Each of us who has come home from war has experienced the return in our own way. Some were embraced by a loving family; others were alone. Some were respected by friends, while others were feared by neighbors. Many adjusted quickly to the comparative peace of their previous lives, while some never adjusted at all, tormented by the demons of combat and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is on this latter group of soldiers that Marguerite Bouvard focuses her attention in The Invisible Wounds of War through individual stories that, though incredibly moving, perpetuate many of the sensationalized stereotypes that have plagued the veteran community.
In the last few years, there have been a number of books intended to open a window into the experience of the modern soldier and combat veteran, including David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service (Sarah Crichton Books, 2013), Yochi Dreazen’s The Invisible Front (Crown, 2014), and Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekeran’s For Love of Country (Knopf, 2014). Bouvard’s book, published in 2012, predates all of these and even anticipated many of the issues that have made recent headlines, including military sexual assault, controversy within the Department of Veterans Affairs (including a story of one veteran who received an appointment for trauma counseling 3 weeks after he committed suicide), as well as the philosophical issues associated with maintaining an all-volunteer force. In that regard, it is worth reading to see how these themes have evolved over time and to get a personal sense of how they affected real people.
Much of the book, though, is written in an anecdotal tone of hearsay, with many needless citations given for banal details, while wild claims are neither put into context nor supported with evidence. Because these stories are strung together without pausing to consider the context of the situation, the book misses the chance to connect with the larger conversation about military veterans. In many cases, the author is unable to distance herself from her subject, veering too often into the political and seemingly selecting her samples to confirm her convictions. In the chapter on mothers, a subject about which the author has written several books, it is somewhat surprising that every single mother was upset when her child decided to join the military. Several mothers even try to talk their children out of it.
The book’s biggest issue is its propagation of numerous negative stereotypes about veterans. Bouvard contends that “returning soldiers harbor a grief that is not widely understood” and that “they can’t come home [because] . . . these memories will never go away. When soldiers drive down a highway or a road in Illinois, Nevada, New York, Colorado, or any other place, they look at rooftops and overpasses to make certain there are no enemies waiting with rifles.” But her conclusions and narrative are driven by a few interviews with select individual veterans and family members and then told as if representative of the entire population—everyone in this book suffers from PTSD.
In a few cases, Bouvard evokes dangerous sensationalism. “Veterans return in combat mode,” she writes, “which gives them the ability to respond instantly with deadly force. They are in perpetual mobilization for danger, endurance, and hyper-arousal.” And in a later paragraph, she claims, “because soldiers have to distance themselves from emotions suffered during a horrific war, their feelings often flare up at unexpected times after returning to civilian life.” If the book is meant as a way to engage civilians in understanding the emotions of war veterans, how will they come away thinking about them?
Even with these problems, much of the book is poignant and excellent, such as her description of soldiers walking long distances and waiting in lines just to get a few minutes on the phone to call their wives or families. The author is at her best when writing about the emotions and reactions of an individual person rather than making generalizations about all veterans. Her expert description of how families grieve and mourn their loved ones, whether lost in combat or to suicide, is some of the book’s best material. It is easy to let those we have lost as a country become a set of faceless numbers, but Bouvard refuses to allow that. She also captures the complex emotions of coming home and readjusting to civilian life, including the feelings of dissociation from others so familiar to those of us who have gone through it ourselves.
The book may be designed to spur readers to action, to force them to spring from their comfortable lives outside these wars and immediately find the closest veteran and shower him or her with care and affection. If you take the message too literally, though, you might come away with the impression that everyone who has served in the military is suffering and that the only way to ease their pain is to pity them.
Bouvard should be commended for her attempt to reach out, even if too much of her book is based on clichés and the unfortunately common philosophy of thinking that veterans have a monopoly on suffering that civilians cannot understand. She writes, “Living in the present, civilians have the luxury of managing their memories. We all have both good and difficult memories, but we are able to turn them off if we wish.” But a person who has had a friend killed in a car crash or lost a relative to an unexpected disease—or who experiences any of the feelings of grief central to the human existence—can sympathize, if not empathize. We should not try to single out veterans as the owners of traumatic loss, but rather use that loss as a starting point to form bonds with others who have felt the same. Each side in the civilian-military conversation would benefit from sharing their stories with each other, as well as listening to the stories of their counterparts. JFQ