The Forever War on Terror and Thanking Our Veterans

Palaima: This season, put ourselves in the shoes of others
6:00 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014 | Print December 25, 2014

Story Highlights:
—Dr. Ronald Glasser’s classic book “365 Days” is distilled from his service as a surgeon during the Vietnam War.
—Palaima: We do not know how to see veterans as individuals, often with deep personal wounds.

Palaima: This season, put ourselves in the shoes of others
Posted: 6:00 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

There are 365 days in our non-leaping years. Let us hope we have spent our days in 2014 well, because we are never getting them back.

In the days from Thanksgiving through the seasons of Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanzaa, we naturally focus on our own families. But a discussion I have been having with someone to whom 365 days were so meaningful that he wrote a book of that title, published way back in 1971, invites us to think about others in a broader sense.

His name is Dr. Ronald J. Glasser. His classic book “365 Days” is distilled from his service as a surgeon to the most critically wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War. “365 Days” should be read and reread alongside other books containing the truths about war by those who have experienced war firsthand. But there is more to be done than reading and developing the classic feelings of sympathy and fear.

Dr. Glasser recommended to me Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” about Iraq, being there and coming back. I read it.

He then told me that it and other books written by and about soldiers and veterans of our prolonged military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how powerful, felt to him like “individual efforts unconnected to anything else,” more or less about “our French Foreign Legion rather than our country,” where the things that happen are “all just kind of individual bad luck.”

This put into words some of my own feelings about how we have been invited to look at our ongoing “war on terror,” our “forever war,” to use the title of Dexter Filkins’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on the subject. When do we question publicly or privately whether we should support the loss of American and non-American lives in distant lands?

In “Redeployment,” a veteran meets up with a chaplain he knew over in Iraq. He is still seeking, almost unknowingly, help for his anger, sorrow, guilt and moral confusion. The chaplain points to the small cross on his collar, calls the cross on which Jesus died “a torture device” and declares that Jesus “only promised that we don’t suffer alone,” so long as we believe in Him. What the chaplain’s words imply about the isolation from all of us felt by many soldiers and veterans every single day is almost too terrible to contemplate.

Ron’s words made me hear again the invocation before a Texas A&M football game in College Station in November. We, over 100,000 strong, were invited to pray in thanks for the men and women “defending our country every day in foreign lands.” We were not invited to pray for peace or to ask God that our leaders might find a better way to use the lives of all those men and women for the good of our society and the world.

I have other new words to ponder, spoken by a new friend, Joseph A. Costello. Costello is 33 years old, the age scholars hypothesize Jesus was when he was tortured and died upon the cross. Joseph served in the U.S. Army in Iraq during the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is finishing a master’s in information science at the University of Texas at Austin as a prelude to doing graduate studies, he hopes, in social work. His goal is “to work with traumatized populations to help alleviate burdens of trauma related to issues such as combat experience.”

Joseph told me that, like many veterans, he has had trouble processing the guilt and shame about what we are doing with our soldiers and contractors in the Middle East. He finds it especially troubling when as a veteran he is thanked for his service by people who do not know, or even seem to want to know, what effects the chaos and violence and amorality and senselessness of fighting a “war on terror” have on the men and women who are doing the fighting and on the men, women and children in foreign countries who are in the way of our shocking and awful military power.

We do not know how to see veterans as individuals, often with deep personal wounds. We take the easy way out. We thank them all and ask God to bless them and us.

Let us all resolve to look at and think about war, soldiers and veterans and our own relatively peaceful lives differently on each of the 365 days we are given in the year ahead.

Tom Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas.

Charlie Strong’s core values should match the rest of UT


Palaima: Charlie Strong’s core values should match the rest of UT

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 Austin American-Statesman print October 26, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

There are many occasions for us to wonder how or why people in positions of authority make the decisions, adopt the policies or say the things that they say, without their advisers offering forceful objections beforehand or anyone offering criticism at the time or after the fact.

There are many reasons for this. It is not easy to speak frankly to people who hold and use power. Few leaders follow Abraham Lincoln’s sound policy of having as his Cabinet a team of rivals who naturally viewed issues differently than he did and said so. It is also hard to dig down to underlying assumptions or to see hidden implications.

Praise has been heaped on University of Texas at Austin head football coach Charlie Strong for adopting and enforcing a strict set of five core values for student athletes on the UT football team. In late September, Strong spoke forthrightly in person to the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, about National Collegiate Athletic Association programs sending “players with questionable character” to the NFL where the mix of bad character and lots of money “accentuates the problem.”

