The Public Humanist

The Ancient Art of Un-forgetting

These few words were written to introduce Jon Peede and Andrew Carroll, the creators and guiding spirits of Operation Homecoming, at a recent public meeting of the Pioneer Valley Veterans Writers Project, sponsored by the Veterans Education Project. Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, founded and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004, has, in the ensuing years, encouraged and enabled veterans and their families to write their personal stories, for now and for the future.


Decades ago, while in “stage one” of our courtship, my wife was asked by her grandmother about me or, more specifically, about “what I did.” Told that I studied and taught “all things ancient,” her only comment was “how remote” (and presumably harmless). In that instance, however, this acutely perceptive woman was, on both counts, mistaken; for the past is never truly past, much less remote, and the truth, however ancient, is rarely, if ever, harmless.

Offered the remarkable privilege of “thinking out loud” for several minutes about the profound endeavor known as “Operation Homecoming, which has inspired our local “Pioneer Valley Veterans Writers Project.” I will then, “in character” as it were, suggest a few ancient and, I trust, relevant thoughts about the past and about the truth to be found there.

It’s a truism that no one goes off to war and comes back the same. This is no less true for being a truism. Truisms, after all, are things that we all know to be true but that we rarely spend any time thinking about, often because we prefer not to. The truism expressed by a drunken, brazen Herakles in Euripides’ tragicomedy of Alcestis is a case in point:

We’re all gonna die, friend… so listen up… we gotta think mortal thoughts and live while we can. It’s all we’ve got. And, in your prayers, don’t forget Aphrodite.

Now there’s a sweet little goddess…

Another truth that doesn’t quite qualify as a truism because not everyone knows it, although they should, is that wars are not over when they’re over. They leave behind wreckage and wounds. Warriors bring their war home with them, not like a tan acquired on holiday but like a secret they wish they hadn’t been told.

What about that secret? After the wars of the twentieth century — especially those wars labeled “great” and “good”— the common wisdom passed on to veterans from every side regarding what they now knew and others didn’t was to: “let it go” — “leave it alone and it will leave you alone” — “leave it behind and it will stay there.” All this made — and makes — perfect sense, except to veterans. “Alone”… “behind”… how convenient! To the uninitiated: common sense. To the warrior come home: silent betrayal.

Why betrayal? What’s wrong with forgetting what we wish we had never learned? Why not “sweet oblivion”? Enter the ancients, because they have something to say that perhaps we have not heard yet or thought about lately.

Curiously, the word for “the past” in ancient Greek means that which we face, and the word for “the future” means that which is behind our back. What sense, we ask, does that make? Don’t we walk into the future with our back to the past? In that case, however, as the Greeks see it, we are walking blind. Yes, of course, our eyes face forward, time’s inevitable direction, and ours as well. But, as we do so, as we move through the time of our lives, it’s the past that we can see and the future to which we are blind. As Homer describes it, the future and, inevitably, death stalk us from behind, our blind side. We cannot see death coming, but we know it is. The fact is that when we leave our past behind — forgetting it or banishing it — like Oedipus, we take out our own eyes and start over, not knowing who we are or what we are doing. Wise and helping voices like those of W.H.R. Rivers, Judith Herman, Jonathan Shay, Jon Peede, Andrew Carroll and for the last three decades our Valley’s own Veterans Education Project, have been saying just this to veterans of all too many wars, speaking out against the repression of war experience in favor of remembering the past, finding its narrative, and learning to tell what Vietnam veteran and acclaimed author Tim O’Brien describes as the all too elusive and unwelcome genre: “the true war story.”

Easier said than done. And the ancients knew why. The trouble is, in Herakleitos’ words, “the true nature of things likes to hide.” To complicate matters further, we like to hide from it as well. If the truth is what we are after, because — to cite still another truism — it will set us free, then the ancient Greeks again have light to shed on our task. The Greek word for truth is aletheia, which literally means that which we have somehow managed to un-forget. The root concept here is “lethe” or oblivion. You may recall that in Greek myth “Lethe” is the river crossed by the dead on their way to Hades. In crossing over it we forget forever our pasts, our lives, and who we are and enter Hades, which no one has ever called a place of sweet oblivion. Oblivion yes; sweet no. It is the land of the lost. In coming back from there, where some of us sometimes find ourselves, even in life, we must row hard against the waters of River Lethe. Un-forgetting, remembering, is long, hard, and always harrowing work. The fruit of this work is stories, true stories. And these stories, for combat veterans, can be a matter of life and death, as Tim O’Brien reminds us in The Things They Carried:

All those Stories. Not bloody stories necessarily. Happy stories, too, and even a few peace stories.… That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

An exhibit of portraits of local veterans by photographer David Turner can be viewed until June 5 at the Gallery at the Hallmark Instituted in Turners Falls.

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