Not so long ago I asked the author what he was reading. His reply:
From time to time I try to fill the gaps in my education by reading authors I neglected in younger days. Not long ago I pulled down from a library shelf a volume of Walt Whitman. I hadn't read Whitman since taking a college freshman course in American Literature.Visit Thomas W. Young's website and blog.
Back then, I read--or skimmed, more likely--a few Whitman poems only because the syllabus required it. What possible relevance could this long-dead nineteenth century poet have to my life? His verses seemed mere relics, like rusting sabres from the Civil War. That long-ago conflict inspired much of his writing, and when I first read Whitman, his poetry did not speak to me. With apathy, I completed the assignment, and then I forgot about Whitman.
In the years that followed, I pursued a career in journalism. I got married. I took an interest in flying and joined the Air National Guard.
I went to war.
And the next time I opened a collection of Whitman poetry, his images lifted off the page with the vividness of tracer fire. If I hadn't known the poet was dead and gone, I might have taken him for a present-day embedded reporter. His poetry speaks of the torments of delayed stress, the sufferings of the wounded, the vigils for the dead.
Whitman witnessed (and perhaps suffered) post-traumatic stress disorder long before anyone coined the phrase. In his day, they called it "soldier's heart" or "nostalgia." In "The Veteran's Vision," Whitman describes the night haunts of PTSD:
There in the room, as I wake from sleep, this vision presses upon me:
The engagement opens there and then, in my busy brain unreal;
The skirmishers begin...
We're still wrestling with how to deal with PTSD. But these verses remind us that we've known about the phenomenon for a long time.
Another phenomenon as old as battle is the painful aftermath of combat, the ministrations of doctors, the struggles of the wounded. Whitman served as an attendant in military hospitals, and his descriptions in "The Wound-Dresser" would ring true to any medic serving in Afghanistan.
The crush'd head I dress (poor crazed hand, tear not the bandage away);
The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye,
yet life struggles hard.
I have seen Critical Care Air Transport teams offer the same tender attention to victims of roadside bombs. The CCATs fly with patients who travel while still under intensive care. Sometimes those patients fight minute-by-minute battles for life at thirty thousand feet.
At about that altitude, aboard a home-bound C-5 Galaxy over the middle of the Atlantic, I experienced a moment much like one Whitman described in his poem "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night."
Vigil of silence, love and death--vigil for you, my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole;
When I read these lines, I recalled that I flew on that mission as a scanner, a flight engineer tasked with keeping an eye on the condition of the airplane. To make my rounds, I opened the avionics compartment doors, sniffed for any hint of electrical fire. I descended the ladder to the cargo compartment. Downstairs, I checked hydraulic reservoirs for quantity. I took off a glove and felt the battery case for thermal runaway. I peered outside at what little I could see of the engines. I played a flashlight beam across tubes and hoses to check for leaks.
Duties complete, I sat on the catwalk and looked at our cargo: six transfer cases, each draped with an American flag.
So many questions came to mind. What had been these soldiers' hopes and dreams? What shattered families awaited their return? Why did I get to sit there, perfectly healthy and probably twice their age, when their lives had ended so soon?
A vigil strange, indeed, and it brought no answers.
The war Whitman wrote about touched every American then alive. We cannot say the same about our modern-day conflicts, fought by volunteers who make up less than one percent of the population. The troops don't necessarily ask that you join them, only that you pay attention, that you have at least some idea of how and where they fight and why.
You can do that by following the news, by reading the papers and watching the broadcasts. By reading the memoirs of veterans. And by revisiting the timeless words of Whitman--with the knowledge that as you read them, someone somewhere is experiencing them all over again.
My Book, The Movie: The Mullah's Storm.
Writers Read: Thomas W. Young (August 2011).