Yet the very core values that Strong has enunciated indicate how out of synch big-time college sports programs are with the cultural values of the educational institutions with which they are, in some views, only loosely affiliated.

Imagine, if you will, a general pool of non-athlete prospective students who have expressed interest in enrolling at UT, or Stanford University or Stephen F. Austin State University.

During a campus visit, these would-be students and their parents listen intently to the dean of students or the university president or the head of the physics department. What they hear is this: “Our core values are the same as Charlie Strong’s. If your sons and daughters come here, they will learn to treat women with respect, be honest, and no stealing, drugs or guns.” There is a good chance those students and their parents would probably think that they had accidentally found their ways into a youth correctional facility.

There is a night and day difference between the UT football program’s core values and the core values that UT promotes for the other 75,000 students, faculty and staff: “The core values of The University of Texas at Austin are learning, discovery, freedom, leadership, individual opportunity, and responsibility. Each member of the university is expected to uphold these values through integrity, honesty, trust, fairness, and respect toward peers and community.”

Far from finding Strong’s core values laudable, I find them troubling, even demeaning to the true student athletes in his program. They point out a Grand Canyon separation in attitudes and outlooks between students and faculty on one side and student athletes and coaches on the other.

Strong’s idea that somehow bad character is reinforced, or at least not corrected, only during the few years — often less than four — when student athletes are actively participating in NCAA programs is also questionable. The corruption begins when NCAA recruiters start contacting prospective athletes even before they are in high school. Young athletes start losing touch with reality from that point right on through to when national television networks broadcast as events of major importance where a high school athlete during his senior year has decided to “go to college.”

The disconnection between big-time NCAA athletics and serious higher education is countenanced and reinforced by the policies of the NCAA and of the colleges and universities. At the University of Texas at Austin, in response to pressure from the Texas Higher Education Board, the Board of Regents, the Texas State Legislature and other state political leaders, there is now an emphasis on students graduating within four years of matriculation. UT-Austin has even appointed Vice Provost David Laude to serve as a special “graduation czar” with a hefty $291,000 salary to enforce policies that will increase our four-year graduation rates.

Yet the academic success or failure of athletics programs has been and still is determined on a six-year time schedule. Student athletes satisfy the requirements of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate if they have finished about 80 percent of their course work within four years with grade point averages of 2.0. Compare this low satisfactory GPA to the average GPA for all students at UT-Austin, around 3.2, and we can see how the Academic Progress Rate’s emphasis on maintaining sports eligibility is a disincentive regarding academic achievement.

Our colleges and universities are homes to learning. Let’s think of ways that, for athletes in major revenue sports, they can be much more than houses of correction.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

“No intermissions or applause in real stages of war” AAS October 26, 2009

Palaima: “No intermissions or applause in real stages of war”

Austin American-Statesman Monday, October 26, 2009

At the Red River Rivalry, 92,000 fans packed into the Cotton Bowl for an hour of football. Later in Austin, a few dozen veterans of America’s larger-scale shootouts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and their families crowded into a small theater space on Congress Avenue appropriately called the Hideout.

We were there because of VFW Post 856, the ZACH Theatre and Humanities Texas. We were there because of psychologist and documentary film-maker Ricardo Ainslie, because of Daphny Dominguez and Sharon Willis of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, and Don Dorsey, president of the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, Austin Chapter. The veterans were there for their own very special reasons.

All these veterans sought further healing. They wanted to share with others, veterans and non-veterans, what they had learned during their long struggles to recover their lives after what psychiatrist, veterans counselor (and champion of veterans issues), and post-traumatic stress expert Jonathan Shay calls the ruin of their good characters. Shay came down, too, from Boston to talk with them.

They were there because playwright Nick Schweitzer of Wisconsin cared enough about these former soldiers to convert Shay’s famous book “Achilles in Vietnam” into a powerful 90-minute play. They were there because director Dante Dominguez crafted the talents of 13 actors who lent their time and skills to two performances.

Michael Amendola played with formidable empathy a young veteran named Achilles, haunted by his memories of what Shay calls “betrayal of what is right” in Vietnam. Other lives intersect with Achilles’ and are affected by the human being he has become.

His wife Brenda’s parents are well-meaning. His father-in-law is a World War II vet who never saw action. His mother-in-law believes that the more enemies Achilles killed, the greater hero he was. They offer church and manly platitudes. But Achilles has lost his faith in God, and he knows he is not a hero as she uses the word. The soldiers with him in Vietnam were ‘just doing their jobs’ and trying to keep themselves and their buddies alive.

