On Returning Home from War
By Warren Stoddard II
We have come home from war for thousands of years. Weary, wide-eyed men have come
home and set their shield, their sword, their musket upon a mantelpiece and attempted to go back about the business of living a peaceful life. Toiling. Harvesting crops. Speaking seldom. In art
and reportage covering the aftermath of war, we have seen returnees from battle struggling
mightily with the process of reintegration. Troy is razed, the ships sail home, but the war never
ends – it is sung of in song for millennia. The warrior never becomes the farmer. Veterans are
broken; they will not let it go. And while this is often pinned as a psychological failing for the
veteran himself, the root causes of this psychic break run deep into the webwork of society.
Societies having not witnessed the ravages of war firsthand on their own doorstep can understand
little of what the soldier has shouldered in the course of conflict, in turn often creating an
unbridgeable rift between the veteran and the people that surround them in the days, months,
years that follow their steps away from the battlefield.
All the wars that have been fought have had tenfold the number of books written, plays
performed, and masterpieces painted about them. We see many recurring characters: The Valiant
General, The Wounded Man, The Razed City. And time and again we see The Stoic War
Veteran. Clint Eastwood’s grisly performance as a Korean War vet in Gran Torino who silently
tries to atone for his sins by aiding in the upbringing of his neighbors’ son stands out as only one
among many in cinema. James Bradley’s controversial book Flags of Our Fathers describes his
own father, John as a man who absolutely, under no circumstances, would ever talk about the
war, what he did there, what he lost. The classic 1865 Winslow Homer Painting, The Veteran in a New Field, depicts a man newly returned from the American Civil War, his army coat jumbled
on the ground beside him as he silently swings a scythe.
Ernest Hemingway, arguably the greatest war author of all time, immortalized the
experience of returning from war numerous times in his written work: The Sun Also Rises, A
Farewell to Arms, and In Our Time all dealt heavily with the aftereffects of war on the human
psyche. Perhaps none did so as sharply, accurately poignant as a short story from his In Our
Time collection: “Soldier’s Home.” Harold Krebs is a Marine veteran newly returned from the
First World War who fought in Belleau Wood, Soissons, and other engagements. But, while
many of his comrades returned shortly after the end of the fighting, Krebs did not return until
years after the war had ended. The people of his community found this a bit odd, and so Krebs
came back from the war in solitude, ostracized, and without the fanfare that welcomed so many
of the other young men home from the war. He is bitter. He finds it nearly impossible to integrate
back into society, lounging around, believing of his fellow citizens that “the world they were in
was not the world he was in” (Hemingway 113). He is quiet, moody, and even tells his own
mother that he does not love her. He did not want to talk, but “later he felt the need to talk but no
one wanted to hear about it” because the people around him were living in different realities in
which war could not be comprehended (Hemingway 111). There is no need for the average
citizen, particularly the average American citizen, to understand war. War is a thing that happens
far-off and to other people. Americans concern themselves with idle pastimes and mundane
hobbies – the world turns but the American does not concern himself with the methods of its
turning. As a result, when soldiers come home from war they find themselves alone with no one
to listen even if they wished to talk. So they drink. Mentally, they exist always in the war. They
are silent. They are bitter. They are alone with their trauma.
This has become such a fastidious trope in war literature and cinema that it is often
jarring to many audiences when a character breaks this mold and speaks of their experiences in
any manner. Walter Sobchak, the unhinged-Vietnam-veteran foil to “The Dude” in the 1998
film, The Big Lebowski, speaks frequently of his experiences in the United States’ conflict in
southwest Asia, often to the derision of “The Dude” as seen in this interrogation of a young boy,
Larry, while searching for missing money in a stolen car:
The Dude: Where’s the fucking money you little brat?
Walter: Look, Larry. Have you ever heard of Vietnam?
The Dude: Oh, for Christ’s sake, Walter.
Walter: You’re entering a world of pain son. We know that this is your homework. We know that you stole a car.
And later in the film, while spreading the ashes of their killed bowling teammate Donny:
Walter: He died, like so many young men of his generation. He died before his time. In your wisdom, Lord, you took him, as you took so many bright, flowering, young men at Khe Sanh, at Langdok, at Hill 364.
Shortly after, The Dude, covered in Donny’s spread ashes, lashes out at Walter, saying,
“Everything’s a fucking travesty with you, man. What was that shit about Vietnam? What the
fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam?” (Lebowski). But for Walter, as for so many others
who fought in wars as young men and are too scarred to speak of it, everything has to do with
Vietnam. Everything has to do with the war. The act of war, all its inherent losses and tragedies,
changes both the literal chemical makeup of the brain as well as the fighter’s perception of time.
The war is not merely a marker on a timeline, but becomes a cornerstone from which all other
events of one’s life are built from.
