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.

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 O’Nell worked with a community of Native American Vietnam veterans and wrote about their process of “coming home” (1999).

O’Nell’s important contribution is her identification of “profane talk” and “serious talk” as two modes veterans use to speak about war.

“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.

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.”

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.”

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 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).

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.”

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).

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.

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.

This post originally appeared at Small Wars Journal.

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