Jaime Keener made us feel the near-futility in Brenda’s patient, cautious and persevering love, as she tries to take herself and the virtual stranger her husband has become back home from Vietnam. We see the group therapy counselor and her veterans who talk truthfully and listen and start to heal.

But most of all we heard the vets themselves afterwards. “I came home after 12 months in ’68-’69 and had 30 days to get ready again. Thirty days is not enough. It’s not enough now in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Two years ago I went to see a counselor. It took me almost 40 years.”

“I know what that Afghanistan vet is saying. They are 18-19 years old. Still babies.”

“I put my wife through a hell. Why she married me and stayed with me I don’t know.” His wife stared stoically straight ahead.

“We were infantry men, incredibly skilled at a narrow part of life, at keeping people alive. Then we come back and they say we are only qualified for menial jobs.”

A whole society can betray what’s right by not listening and not caring. Get in touch with any of the people and organizations I named above. Tell them Achilles in America sent you.


Poetry and War’s Horrors

Palaima: Poetry is one way to make sense of war’s horrors

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor Posted: 6:00 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12, 2014

Austin American-Statesman PRINT EDITION Saturday September 13, 2014

NOTE: On the very day this appeared (September 13, 2014) there was coverage in the New York Times that “a group of veterans from an [Israeli] elite, secretive military intelligence unit have declared they will no longer ‘take part in the state’s actions against Palestinians’ in required reserve duty because of what they called ‘our moral duty to act.’ … In a letter sent Thursday night (September 11, 2014) to their commanders as well as Israel’s prime minister and army chief, 43 veterans of the clandestine Unit 8200 complained that Israel made ‘no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence’ and that information collected ‘harms innocent people.’ Intelligence “is used for political persecution,” they wrote, which ‘does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence, further distancing us from the end of the conflict.'”  See:

“You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.

They laughed and said: More than enough

and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles

and bunker busters to penetrate

double-slab reinforced concrete

and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,

unlimited quantities, cornucopias,

a feast for the soul,

like some finely seasoned delicacy

… and we’ve got cluster bombs, too,

though of course that’s off the record.”

—Dahlia Ravikovitch, “The Fruit of the Land,” translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.

A friend of mine asked me a few weeks back — when Israeli airstrikes in Gaza were confined to blowing up cross-border tunnels and had not yet shifted to destroying high-rise apartment buildings of middle-class families, and associated offices and shopping malls — what book to read about the continuing conflict there.

What book can explain the history of violence and hatred in a way that makes sense of the logic of directing violence at mothers, fathers and children in order to get those then-homeless and traumatized people, and others who care about them, to put pressure on a duly elected terrorist element (Hamas) in their government to stop their acts of violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians?

Who makes such choices? On what balance scales do they weigh what they call the accidental deaths of women and children, the displacement of families and the destruction of schools and hospitals? How can we look at news images of these attacks so unimaginatively, just as we once looked at footage of the bombing of Hanoi or Tokyo, and the smart bombs we dropped ten years ago on buildings in Baghdad trying to kill the sons of Saddam Hussein?

One quote from a 38-year-old engineer who escaped with his four children and aged mother calls into question the strategy of violence. He would speak, I guess, for tens of thousands whose lives will never be the same: “I have become homeless, my children’s fear will never be soothed, and something new has now been added to our feelings toward Israel and all the world, which has been looking on without doing anything.”

His words seem powerless when the violence on both sides is so deadly and taps into deep human feelings that terrible wrongs have to be righted. They reveal how the suffering of normal human beings can go unrecognized, or worse yet, be noticed and justified by desire for vengeance: We cause suffering because they caused suffering.

I answered my friend eventually that we might read what people with poetic sensitivities have to say. Maybe it’s better, I thought, to feel raw truths than to try to make sense of what is senseless. So I wrote to Naomi Shihab Nye and Chana Bloch for their advice. I have now read a selection of what they recommended: Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments by Oz Shelach; Does the Land Remember Me? by Aziz Shihab; Dahlia Ravikovitch’s collection of poems Hovering at a Low Altitude; and more broadly, Nye’s collection of stunning poems written by many ordinary people on the question that is its title: What Have You Lost?

Charles Griswold in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums up Plato’s warning about poetry, that poets and their poems “induce a dream-like, uncritical state in which we lose ourselves in the emotions in question (above all, in sorrow, grief, anger, resentment).”

