Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The struggle to understand the struggle

There's an old saying that the lawyer who defends himself in court represents a fool. I wonder if this axiom can also be applied to psychoanalysis?

Because even though I'm no psychiatrist, I've been trying to psychoanalyze myself some lately. Dangerous territory to be sure.

I've noticed that recently my reading list has been almost exclusively about tragedies. I've always enjoyed history, especially American history, but now it's become almost obsessive.

Late last year I read Flags of our Fathers, which was recently made into a movie by Clint Eastwood. It's the story of the invasion of Iwo Jima and that most famous photograph of all time of six men raising the flag on the splintered volcanic rock of Mount Suribachi. The book was written by the son of one of those men, a Navy corpsman who by all accounts was incredibly brave and effective throughout the weeks of battle.

And this son, one of several children born after the war and raised in a loving home, knew almost nothing about his father's fame. You would think a hero such as one of the flag raisers immortalized in the photograph, and later in the largest bronze statue in the world, would be proud to talk about his service to his country and his accomplishments under fire.

But he did not. He barely spoke of the war even to his own children, with the result that it was not until after he died that his own children learned that he had received the Navy Cross, an award that is second only to the Medal of Honor.

The book is the result of his son's investigation into what his father really did on Iwo Jima and why he almost never spoke of it. And without spoiling the book for anyone, the simple answer is this: horror. What those young men did and saw and participated in on Iwo Jima were some of the most frightening and awful events in military history. It was not just a few terrifying hours or days of battle. Iwo Jima devoured the lives of the fighting men sent there for a full month, day after day devouring young lives and feeding on the refusal of the Japanese to give up the futile battle. The horror they experienced chewed at the survivors for the rest of their lives.

It was, I must report, a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Soon after that, I read In Harm's Way, an account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the ship that is remembered in history as the ship that crossed the Pacific Ocean in record time to deliver the first atomic bomb to the air base on Tinian Island. It is also famous as the ship that was either overlooked or forgotten a few days later and was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in the shark-infested waters of the south Pacific. The book is the story of how about 900 men went into the water, but just 317 were rescued four days later when the Navy finally realized a ship was missing. This, too, was a book about the horrors of war, and in this case, the chewing was not metaphorical.

Most recently I read 102 Minutes, a change of pace of sorts from my prior reading. This one was about what went on inside the World Trade Center towers on September 11 during the 102 minutes between when the first plane hit and when the last tower collapsed. Through interviews with survivors, official transcripts of 911 calls, police and fire department radio recordings, and from accounts of the final emails and phone calls of those who would not survive the day, the book recounts the struggle of people trapped and rescuers who tried to save them. Ultimately, many of the rescuers themselves became victims of the attack.

And now I'm reading The Killer Angels, another war story, but this time historical fiction about the Battle of Gettysburg.

I've enjoyed them all.

So here is where I take to the couch and begin to ask myself probing, personal questions: How can I, a resident of flood-ravaged New Orleans, find pleasure in reading about these tragedies? Why am I not reading "happy" books, like The Cat who Came for Christmas or Confederacy of Dunces? You know, books that make you laugh or fill you with the warm glow of human kindness?

The answer I've come up with is based in part on a movie review I read many years ago. In the 1970's, there was a succession of popular disaster movies, including "The Poseidon Adventure," "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno." A reviewer at the time wondered how it was that Americans, weathering the oil crisis and stagflation among other things, would want to see such movies. Movie houses were, after all, a place to escape from every day life and its problems. So why the fascination with disaster films?

The reviewer postulated that such movies were appealing because the disasters they depicted were always an order of magnitude worse than what anyone in the audience was experiencing. Disaster movies not only validated the struggle of human existence, but also were reassuring that things were not as bad as they could be.

Perhaps movie-goers walked out of the theater thinking, "Man, I'm glad I don't have to deal with that." And in contrast, they felt better about their lives and their struggles.

This is my amateur self-psychoanalysis then: perhaps when I read about soldiers, sailors and Marines dying in war or innocent people being murdered on 9-11, it makes me feel better about our situation here in New Orleans. Perhaps it helps me cope, to somehow appreciate what we have here.

As long as I'm pretending to be a competent psychoanalyst, I will further suggest that it is not the struggle that is most difficult here in New Orleans. Hard work is simply hard work, and for many, the hard work we've been pressed to do as a result of Hurricane Katrina is no more or less difficult than any other work anywhere else in this world.

The more daunting struggle here is to understand the struggle. How could we let this happen? What did we do to deserve this? How are we going to get out of this mess? What could we have done differently? What should we do differently in the future?

These are the questions that push people over the edge. When you hear about people snapping under the pressure, succumbing to the conditions here, it's not the hard work that's getting to them.

Okay, enough for now. I'm hopping off the couch, going back to being an engineer, husband and father. And I'm going back to my books, too. Generals Lee and Longstreet are riding toward Gettysburg and the first day of the battle, and I already know that General Pickett will get his moment of bloody glory on the battlefield in a charge that will eclipse all his prior brave deeds.


adrastos said...

Great post Tim. My father was a vet of the pacific campaign, had a few medals and NEVER told war stories.

Hope the tornado didn't menace y'all.

Marco said...

Again, another great post. The questions of struggle are the toughest. The people of New Orleans need more voices like yours.
Happy Mardi Gras to you and your family.

judyb said...

Thanks, Tim for being the voice of sanity in this insane place.

Sophmom said...

Beautiful post, Tim. You ask big questions. Happy Mardi Gras, darlin'.