The Memory of War
I've never been in a war, but my family has lived with the aftereffects for generations
If I was ever taught anything about war, it was that it happened before me and to other people. From a very early age, my brother and I would talk about “War War II” and Nazis, the very personification of evil, and maybe sneak looks at our dad’s medals from Vietnam. One was for sharpshooting, and I coveted it for myself. To my child mind, whatever had happened was in a faraway place a long time ago. I didn’t see the way my dad’s and grandfather’s wartime experiences oozed out onto everything in our lives and would continue to taint all the generations to come.
Mom’s dad, Bill, was in the Korean War, also known as the Forgotten War, but, on an emotional level, no one in our family has forgotten it because every single one of us grandkids has some kind of drug, alcohol, eating or related disorder. Some of us have several. I don’t remember Bill, but he traumatized everyone who crossed his path, apparently. After returning home with his stomach shot full of holes, he would keep mom and her brothers up all night during thunderstorms when she was five years old, threatening to kill them if they moved. The thunder and lightning triggered his shellshock and he’d scream and rage, terrorizing and beating his wife and children. There was frequently no food and no one home when mom was growing up. My grandfather even once held my uncles hostage in a police standoff. After years in and out of prison, Bill was found dead on the street, a homeless, alcoholic veteran in a time before the psychological effects of war were understood.
Dad’s story is less clear, as he would never tell us one thing about Vietnam as kids. I still don’t know much, a handful of stories about a little boy he befriended, the other soldiers marveling at his accent, working a motor grader to make roads in the jungle, a collection of little bits of dad’s mental dust mostly, nothing substantial enough to make any kind of sense. As a young college student, I decided to do a research paper on Vietnam and after some initial reading, I had my first realization that the Vietnamese were trying to throw off the yoke of colonialism, not trying to destroy America or freedom. At the same time, dad was on the verge of one his several post-traumatic stress hospitalizations, about twenty years after his tours of duty. He was driving around with multiple guns in the car, watching Vietnam War movies and having a fairly complete psychological breakdown, all the while assuring me that he was fine and that there was nothing to worry about. Dad had already given up whiskey ten years before, so he could not find the solace he'd once found there, either.
“Don’t be scared,” he’d say, “it’s just something I’ve got to get through,” cradling the butt of a gun in his arms as he ran up the steps to the trailer from the car. I knew dad well enough to know that his intentions weren’t usually that bad, but that we’d have to check that against the end result. He’d been waging a constant, low-level, psychological guerilla war on me my whole life and one thing I’d never do was trust his judgment about any given situation. What would it look like to be “fine” in terms of the long-term effects of a war? Sleeping all night? Holding down a job? Not abusing your friends and family?
Although I’d never been hit by either of my parents, I was deathly scared of them. Mom’s hysterical bursts of rage and dad’s simmering anger, which would erupt more rarely, but perhaps more lethally, none of directed at me personally,turned me into a frightened, anxious child. I learned early to make myself small, innocent, babyish, incapable of defying their authority in any way. I was very attached to the idea of being good, enough to avoid the blows, the hospital visits, the broken glass, the cops that had to start coming to our house more and more frequently. It was what I used to cope.
Today my parents both suffer from stress-related
illnesses; both are physically older than their biological ages.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to find my place not just in my immediate family, but in Kentucky, the south, the United States, and the world, to understand the big ideas of revolution, human rights, Marxism, feudalism, European migration to America, patriarchy, all the contributing factors that led my ancestors to coalesce in western Kentucky, produce me and give me context and background for my existence. I cannot solely blame war for the severe dysfunction my family continues to suffer from. But neither can I ignore my extreme startle reflex and fear of authority figures, my children’s anxiety, my close relatives' quick, hot anger, my cousins’ drug use. War may not be the only cause of any of these problems, but it has left a direct and lasting legacy of psychological, social, financial, and physical instability on my family.