But when the logic of international politics leads to bombings of civilian targets; when reason dictates the targeted killing of leaders of what are called, from our perspective, terrorist organizations; when we feel justified in striking out with violence preemptively, we might be wise to feel the conflicting feelings that sympathetic poets and writers can evoke, the ambiguities that cast doubt on what seem like rational, clear-cut and necessary decisions. Ravikovitch’s poems leave us with feelings of sorrow, loss and waste, no matter which side we favor or at whom we point our blaming fingers.

In “But She Had a Son” and “What a Time She Had,” Bloch and Kronfeld explain, “a grieving Israeli mother loses her son in a questionable military operation.” In “A Mother Walks Around,” “a pregnant Palestinian woman loses her fetus as a result of beatings by Israeli soldiers.” And Shelach gives us this to ponder: “When the undercover squads began operating, we reported the deaths of ‘wanted locals.’” When it became clear that innocent people were being killed by mistake, “we updated the term to ‘local inhabitants suspected of being wanted.’”

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

AAS Sunday June 15, 2014 Even in death, some fathers hold onto their secrets


Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday June 15, 2014 Father’s Day

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, June 14, 2014

Palaima: Even in death, some fathers hold onto their secrets

By Tom Palaima

Regular Contributor

Ever since Oedipus tried to find out who his real father was and Patroclus set sail in search of information about Odysseus, the long-absent father he never knew, when we wonder why we are who we are, our thoughts turn to our parents. As Father’s Day approaches, many of us ponder the mysteries of fatherhood too late to get real answers from parents who are no longer with us.

I became my father’s second surviving son on Oct. 6, 1951, at 8:30 a.m. at Doctors Hospital in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. That was six years after my father returned from fighting alongside other soldiers in the 1st Cavalry Division in World War II and five years after my only surviving brother Michael was born.

You may wonder why I call us surviving sons. On my official birth certificate, acquired last year, appears a question: “How many OTHER children were born alive but are now dead?” The answer typed in on the form is “One.”

I found out that I had a second older brother about ten years ago. On a trip back to Cleveland, I visited, as usual, Calvary Cemetery where my beloved paternal grandparents and my uncle Joseph are buried. This time I forgot to bring their plot locations with me. The clerk in the central office retrieved information for Palaima.

I was stunned when he said, “Here are your four plots: Michael, Sophie, Joseph and Baby Boy.” My second older brother was born on October 23, 1950, eleven and a half months before I was. He lived from 5:54 to 5:59 AM. He was buried the next day in the infant section of the cemetery.

When my brother and I asked my father, then in his late 80s, about our unknown brother, he replied that between our births, our mother had had a miscarriage and then lost a child right after he was born. Their doctor, Dr. Pasquale Ferrara, ordered them not to have more children, stressing the danger pregnancy would pose to our mom.

Our dad smiled and said something like, “But you know your mother.” We could see that he knew well his wife of 57 years.

We were left to wonder how the strong-willed, beautiful, devoutly Roman Catholic, anxiety-ridden woman who was our mother and our choir-boy father found it in themselves to defy the kind of authority figure they generally obeyed without question just as recruits in basic training snap to orders from their drill sergeants. I wonder now if Baby Boy Palaima had lived, would I be here.

My father still holds onto secrets, even seven years after he died at age 90. Like many kids our age, my brother and I had a father who became an adult during the Great Depression. The son of immigrants, he had seriously thought of becoming a priest. He remembered throughout his life the feeling of being at war far away from the woman he loved. He had the same strong, silent role models most fathers after World War II had: Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Humphrey Bogart in any Bogart film. On television, Oswald “Ozzie” Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and Robert Young in “Father Knows Best”— but is rarely asked his opinion — were their paradigms.

Our fathers worked hard at jobs we knew little about. They kept to themselves their fears, troubles, doubts and emotions, positive and negative. They rarely talked to us about their views on life, their hopes, dreams, successes and failures. They were to be seen and respected, but, within the household, heard only when their sons were trying to work around the mother who ruled the roost.

If cultural icons and prevailing social norms did a good job of implanting such behavioral notions, the religious role model for Roman Catholic fathers made sure they were ineradicably rooted. St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, never says a word in the New Testament. He is wrapped up in the same obscurity that enshrouds most of the childhood of Jesus. We can deduce that he passed his profession as carpenter on to Jesus, a son who was not his son. Joseph may have had other children by Mary or by another wife, depending on scholarly interpretation of the gospel of Matthew 13: 55-56. But that was way before birth certificates.

