Over the last few days, a couple of stories about telling our stories have crossed my radar. The first was an article in Good Housekeeping titled “The Story That Can Change Your Life” (no link available), and the second was this article in the New York Times: This Is Your Life and How You Tell It. Both articles happen to quote the same expert, Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, The Redemptive Self. The emphasis of both articles is that those who are able to find the redemptive qualities in the narrative of their own lives are more resilient.
Tonight I bought these two books:
The books could not be more different from each other–except that the main characters (who, in Tiger Force, happen to be real people) have committed what appear to be (and maybe are) unforgivable acts. Tiger Force is an account of the controversial and horrifying actions of an elite special ops group in Vietnam called Tiger Force.
The second, The Outlander, begins in 1903, as a young widow runs deep into the wilderness to escape the wrath of two brothers of her husband. He died at her hand, and they are determined to avenge his death.
Surprisingly and to the authors’ credit, given the subject matter, Tiger Force reads like fiction. Its authors, Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss are journalists who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story in 2003 in the pages of The Toledo Blade. They spent years researching and conducting interviews around the world, and also uncovered a staggering amount of classified information. Even if you never read the book, their series of articles gives you a thorough and (I believe) fair picture of the events and of the soldiers who were involved, and also of the cover-up that followed.
I became familiar with the story a few years ago when I was researching the Phoenix Program, which I’ve discussed before in another post. However, I didn’t know that Sallah and Weiss had expanded their research into a 400 page book. I found it tonight, very much by accident, and sat down to read the first pages. Despite the ease of its narrative style, I won’t enjoy reading this book–the subject matter is too dark and painful. Yet it is the sort of book that I feel like I have a responsibility to read, no matter what conclusions I draw at the end of it.
There was a massive burying of evidence. Everyone involved was under orders not to talk about what happened, and the cover-up led all the way back to the White House. Almost 40 years of public silence preceded the breaking of the story.
Far too long, if you ask me.
But there are other stories that simply take that much time to percolate, I think. Very personal stories, especially. It can take that long and maybe longer for them to get steady on their feet, like a foal struggling to stand. I know that to be true of my own stories. There wasn’t a day before the one on which I began to write about certain events in my childhood when it would have been possible for me to put it all down in the right words. That was the day, the day when enough time had passed and I had found enough perspective (and borrowed courage) to be able to tell what happened in the most honest and fair light.
And, yes, I managed to find a few redemptive qualities in those experiences.
I suspect that once I get a bit further into The Outlander, I will find out why the 19-year-old widow killed her husband, and I won’t judge her for it.
Maybe some of you will question my moral compass when I say that I might find it hard, in the end, to judge most (and maybe all) of the men of Tiger Force, after I look at all of the events and conditions and, especially, the chain of command. That doesn’t mean I dismiss or excuse what they did.
But I wasn’t there. And they were under orders, both specific and ambiguous, that flew in the face of the most basic humanity. Upon reading some of the stories, my most visceral reactions will take over, and (from what I know of the events already) I will be disgusted and my insides will coil tightly around things that are too awful to think about. But just after that, I will do what we should all do, as citizens of a country whose government acts in our name: I will ask questions about who is ultimately responsible for what happened, and those questions will link together like a chain, and that chain will lead me to a conclusion I can either live with, or not.
I do know that it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to find my way around that conclusion than it is for the people in Vietnam (or, insert country of choice and war of choice) who still live with their losses, and for the soldiers who, to this day, live with the demons that followed them home.
When it comes to war, there aren’t always redemptive qualities to be found, and sometimes none at all. I don’t have any platitudes to set down here like a tray of sweet cookies at the end of lunch. I can’t say that if we’re lucky, we live through it all and, after enough time has passed, we tell the stories. I won’t say that there is something to be learned from every story. Sometimes there’s nothing good to be found, not even under the very last rock we turn over.
Finding redemption can take a long time. Sometimes forever.