Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Today I am a bit tired and going to post something that basically is a rerun with a few edits. Twelve years ago today I stepped off a plane with the man who had been my body guard and assistant for the past seven months in Iraq. War had changed me more than I had every imagined that it would. Even though I was physically home I wasn’t home, the war remained with me, and in some ways it still does.
I have written about my struggles with what I sometimes describe as the “Demons of PTSD”. While I am doing much better now than even two years ago, in large part due to a change in duties when I was informed that the Navy had miscalculated my retirement date, moving it four months further out. I love my new billet and I am enjoying the ministry of caring for people without pretense, regardless of their faith, or if they don’t believe at all.
Now I still deal and suffer from PTSD, but, the fact that I am a historian has allowed me to find connections to other men who have suffered from their experience of war, came home changed, and struggled for their existence in the world that they came home to.
The words of men who I never met, have helped me to frame my experience even in the darkest times often in ways that my faith did not. One of the things that I struggled with the most and still do is sleep. When I was conducting my research on the Battle of Gettysburg I got to know through biographies and their own writings a good number of the men who fought that battle who are now remembered as heroes. One of these was Major General Gouveneur Warren who has shattered by his experiences during the war. He wrote to his wife after the war: “I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” By the way I see my sleep doctor next week.
About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from Iraq. I didn’t get a chance to re-read it today, but a while back I read a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary, which he wrote in the time shortly after the First World War. The title is a reference to the song It’s a Long, Long Way, to Tipperary which was written by Henry James “Harry Williams and co-credited to his partner Jack Judge as a music hall song in 1912. It became very popular before the war, but became a world wide hit when George Curnock, a correspondent for the Daily Mail saw the Irish Connaught Rangers Regiment singing it as they marched through the Belgian port of Boulogne on August 13th 1914 on their way to face the German Army. Curnock made his report several days later, and soon many units in the British Army adopted it. It became a worldwide hit when Irish Tenor John McCormack recorded it in November 1914.
Interestingly enough the song, like the German song Lili Marlene is that it is a call back to home, not a call to battle.
I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano. In a number of later comic strips, Charles Schulz, had Snoopy refer to it a number of times, in one strip, exhausted by his march, a tired Snoopy lays down and notes: “They’re right, it is a long way to Tipperary.” I do understand that.
But, back to Santayana’s soliloquy, he comments on the wounded officers that he sees singing the song in a coffee house and he wonders if they understand how different the world is now. I love the song, the chorus is below.
It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
farewell to Piccadilly
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there
“It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.
I wonder what they think Tipperary means for this is a mystical song. Probably they are willing to leave it vague, as they do their notions of honour or happiness or heaven. Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come ; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves ; they forget their wounds ; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing had happened…
So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.”
In the same work Santayana mused on the nature of humanity and war, making one of his most famous observation “only the dead have seen the end of war.”
In the United States we live in a world where war is an abstraction and the vast majority of people have no clue about it or its cost. When I hear the current American President make wild threats of war, and the cavalier attitude of his predominantly Evangelical Christian sycophants toward it, I realize that Santayana was right, only the dead have seen the end of war.
When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war. As a historian I was reminded of the words of Guy Sajer in his book The Forgotten Soldier. Sajer was a French Alsacian of German descent who spent nearly four years fighting as an ordinary infantry soldier on the Eastern Front. When he returned home he struggled and he wrote:
“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”
A similar reflection was made by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quite on the Western Front:
“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”
I have to admit that for the better part of the past dozen years, when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowed places, confined area, and other places that I don’t feel safe in. When I am out I always am on alert, and while I don’t have quite the hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that I once lived with, I am much more aware of my surroundings and always plan an escape route from any public venue that I happen to find myself. Likewise, I still deal with terribly physical nightmares and night terrors, more than one a month.
As I read and re-read Santayana words I came back to his observation of the officers that he saw in the coffee house and I could see myself in them:
“I suddenly heard a once familiar strain, now long despised and out of favour, the old tune of Tipperary. In a coffee-house frequented at that hour some wounded officers from the hospital at Somerville were singing it, standing near the bar; they were breaking all rules, both of surgeons and of epicures, and were having champagne in the morning. And good reason they had for it. They were reprieved, they should never have to go back to the front, their friends such as were left could all come home alive. Instinctively the old grumbling, good-natured, sentimental song, which they used to sing when they first joined, came again into their minds.
It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.”
I too am now in my own Tipperary on this side of the Atlantic. In a sense I have been reprieved, although I observe things every day that take me back to Iraq. The news from that unfortunate country, the indifference of a government and President that talk much about the military, but in their actions often demean military personnel and have no problems with gutting the medical and mental health systems of the military and the Veterans Administration, but that is an article for another time. In fact I spent this evening writing this and watching anything but the State of the Union Address, I cannot bear the lies. When I see and hear them I remember the words of T. E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia:
“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”
But as Santayana noted “it s a long, long way that the world has to go,” as do I, for it really is a long, long, way to Tipperary.