What to do with memory: thoughts for our veterans on Memorial Day

Roger Brooke, Ph.D., ABPP

Most veterans don’t know what to do with memory. Some hope to forget, but also cannot bear to be forgotten. Some hope to forget by hurling themselves back into civilian life, often drunkenly, but going down that path is not going to end well. Almost all combat veterans whom I know try to protect those they love from the memories that crowd in on them, especially at night. Down range they have often remembered with longing the atmosphere of a loving home and the ordinary pleasures of running water, toilets, and a clean bed. It has kept them going. The last thing they want to do when they get home is to spoil this with memories of war.

But here is the problem. The stress and trauma of life in the war zone will be passed onto one’s loved ones, and this will run into the next generation as well. The well meaning veteran trying to keep it all inside is still communicating by impact. A study some years ago found that, when a returning veteran suffered from posttraumatic stress symptoms the spouse did too–feeling cut off, numb, irritable, hypervigilant, and so on. The question, then, is what to do with memory? The challenge for the veteran is to start to talk to his or her family, bit by bit, to make his or her experience and behavior at home something that can be understood. Then, instead of communicating by impact, the veteran is telling a story, which is intelligible. Bit by bit, it can become part of the family’s story and legacy. It makes all the difference in the world. Of course, it does take relationships in which folks do want to be supportive and want to know.

In traditional warrior cultures, from the ancient Celts to the Sioux to the New Zealand Maori to the Xhosa of South Africa, story telling to civilian community was an essential ritual in coming home. The Xhosa called it the ukubula–the process in which the civilian community takes responsibility for the violence that was done in its name. The civilian’s role was to suffer the burden of the returning warriors, tending to them after the warriors had protected them in war.

In my experience, there are many wives and husbands, as well as parents and brothers and sisters, who are excellent, strong listeners, and who will willingly help carry the burden of memory, especially when it helps the veteran return home. Children are also a lot more robust than most parents expect. Tell them too, even if they do not properly understand; it will bring you closer.

Two World War 2 brothers; each had sons. One spoke to his son about his experience (in age appropriate ways) from a time when his son was a little boy. That boy, now a man, remembers putting his finger in a hole in his father’s cheek, and asking if it was sore when the bullet came out there. By the time he was eighteen he knew all about his father’s experience as an infantry officer, and of the massacre of civilians he found in northern Italy. Some years after that he travelled to Italy with his father and visited the cemetery in which his father’s younger brother and also his platoon Sergeant (and too many others) were buried. It must also be said that a lot of the stories were great fun to listen to. There were adventures and stories to be proud of. The gift of these stories went both ways. The father felt great relief that those memories would not be forgotten in the next generation. The son always knew his father, and enjoyed a close relationship with him all his life.

The other veteran was the silent type, and preferred never to speak about his experience. The son never knew his father and never felt known by him either. Memory lay there between them, heavy and cold and silent as a slab.

It is not only about fathers and sons. Daughters, too, need to know their fathers and to feel that their fathers trust and want to know them. If their fathers are preoccupied and remote, imprisoned in a war zone from which they never fully came home, then daughters remain imprisoned too. The Shangaan of southern Africa said that, when a man kills another, even in war, then his daughter is married to the spirit of the dead enemy. A hut is built on the edge of the village in the dead man’s name, and the young teenage girl has to take care of it. She cannot be free to live her own life until her father makes peace with the dead and they ask the dead to release her to marry someone living. I was told this story in 2013 by a guide in the Kruger National Park. I was struck how true it is psychologically for so many veterans and their daughters. Veteran fathers are haunted by the dead and are unable to be the fathers their daughters need. And the daughters are developmentally trapped into trying to repair their relationship with their fathers, wondering why their fathers do not seem to like them. They are, in effect, married to the dead, unable to live their own lives.

It need not be like this; intergenerational trauma is not a necessary destiny. So when veterans ask me if they should talk to their families, I say, yes, it is essential. Of course, the spouse who says, “That is in the past and I don’t want to hear about it,” is not being helpful–and the long term consequences of such an attitude are probably not good either. But most loved ones are not like that. Talk to them. Your story is not only about you; it is bigger than you, and you are in it. You owe it to those who never came home, and to those who came home suffering both the visible and invisible wounds of war. You owe it to your family too, so that your story can become part of your family’s legacy, an inheritance worth honoring. Finally, telling your story and taking up its lessons learned into your life puts the world together again, and is a way to honor your experience.

Go well!