If your father is still with you, find time now to say to him, “Hey, Dad, how’s it going?” And then, “No, really, how are you doing?”

Palaima teaches classics and war and violence studies at the University of Texas. He may be reached at

Palaima: Key points for UT’s next president to consider


Palaima: Key points for UT’s next president to consider

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, July 9, 2014 Print Thursday July 10, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Local Contributor

The controversy surrounding Bill Powers’ future as president of the University of Texas at Austin has finally played out, with Powers submitting his resignation effective next spring. Even so, we have not seen drama like this since Powers dragged out the process of deciding whether head football coach Mack Brown would go or stay. Eventually Brown went, in mid-December, two years into a four-year contract extension and one year after getting Powers’ full public support.

There is another irony about the timing of the press leak concerning Powers’ position. The best parallel is how Powers timed his announcement of the $2 million raise for Brown, mid-December 2009. Then fall semester had ended. The faculty council could not gather a quorum.

The regents used the same chicanery in scheduling public discussion of the report from planning firm Cooper Robertson on the fates of the Brackenridge tract, its biological field laboratory and Lion’s Municipal Golf Course. They met on June 18, 2009, when members of the faculty committee advisory to Cooper Robertson and many golf aficionados were away.

We live in Texas, after all. That is why Ronnie Dugger’s classic “Our Invaded Universities” and Ken Ashworth’s “Horns of a Dilemma” will remain standard reading for the UT community (its faculty, staff, students, outside supporters, alumni and alumnae).

All members of the UT community should read the Regents’ Rules and the Handbook of Operating Procedures that govern UT-Austin. We might then avoid repeating the mistake of thinking that the UT president is our leader and one of us. He is not.

The UT president is not elected or selected by the UT community. Whoever aspires to become president knows from the start that their experience, values and ways of working must first and foremost prove satisfactory to the Board of Regents and the chancellor the regents appoint.

Once appointed by the Board of Regents, the president also knows that she or he “serves without fixed term, subject to the pleasure of the appropriate Executive Vice Chancellor, to whom the president reports and is responsible, and approval by the Chancellor and the Board of Regents.”

In this sense, UT presidents do preside over the university community. They adopt and adapt policies and practices to suit the regents. Presidents can be fired at any time. This applies a conservative pressure that prevents anything too radical, from any perspective, from happening to education and research at the university.

We would do well to be calm and refrain from the demonizing that Thucydides described as characteristic of these kinds of public debates, even if a doctor and a lawyer are at the center of it. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is a philosophical public servant with a strong record of achievement. Powers can point to many accomplishments. Opinions will vary on the decisions he has made since 2006 and the directions in which the university is going.

Now, we should focus on how to improve the academic and cultural values of the university and strengthen, maintain or repair its vital educational, research and outreach services to our state, our country and our world — no matter who presides over us. Our next president might well consider some of the following key points:

We should, as a No. 1 goal, accomplish former President Larry Faulkner’s plan, announced in 2000, to add 300 tenured or tenure-track professors to the UT faculty and to bring what university leaders have known for 15 years are unacceptably high student-faculty ratios down to acceptable levels. Both these objectives were picked up as priorities in Powers’ first state of the university address in September 2006. Neither goal is close to being reached. Both initiatives are forgotten flotsam.

The faculty council and its various standing committees need to be made meaningful once again. The faculty in virtually all areas of university operation and governance can only advise, so there is no harm in making sure the faculty council is the main forum for public discourse before decision-taking, not the “closed-door” meetings of presidential and deans’ staffs and committees.

Times are lean. Budgeting and setting of compensation must be transparent and fair. No future president should arrange exorbitant compensation (e.g., $325,000 for five years) off the radar screen for doing the job he then has.

Admissions must be kept free of insider influence.

UT presidents preside, but their actions set precedent. They are not Caesars, but they should act like Caesar’s wife.

AAS May 25, 2014 Listening Improves Humanity


Palaima: Better listening improves humanity

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, May 24, 2014
Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday May 25, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

A few years ago, several veteran Austin guitar-playing musician friends — John Inmon, Derek O’Brien, Denny Freeman, Richard Jessee — took time to talk with my son about what their lives devoted to playing music were like, where their inspiration and passion for music came from, what difficulties they faced and still face.

What stays with me was how well these masters of soul-inspiring guitar sounds listened to what a 16-year-old fledgling musician had to say.

