Tuesday, June 12, 2012


In 1953 when my mother went back to school to finish her BA, she arrived at Portland State College with a wave of returning Korean veterans.  Korea, it is said, was the most insidiously sanity-challenging of wars, the brain-wash war.  No honor; deep terror; no real victory.  The college organized “T-groups” and sold them as “leadership training,” though it was kind of transparent that T stood for therapy.  My mother was put into them and it was for her life-changing.  She liked young men, they liked her, and suddenly the T-groups did what they were supposed to -- support growth.  They were simple: just sharing and reflection.  But they were “holding communities” where a person was safe enough to change because the others would look out for him or her.
Today I listened to NPR telling about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning to junior colleges, mature, muscled, tattooed and potent men who, as one said, had been carrying a rifle and using it not long ago, were thrown in with giddy little girls and spotty pierced boys just out of high school.  The kids who could match the veterans for toughness and trauma don’t generally show up at junior colleges.
This is a quote:  p. xviii in the preface to “Beginnings in Ritual Studies” by Ronald L. Grimes“Schechner’s driving preoccupation seems to be the question, what makes ritual -- riddled as it is with eroticism and bloodiness -- sufficiently important that it should have such a long pedigree, that we should attend to it now, and that it should, in fact, have a future?  Putting the two things together -- Veterans’ recent combat experience and the “eroticism and bloodiness” of ritual, I  wondered how to design a ritual for those returning guys.  Just specifically those individuals -- no kiddies and no pencil-necked professors.  
First you have to establish a perimeter, right?  So assign the four directions to four “sentries” stationed one to a wall.  At the beginning, sound the trumpet.  Then, canvass the sentries,  “Sentry to the north -- REPORT!”  “All clear to the North, SIR!”  The other three sides also report.   This establishes the entering threshold.
CALL THE ROLL !”   Drumming (use fingers on furniture if necessary) as the names of those present are called and they answer.   Then call the name of someone not there. (Preparation will include making this list.)  Maybe more than one. No answer.  Leave a long silence.  Then what?  A prayer?  A shout from the assembled company?  Taps?   This establishes the worst.  The loss.
WHAT IS OUR PLEDGE?  Now the best they know.  That they have served with honor, that their lives can now proceed, that they will support each other as buddies.  They will continue to be a “holding community.”  Gotta be a song here.  Maybe a patriotic one: America the Beautiful?  Springsteen?
What do we put in the middle?  In the Liminal Space.  I’m not really qualified to say, since I haven’t been in combat.  Maybe this is a time for people to testify.  If so, there needs to be a litany, a repeated phrase, an acknowledgment, a response, at the end of each testimony.  Something like, in unison: “War is hell.  We paid a high price, but we survived and now we are back.  It is over.  It is really over.  This is new.
Maybe it’s important to put today’s veterans in context with all the warriors from all the times, even from opposite sides.  Maybe recognition for the contributions of all the veterans, from Achilles and Eisenhower and Kennedy on down through veteran senators and judges and CEO’s who used their discipline and determination to build a new world after WWII. Something said about Vietnam and something about Alexander the Great and maybe Chief Joseph, who wasn’t even a war chief but an excellent strategist.  Maybe a scroll and everyone gets a felt marker to write the names on it.  Write the famous and then write in the persons known and admired.  Two colors?
Poem, song, story, image, metaphor, testimony.  Acting out?  Clapping in rhythm, stamping feet, whistling, shouting, howling, keening?  Passing around a beer?   If outdoors, pouring out a bit on the ground for . . .?  The Gods of War?  The Dogs of War?  it has to be emergent from the group.
Then something at the end.  Once I saw a film about preparing young men for combat.  (We have rituals for that.)  It was about their rifles, each of them having been given a new rifle and most of them never having shot a long gun before.  They were being taught to disassemble and assemble their gun as quickly as possible -- field stripping, is that what you call it?  To take it apart, clean each part, put it back together.  The terms the teacher was using were those of love-making, the idea being to make yourself a lover to this gun, make it respond, know it in the dark, smell and taste the cleaning oil, the acrid firing, the deafening sound.  Become attached and devoted to this instrument of death so deeply that it is part of you.  An erotic connection.  Explosive ejaculations. 
It would seem reasonable to do the reverse now.  “I had a gun.  It was deadly.  Now I give it back to the military.  I give back the. . . “ maybe they can name the parts here.  “Now I salute a new kind of power, the power over myself, the power to grow and change.  It is more terrifying than combat.”  Divorce your gun.
Isak Dinesen tells a story about returning to her coffee farm in the highlands of Kenya with the mail which included a letter from the King of Denmark, very impressive with an official gold seal and ribbon.  It was thanking her for a lion skin she had sent.  On the way she came to some of her workers.  One of them had just then been very severely hurt by a tree falling on him.  Quickly the car was turned around to take him to the hospital in Kenya but he was suffering terribly,  Dinesen, who wished for morphine but had none in the car, took out the letter and said to the man in her most resonant and significant voice,  “This is a letter from the King of Denmark.  It is about a lion.  It has enormous power and it will prevent your pain and keep you alive.”  Then she pressed the letter down on the worst wound.  It worked.  The man was so impressed that he stopped hurting and he DID survive. 
In fact, after that if someone were in dire straits, a messenger would come to borrow the letter to press on the sufferer.  In time, a little case was made for the blood-stained document.  If these veterans were to have a letter to press on their wounds, what would it say?  Who would it be from?  Give out blood-stained paper and invite the veterans to write and read what they write.    
Maybe there is a need to say goodbye to a foreign country, whether it is in affection or in hatred.  The sand, the food, the explosions, the boredom.  The babble of languages not understood.  The kids and pye dogs everywhere.  What were the smells?  The sounds?  (Don’t press TOO hard.)
Grimes suggests that perhaps the churches have too tight a grip on their own liturgies and yet (I note) they don’t seem to be using that claim to produce ceremonies of re-entry after war.  The problem of separating church and state arises, I suppose, at least when the people are sent off (there ARE women warriors, of course), but surely when they return they have become the Sacred of the Nation and if we can’t claim Jesus or Buddha, we can at least claim each other.
MORE, MORE, MORE !!  Shouldn’t there be body bags?  Flags?  How much will the situation bear?  How much can the veterans bear?  Why should anyone have to tell them?  Why don’t they circle up and tell each other?  Create their own rituals.  Testify.


Rebecca Clayton said...

I wonder how typical the students of that California community college are. I teach courses at a couple of West Virginia colleges (one a two year, one a university nursing school) and the recent-high-school-graduates are a distinct minority.

The veterans I've had in class (mostly women) are usually the most focused students, while the older returning students have the most apparent problems.

Pamela said...

My father was a combat medic in the Pacific during WWII, all four years. When he returned home to California he stuffed his uniform full of newspaper, stood it up against a fence and set fire to it, boots, helmet and all. He took pictures to mark the progress as it burned to the ground. Your post gives me some understanding of what he was doing.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Pamela, check out Ronald L. Grimes' brilliant vid essay at https://vimeo.com/31156419 "Aaron's Zozobra."

"Burning in effigy" is quite a common ritual act. Your father was a wise man as well as courageous.

Prairie Mary