||Indiana Historical Press
James McGarrah's A Temporary Sort of Peace belongs on the same
shelf with the great memoirs of the Vietnam War, including Michael
Herr's Dispatches and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
McGarrah chronicles his Vietnam experience, his years growing up
in southern Indiana, and his return, now altered, to that once-
familiar landscape, in a voice both lyrical and deeply felt. McGarrah
never flinches from the truth. This book is a must-read for anyone
who wants to understand the lasting effects of war.
Demia Butler Professor of English
Barnes & Noble.com
Growing up in Princeton, Indiana, during the 1950s, Jim McGarrah spent his days pursuing dreams of athletic glory on the baseball diamond, becoming captain of his high school's baseball team, and winning, for a time, the affections of a blond cheerleader, escorting her to dates at the local drive-in in his 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. Although he earned a baseball scholarship to college, McGarrah flunked out of school in May 1967 and, on the way home, enlisted for service in the U.S. Marine Corps, causing his father, a veteran of World War II, to warn him he had no idea what he had just done. In his memoir, McGarrah, today a poet and writer from southern Indiana, examines in detail his peacetime life in Indiana, his indoctrination into the cult of the marines as a fledgling warrior in basic training at Parris Island in South Carolina, and his introduction to the life of a combat soldier in Vietnam observing bulging body bags at an air base's morgue in Da Nang and going to his first assignment armed with a malfunctioning M-16 rifle. Many years later, the former private first class, serial number 2371586, realized that for him, home had become "the jungles of Vietnam, the one place where life was at its best and worst simultaneously every minute of every day." The book also includes the author's days with a small marine Combat Action Group trying to win the hearts and minds of Vietnamese in the village of Gia Le, his wounding by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade during the height of the Tet Offensive, and dealing with his war memories back home in the United States. In August 2005, at the age of fifty-seven, McGarrah returned to Vietnam, visiting the sites of his former battles with his son and sharing memories of the past and future with a Vietnamese poet in a graceful peace ceremony in Hue.
A Temporary Sort of Peace
A Temporary Sort of Peace
Indiana Historical Society Press. 2007.
A Review by Gary E. May
The title for this work immediately betrays what McGarrah believes about his Vietnam experiences—it is not easily wrestled into submission and there may be additional demons lurking in the recesses of the vast memory files. McGarrah, a Professor of Creative Writing, demonstrates his prodigious writing skills in this engaging, accessible and brutally honest work. His tentativeness, perhaps reflecting anxiety about the unknown, seems to blunt his introspection and critical self analysis.
After the opening scene set in a VA Mental Hygiene Clinic where he is being assessed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while thoughts of Vietnam intrude, McGarrah begins his recollections with his life and upbringing in Princeton, Indiana. He was an accomplished prep athlete with what is described as a forceful, driving father, a mostly unavailable mother and a younger sister. While McGarrah provides a detailed, gut wrenching description of his relationship with his father when he was challenged about being caught in a lie, most of his treatment of his family relationships provide only a tease and leaves much to the imagination to determine what family life was like and how it might help explain McGarrah's rash decision to join the Marines after flunking out of college.
The description of the early years is appropriately seasoned by teen male obsession with sex and ham-handed encounters with dating, petting and romance. McGarrah recounts the loss of the object of his sexual fantasy to a competing suitor, but shirks this experience as unimportant even while he acknowledges the preeminence of this relationship in his life. Much remains unsaid.
McGarrah's Vietnam tour, described in detail that rivals Caputo's Rumor of War, is pretty standard fare by this time. The novelty of Vietnam's particular horrors in the annals of combat has been dulled by its retelling in several popular works over the past few decades. And yet, by the time we get to Vietnam with McGarrah we have a "connection" with him, and we care what happens, not least when he is wounded during the Tet offensive in 1968—his is far from a detached regurgitation of facts only.