True attentive listening is a vanishing skill and underdeveloped talent. We all want to be heard. Yet it is the capacity to hear sympathetically that makes us truly human. The words we share in our native languages, the specific meanings we give words within our families and social groups, the feeling of outsiderness we have when we cannot understand what others are saying, all define who we are in our connections with or disconnections from other human beings.

Inmon posed a conundrum that applies not just to playing music, but to all other forms of human communication. He said: “When you are playing the guitar you are just sending out vibrations that travel through the air. They don’t mean anything until they reach the ears of the people who are listening. Figure out how to get what the song means to you across to your audience.”

What a wonderful concept. Applied to nonmusical communication, it asks that we do one simple thing: listen before or while we speak so that we can best express what we mean to others.

How is listening, especially John’s kind of pre-listening or imaginative listening to what others will be hearing, important? Without it, we lose contact with others and with ourselves, we become less able to help others and ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Freud Museum in Vienna and stood in front of the famous couch upon which Freud’s patients reclined and the famous chair where Freud sat, behind his patients. What he was practicing was called “the talking cure,” but it depended on patients knowing that a sympathetic, if invisible, listener was taking in what they were saying.

Psychoanalysis is now a multi-faceted science, but the art of sympathetic listening was known to Homer. Achilles, when in his deepest suffering from the public insult to his core self as a dedicated field commander, talks at length to his mother, Thetis. She listens with maternal care. Later when his closest comrade Patroclus is killed, Achilles unburdens himself to Thetis again about his sorrow and his guilt. He later speaks with Priam, king of Troy, who appeals to Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles had killed. Achilles in his anger and grief had tried to mutilate Hector’s corpse. Listening to Priam’s words, Achilles remembers his own father and becomes fully human once more.

Walt Whitman in his famous commentary on the abysmal medical care given the wounded well into our Civil War, “The Great Army of the Sick,” cites the case of J.A.H., “a young man from Plymouth Country, Massachusetts,” “prostrated by diarrhea and vomiting” and virtually catatonic because “no one spoke to him” or did so “with perfect indifference” or “heartless brutality.” Whitman “sat down by him without any fuss — talked a little — soon saw that it did him good — led him to talk a little himself.” By humanly listening, Whitman pulled J.A.H. from the brink of death from a despondency caused by nobody caring to listen.

Unfortunately, in our society the reward structures in many professions promote single-minded self-expression. A just-completed senior honors thesis at the University of Texas at Austin by Bethany Hamilton that Stephen Sonnenberg and I supervised looks at UT students who are military veterans. We need to listen to opinions like those Hamilton gathered from veterans. One was that veteran students would rather be at Austin Community College than at UT because the professors at ACC take time to listen when veteran students talk about their special needs.

This problem doesn’t apply only to veterans. UT has long had dauntingly high student to faculty ratios. And faculty members know that, except for award-winning performers in the classrooms, devoting time to research and publications is the one sure way to be among the chosen half of the faculty who now receive annual small merit raises.

The art of listening needs a public hearing, and we all need to lend our ears.

Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

AAS March 18, 2014 HRC UT Austin: Heed Story of WW I: WHAT WAS MADE KNOWN AND WHAT WAS NOT


Palaima: Take time to heed stories of war

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 10:41 a.m. Tuesday, March 18, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

We owe it to the shrinking percentages of American men and women who now fight our wars to practice what Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq, preaches in a recent commentary. Klay encourages nonveteran civilians to use our sympathetic imaginations and our own experiences of trauma to take in what those who have been through war have to say about it, despite the widely acknowledged “divide” between soldiers and civilians.

In World War I, 23,000 Australian soldiers were killed in six weeks during the Somme Offensive. One Aussie soldier cries out to us still, “For Christ’s sake, write a book on the life of an infantryman and by doing so you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.”

You might reply cynically that plenty of books have been written about the war to end all wars, yet wars continue. But ask yourself what stories get told? And how many of us listen in the right way?

We have a great chance right now to experience a war and the telling of a war start to finish. Set aside about three hours. Go to the exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. It runs free and open to the public until August 3, 2014 at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Meditate upon the items that curators Jean Cannon and Elizabeth Garver have put on display.

Notice what is there and what is missing in the newspaper clippings, manuscripts, photographs, recruiting and movie posters, official leaflets, letters, and books. Listen to the audio readings by members of Actors from the London Stage. The Great War is laid out, from the prophetic words of Otto von Bismarck circa 1897 that “the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” to facts about operations on facial disfigurement performed in Kent, England on 5,000 patients between 1917 and 1925. One photo shows us what mechanized warfare did to human faces.

