and about tactics that work and that, in his view, do not. And he has an intriguing story to tell in focusing on two Nebraska brothers who fought in Vietnam at the same time but came away with very different views of the war and very different postwar careers. One is Chuck Hagel, a strong war supporter who was a Nebraska senator from 1997 to 2009 and served as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense from 2013 to 2015. The other is Tom Hagel, who turned strongly against the conflict and, after serving, taught at Dayton University School of Law from 1982 to 2015. The brothers’ war experiences range from protecting each other’s life when under fire to getting into a postwar fistfight that led to their determination never to discuss the war again. But Our Year of War is in fact a 336-page discussion, albeit one mediated by an expert on the topic. And it really is primarily a focus on the war – there is some discussion of the brothers’ prewar and postwar lives, but more of that would have produced a more-nuanced story. Vietnam was a conflict that bitterly divided the United States, or (depending on one’s viewpoint) reflected bitter divisions that were already present and growing. Bolger’s book recalls the time of the war but never fully explores that deep bitterness or the frequent violence caused by or reflective of it. His focus is the military campaigns in Vietnam, which he uses the Hagels’ experiences to illuminate – and the failures of the military to understand the nature of the war and respond to it accordingly. Thus, Bolger spends some time picking apart General William Westmoreland’s failings, notably including the way he missed seeing the Tet Offensive of 1968 as a turning point. This is, to some extent, general-vs.-general writing; but at the same time, Our Year of War explores, albeit rather superficially, the way the Vietnam conflict tore families apart and brought even close relatives such as the Hagel brothers literally to blows. Yet the question remains: why rake over these particular coals yet again? So much has been written about Vietnam, about the horrible assassinations that occurred during it (notably those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy), and about the terrible things done by Americans to the people they were supposedly protecting (including iconic photos of a man shooting another in the head, of napalmed children running desperately down a road, and many more). Why more? Why now? Bolger has valuable insight into how the military operates – and, not coincidentally, a good understanding of the gap between the people who fight on the front lines and the ones back home who order them to the killing fields. But the overall impression left by Our Year of War is that of bringing back an extremely divisive, painful time in United States history for no particularly valuable reason beyond having a good story to tell and the ability to tell it.
The national pain of Vietnam was reflected time and again in the pain of individual families whose members died or were permanently damaged physically and/or psychologically by the war. But pain of this depth and extent does not require wartime to devastate those who experience it. Nisha Zenoff, whose son died after falling 700 feet during a hike in Yosemite, tries in The Unspeakable Loss to offer what the book’s second subtitle describes as “Support, Guidance, and Wisdom from Others Who Have Been There.” To do that, she has to probe deeply into some of the most horrific trauma imaginable – and while she does so with sensitivity, her book is very, very difficult to read, perhaps impossibly so for those who have experienced what Zenoff herself did. There is not just a single reliving of one’s own profoundly horrendous experience in these pages – there are multiple ones, presented by a wide variety of parents who have outlived their children and are trying, some of them desperately, to find a method of going on and reasons to do so. It was not always so: families used to have far more children than most in the developed world have today, precisely because so few young people would ever grow up – disease and accidents carried off so many of them. But in a safer world and one with far better medical care (notably including antibiotics), parents expect each child to survive and thrive, and when a child’s life is cut short, the intensity of the reaction is enormous – as Zenoff shows through the stories and quotations in this book. Each of the book’s four parts begins with Zenoff recounting something from her own experience, making this a highly personal book as well as an instructive one written by a psychotherapist and grief counselor. The titles of the four parts, though, show just how hard the book will be to read: “Can I Survive?” “Will My Family Survive?” “One Year and Beyond: Where Am I Now?” “As the Years Go By, What Can I Expect?” And while the progress of the book’s parts shows that there is a future after a child’s death, the many sections within each part, each introduced by a question, will force readers to confront trauma and the deepest possible grief over and over and over again: “Will life ever feel worth living again?” “How can anyone know what I feel?” “How can I maintain my faith in God when I feel so angry?” “How can I be there for my other children when I’m so preoccupied and in such pain?” “How can we feel sexual now?” “How can we get through the holidays?” “What if I find myself working, eating, or drinking too much?” This small sampling of questions shows that nothing is off limits to Zenoff, who after all has experienced this horrible grief herself and is also a professional at helping others get through it. But the book is very difficult reading, particularly so for women, at whom it is primarily aimed: Zenoff says that although “grief is deep and long-lasting for men as well as women,” men often “quickly retreat into work and hobbies” in “a more ‘male’ model of coping.” Whether or not all readers will accept this is not the point: it is how Zenoff sees things and how she and her patients have experienced them, and she is trying in The Unspeakable Loss to give other bereaved women the benefit of the experience through which she herself has gone and through which she has helped many others. The goal is admirable and the handling of the material is sensitive and shows great care, but there is no way to sugar-coat any of what Zenoff brings forward in this book. It is an effective, methodically explanatory prescription for survival after a child’s death, but it is also bitter, bitter medicine that will not, in any way, shape or form, go down easily.