Peter Trachtenberg’s “The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and its Meaning,” published in 2008, recently won a Phi Beta Kappa award for excellence in non-fiction. The book makes for a sometimes searing, often sobering and always absorbing read. It is comprised of an interwoven series of vignettes treating elemental questions about suffering. In the chapter concerned with the question of what affliction may mean for its bearers, Trachtenberg visits a retreat held for Vietnam War veterans who recount the stories of pain from that conflict that still dominate their lives. The witnessing session of this group at once deeply moved and repelled Trachtenberg and ultimately provided a signal insight into the American collective conscience concerning the role and meaning of suffering.
As with soldiers in previous wars, some witnessed or participated in horrors of unspeakable cruelty that they cannot articulate to this day. My own uncle, for example, who served as a Marine tank commander at Guadalcanal and other bloody battles of World War II’s Pacific theatre, never spoke of what he had witnessed and undergone. Those Vietnam Vets at the gathering could share what they underwent or visited on others, but were unable nonetheless to cope effectively with those realities. Many, Trachtenberg reports, deeply resent the nation that sent them to war and then collectively spat (as they see matters) on their sacrifice. Many have seen their marriages fail, their children grow to adulthood deeply troubled and many of the veterans continue to be afflicted by alcoholism, drug addiction or mental health challenges.
Trachtenberg recounts how touched he was to learn how difficult these men’s lives had been since their military service. Many had never again held steady jobs, most suffered flashbacks of their experiences that prevented sleep and haunted their dreams and others simply had difficulty coping with daily life. And yet, the author wondered aloud if a strong share of those gathered were making a place in the world by “one upping” their peers in a melancholy game of who “has it worse” at events such as the retreat. This concern arose when Trachtenberg witnessed the reaction the vets evidenced to the program-concluding comments of a Vietnamese dharma, a man revered by the group as a person of peace and wisdom who was invited to listen to all of the stories shared at the retreat and offer wrap-up reflections. The priest observed that these men (for they were all men) needed now to give up their pain and go out in the world to assist others with their suffering. Rather than ponder the implications of this very Buddhist response to their shared experiences, the majority of the veterans believed the minister had “sold them out” and dismissed their invitee’s counsel.
Trachtenberg explains this reaction as a collective fear that it is only very public sharing of their suffering that can provide any social standing and legitimacy for these veterans. Were it not for this badge of honor, the only outward manifestation of being wounded in war, Trachtenberg argues, these men would be completely written off as failures in American society and that final twist of fate they simply could not bear. To say this is troubling is to understate the matter. What it suggests is that this sub-population clings to its suffering because society is simply too reluctant otherwise to legitimate publicly its pain. In this case, that anguish was imposed by American society itself, but the notion may be extended. Americans expect mourners to grieve and suffer in private. Indeed, Americans expect people to return to work and their daily routines with little public evidence of their pain. In fact, people become impatient with those who continue mourning or suffering, as though somehow they should get over it and get on with life. Those who endure the tragic long-term illness or incapacitation of a family member elicit sympathy, but the episode must have a finite end, or be discussed only infrequently, lest the bearer be construed as “always a downer,” or worse.
The paradox of the veterans’ situation points to a cruelty of American values: We collectively do not wish to confront suffering and prefer, indeed demand, that those bearing it do so in private to the maximum extent feasible, perhaps especially when that misery arose directly from our collective choices. These confused and broken vets were and are caught in a web of their own nation’s making: We will not acknowledge their pain and sorrow if it is not relentlessly placed before us and even then, we will do so only reluctantly. But if these men were not to wear that anguish as a symbol, we would quickly count them failures and move on. A very odd disposition this: to rob the suffering of their dignity unless they wear that grief daily as so much ignominy. This is surely a nation built on suffering and yet, one that cannot find its way to honor those tormented in its midst. That irony is both distressing and profound, and the costs to both those in pain and to the nation of which they are a part cannot be counted.