The exhibition helps us see how the war was “marketed” in official propaganda. The British relied on an all-volunteer army until May 1916. A recruiting poster from 1915 proclaims “Step Into Your Place.” Its drawing shows a long line of men snaking off into the distance. At its front, healthy soldiers march in crisp uniforms and helmets, rifles on their shoulders. At the rear, stepping into line and blending with soldiers are civilians with different attire and accessories: top hat and tails, barrister’s wig and robe, briefcase, pickax, farming fork, a miner’s tool kit, even a golf club. Nowhere are we told that 1 out of 3 of those who joined the line were killed or wounded, about 3 million total.

If you have read the poems of British officer Wilfred Owen or his letters, you will never forget that these once healthy men a short time later cursed through a sucking octopus of mud, moved like old beggars under sacks, drowned in water-filled shell holes, and coughed to death like hags from poison gas. A German poster from 1917 encouraging book donations shows jolly, clean-shaven, clean-dressed soldiers lazily reading in a tidy trench with books stacked neatly on a crate as if by a librarian. The newspaper photos of the dry trenches look like they were taken at a Boy Scout camp. That’s what the people back home saw of the war.

Only one photo in the exhibition shows what might be a dead soldier. But the Allied and Central Powers, by the war’s end, produced more than 13 1/2 million corpses. The war also produced 21 million wounded. Yet a photo of the wounded from the “New York Journal American” shows fifteen soldiers relaxed and smoking on an open hillside. Three have neat head bandages. Three have arms in slings. None is an amputee.

A counter-balance to this public face of war is offered by Hugh Walpole’s letters of June 1915, written while he served in the Russian Red Cross in the Balkans: “Every kind of horror. Wounded on both sides of the road in the wood crying and screaming. … Day before yesterday eight hundred wounded in twelve hours. I cut off fingers with a pair of scissors easy as nothing!’

Ernest Hemingway, if he were alive today, might advise you to read the letter of Henri de Lallemand at the Ransom Center. Then go home and read Hemingway’s poem “Champs d’Honneur.”

And think.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

AAS February 20, 2014 Guthrie’s legacy: How to face the hard path


Guthrie’s legacy: How to face the hard path

Posted: 11:31 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014  PRINT VERSION February 20, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

Show me how, how to fight my battle in life /Show me how to fight / And I’ll run away with you.

Teach me how, how to fight my hard times in life /Teach me how to fight and / I’ll run away with you.

And I will never dread the day I will die / ’Cause my sunset is somebody’s morning sky.

—Woody Guthrie, “My Battle”

These profound words were written by American folk music genius Woody Guthrie. We never heard them until Jonatha Brooke recently set them to music. I heard Brooke’s version sung with extraordinary meaning by Eliza Gilkyson in the “Walking Woody’s Road” show she performed with her fellow Austinites Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Sam Baker, Bobby Kallus, Glenn Schuetz, Phil Hurley and Chip Dolan.

Guthrie spent his too short lifetime looking at and feeling with ordinary people. He did his utmost to make all Americans see the neediest among us. One could say that Woody was a one-man national version of the Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring program.

He began his adult life during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl. He lived and fought alongside farm families forced off their land, seeking desperately anywhere for basic living wages.

Woody fought against fascism in World War II. He wrote his poignant song “Deportees” in 1948 when he read in a newspaper that a planeload of migrant workers died in a plane crash and were treated as a nameless and worthless mass who, to quote from his “Pastures of Plenty,” silently “come with the dust and go with the wind.” To Woody, every human being had dignity.

The ancient Greeks believed that we learn who we are and how to treat others through our own suffering. Modern American culture promotes the illusion that a life of perpetual enjoyment is our birthright. But we all learn eventually that the Greeks were right. We all confront what another American musical giant sang out, “I’ll never get out of this world alive.”

Woody wrote “My Battle” when he faced something worse than Hank Williams’ realization of our mortality. In 1952, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s chorea, a degenerative disorder that would rob him of his mind and leave him alive, but somehow dead. He was permanently involuntarily institutionalized in 1956.

Eliza’s evocation of what she calls Woody’s “dark night of the soul” in singing “My Battle” was so moving that I asked her where her inspiration came from. I asked other soulful people what they thought of the song.