Just as we care about McGarrah in Vietnam, we care about him upon his return. This, too, is a familiar scenario of drugs, jobs, broken relationships, soul searching, existential crises, wandering and confusion. McGarrah's writing style connects with the reader. The descriptions of fraternity parties, anonymous sex, youthful naiveté, idealism, geographic remedies, and blatant stupidity are engaging. An informed reader is reminded of psychologist John Wilson's description of Vietnam veterans as teens with a middle aged frame of reference that was launched forward at hyper speed impelled by experiences in Vietnam, although McGarrah seems oblivious to this as he tells his story.
Having achieved the credentials of legitimacy with a MFA degree, McGarrah joined the academy as a Professor of Creative Writing. He taught at the university that employs me. There he distinguished himself as a good, passionate teacher who challenged his students to do their best work. I am personally familiar with exemplary work he did with one student, Joe Sayyah, a Vietnam veteran who died from Agent Orange poisoning. McGarrah gave this student a creative outlet for his angst, an understanding ear, and gentle incentives to do his best work in creating a legacy of his own.
In 2005, McGarrah received a Faculty Research and Creative Works Award to return to Vietnam with his adult son, John. This was obviously a significant opportunity for McGarrah to write the epilogue for the book. He was able to meet with a noted Vietnamese poet, Vo Que. Touring and chatting with this nationally recognized poet was obviously a highlight for McGarrah, as was the peace ceremony where he and Vo Que wrote and recited original poems intended to heal spiritual scars. Overall, the description of the return’s pathos pales when compared to the works of Scurfield and other Vietnam veterans who have returned to Vietnam, many of whom adopted more deeply introspective and evaluative perspectives.
McGarrah's understated account of the return to Vietnam (“home”) embodies a substantial dissipation of energy and enthusiasm for the trip. For example, in a taxi ride, McGarrah and his son pass a temple that was the site of a horrific battle during McGarrah’s tour. His immediate reaction, “Goddamn it.” When questioned by his son, he says, “I blew that temple up. I’m in the middle of my old base camp. The government must have left it as some kind of reminder, which is ironic since both governments encourage your generation to forget”, to which John responds, “It’s better economics to forget one war,..That makes it easier to start a new one.” This exchange closes with McGarrah’s understated hope that his son’s awareness of history’s tendency to repeat will lead toward the wisdom to change.
There are contemporary photographs throughout the book. For someone who shares McGarrah's experiences as a Marine, and as one who grew up in the same county and time frame as the author, I personally found the photos to be an affront to aging. That's not the way we look today; we've aged, and that's part of the story. That said, readers of our generation will find in these photos powerful anchors to Midwest America baby boomer upbringing.
This is an important contribution to the growing volumes of "Vietnam books". Its strongest points are the writing style, the engagement of readers, the description of war's aftermath and its tentative hopefulness. The reader is likely to feel unfulfilled and "left hanging" about McGarrah's family dynamics and his underdeveloped insights about "what it all means". Finally, readers will feel hopeful that McGarrah's journey and search for meaning will continue, resulting in a permanent peace, rather than 'a temporary sort of peace,' for him.
Caputo, P. A Rumor of War. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York. 1977.
Wilson, J.P. Identity, Ideology, and Crisis: the Vietnam Veteran in Transition: a Partial and Preliminary Report Submitted to the Disabled American Veterans Association on the Forgotten Warrior Project. Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. 1977.
Scurfield, R.M. Healing Journeys: Study Abroad with Vietnam Veterans. Vol. 2 of a Vietnam Trilogy. Algora Publishing, New York, NY. 2006.
Gary E. May is an Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern Indiana, and a Vietnam veteran newly elected to the National Board of Veterans For Peace
Story Tellers Shed Light on Horrors of War
Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war
June 5th, 2008
by Jerry Waxler
Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.
I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what it was I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.
While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.
Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.
Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”
Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.
Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.
Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using Hector’s body as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.
Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.
“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.
The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah leaves the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.
By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.
For an excellent, readable clinical explanation of PTSD, and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.
For an account of another type of trauma, all too common in civilian life, read Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky. To read my essay about Alice Sebold’s traumatic memoir, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.
Other war trauma books:
Tracy Kidder, My Detachment
Tobias Wolff, In the Pharoah’s Army
William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness
Note: Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to actually increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.
Note: Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.
Betrayal shatters faith in the world.
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.
The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.
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