There are three ruptures in trauma. Time is the first, as we see in Walter, where the past
and the present blend, where every day Walter wakes up and is still mentally in Vietnam – time
bears no relevance to anything but the war. There is only before, during and after the war; the
war becomes everything. It is the only thing of any relevance. The second is cognition, which we
see in Harold Krebs, where there is a certain inability to talk about what happened. When your
trauma does not make sense to you or does not make sense to those around you, you find no
point in talking any of it out. Krebs lives alone with his weight, only finding camaraderie among
other men who had fought, falling “into the easy pose of a soldier among other soldiers,” and
here he admits that this is because he and the other men had been “badly, sickeningly frightened
all the time. In this way he lost everything” (Hemingway 112). Everything is lost without
cognition of the traumatic event. The final rupture is identity (O’Donnell). This psychic break is
perhaps best exemplified by that first broken returned war hero of literature: Odysseus.
“Tell me your name, here and now,” said the Cyclops.
“My name is nobody,” Odysseus replied (Homer 130-131).
This scene, albeit one of clever trickery, perhaps reveals one of the more sinister inner
dynamics of Homer’s epic poem: that it is, in its heart, a story about the inability of a warrior to
overcome his war. Odysseus lost himself somewhere in the proximity of the walls of Troy,
where he had used his tricks to roll the Trojan Horse through the gates of the city, then burn the
whole thing to the ground. All that Odysseus has now that the war has ended are his tricks. He
loses himself in them, time and again utilizing deception to pull himself out of seemingly
impossible situations: the Cyclops, the Sirens, and on. With his identity as a warrior gone,
Odysseus certainly sees little sense in returning home, else it would not have taken him ten years
to make the voyage back to Ithaca. So now he is a trickster, a caricature of his former self who spends a decade not only fleeing the Trojan War, but who he was before the war as well. In the
time that he is gone, his son becomes a grown man and his wife is surrounded by suitors. None
of them recognize Odysseus once his ship lands on Ithaca. Homer’s greatest work is an allegory.
In the aftermath of war, those who return from it often “no longer know who they are. They
struggle to identify with the person they were before they experienced the trauma. They may
even feel that that person is dead. In the aftermath of trauma, there is therefore a need for people
to redefine themselves and their relationship with the world they used to know” (O’Donnell).
How do you redefine yourself? Is it even possible to redefine yourself after an experience
so rife with defining moments? After something so visceral as war, so novel, so awe-inspiring,
everything else becomes mundane. Years may pass without the slightest dusting of a memory
made, because nothing can live up. So you remain trapped there, unable to speak, speaking too
much. As stated in the final line of the 2005 film based on the book by Anthony Swofford,
Jarhead, “We are still in the desert.” You can return from the desert, you can return from Khe
Sanh, return from Belleau Wood, return from Troy, but you will always be trapped there no
matter where you may go.
Surely there must be some method of alleviation. Many have tried variable approaches to
the problem. For Hemingway, it was chasing dragon after dragon: WWI, the bullfights, big-game
hunting, the Spanish Civil War, WWII. Always chasing that first and unattainable high of
combat. Anthony Swofford’s sequel memoir to Jarhead is tellingly titled Hotels, Hospitals, and
Jails. A broken beer bottle is pictured beneath those words on the front cover. Drink it away,
fight it away, fuck it away. Keep running. Walter Sobchak tried bowling. But he still wears his
dog tags. Veteran fliers of WWII started motorcycle clubs, which began innocently enough, but
soon descended into a myriad of drugs and drunken violence. Seemingly, in our modern era, there is no escape but acceptance. You yearn for brotherhood, but the only way you know
brotherhood to exist is through violence.
However, the ancients left us a model to follow. There were methodologies in place for
returnees from far-off battlefields. Ritual cleansing was commonplace across various cultures:
Roman legionnaires were bathed, Maasai warriors were purified, medieval knights were required
to do penance for their sins, and Native Americans engaged in sweat-lodge rituals for returning
warriors during which veterans would tell their stories and any impurities could be purged from
their souls (O’Donnell). Perhaps this final method is the most important when examining the
case of returning soldiers today. What is the coat room in “Soldier’s Home” if not a sweat-lodge
ritual? Stories are shared, and some healing is worked toward. As wars become more far-flung,
more stratified, engaged ever more by proxy forces, and veterans of these conflicts are seen as
outliers to humanity rather than members of a community, it will become increasingly important
to hear the stories of returnees, just as Odysseus told his story upon his return to Ithaca.
The Big Lebowski. Dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Polygram Film Entertainment, 1998. Film.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Finca Vigía Edition.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V. Rieu. VIVI Books, 2014.
Homer, Winslow. The Veteran in a New Field. 1865. The Met.
Jarhead. Dir. Sam Mendes. Universal Pictures, 2005. Film.
O'Donnell, Karen. “How PTSD Treatment Can Learn from Ancient Warrior Rituals.” The
Independent, 5 December, 2016, www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-