Eliza said she could feel starkly Woody confronting “one of those archetypical pivotal moments in the life of someone who serves and suffers on the world stage.” She could empathize with Woody “looking left and right for a way out and ultimately accepting his fate,” much like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And she knew the power of seeking someone with whom to share life’s inevitable tragic moments with strength and dignity. She found her life partner, University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, a committed activist for social justice, at an antiwar rally.

Recently retired Statesman feature writer Brad Buchholz, a longtime friend, feels Woody’s words partly through his own battle with cancer. He says, “Eliza inhabits the song. She makes Woody’s words and experience real to us. She is sensitive and understands.” He hears Eliza saying, “I’ve been there. I know what that means. I know that trial. I know that longing.”

Brad’s partner, Margaret Slovak, a beautiful and humanly caring jazz guitarist, was robbed of her full creative powers by a sudden motor vehicle accident. She performs for patients battling with cancer and other life-changing injuries and losses. When she heard Eliza sing Woody’s and Jonatha’s song, she thought, “Each one of us faces life-changing physical and emotional challenges through accidents, diseases, loss of loved ones. We come out the other side stronger with an increased awareness of what really matters in life. Most importantly, we learn how to give and receive love in the purest sense.”

Lucinda Alwa, a Methodist minister in an economically challenged community in Wisconsin, knows the despair of losing a loved one suddenly. She writes, “Woody’s song gives a striking sense of peace. Whatever Woody meant by the line, ‘I’ll run away with you,’ I find myself running away with the song. It melts the dread, soothes the soul, lights the sky.”

Thank you, Woody, Jonatha and Eliza, for reminding us that we are all hard travelers through life together.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Palaima: Pope Francis & Karl Marlantes Tell Us We Need to Feel & See Need


Palaima: Comforts of society make it difficult properly to see need

Austin American-Statesman  Posted: 11:53 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014

By Thomas Palaima – Regular Contributor

Pope Francis, Time magazine’s person of the year for 2013, enjoined us in his Christmas message to “place ourselves at the service of the poor.” His message took me back 50 years to my Jesuit high school days when the Catholic Church and our country were trying to put into action the radical religious and political message of Jesus Christ found in Matthew 25:35-46.

Roman Catholics then were instructed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and Pope John XXIII to “recognize the essential dignity of every human being.” Governments worldwide were charged with “protecting the rights and equality of all citizens as part of their essential role in promoting the public good.” In response to the courageous actions of Americans in the civil rights movement and the realities brought home by race-related urban riots in Los Angeles (1965), Cleveland (1966), Detroit and Newark (1967), Washington (1968) and elsewhere, our own government developed the Great Society programs.

The Gospel passage that Pope Francis uses begins, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The Gospel writer and the pontiff both make clear how easy it is for us not to see those in need.

In fact, we have to go beyond seeing need. We have to internalize the feeling of need and act upon it. We all belong to groups, organizations and institutions within society, including our own families. Most of these only have the moral conscience we infuse into them.

We need to reach the stage of “consciousness and spiritual maturity” about how we contribute to and tolerate the human suffering of others that United States Marine Corps veteran Karl Marlantes writes about in his recent book, What It is Like to Go to War. Marlantes write profoundly about the debilitating effects that war experiences will continue to have on young men and women unless we all change our ways of thinking.

He makes two key points that we can apply to our civilian lives. The first is that “our young warriors are raised in possibly the only culture on the planet that thinks death is an option.” Indeed, we shy away from looking not only at death, but at the realities of poverty, income disparity and lack of access to essential services like health care.

Marlantes’ second point is that in American culture, we no longer have initiatory rites of a “spiritual nature” that make us aware of hunger, of how easy it is to die, of how small and vulnerable we are. He points out that “we mostly undergo a series of partial initiations and we undergo them unconsciously and without guidance.”

Pope Francis calls for us to place ourselves at the service of fellow human beings who are poor, hungry, homeless and marginalized. I think he means more than writing out a check to Meals on Wheels or working a few weekends a year for Habitat for the Homeless or doing one Eagle Scout project. These are all good and important acts. But the pope means something very akin to what Marlantes understands from his service in the U.S. Marine Corps and his own resulting life problems. We need to initiate or re-initiate ourselves to feel the needs of others in ways that re-focus our own appetites, desires and actions on others.

When I was young, we Catholics fasted during the Lenten season before Easter. We ate no meat on Fridays. We fasted until after we received the Eucharist on Sundays. My father recalled in his teenage years during the Great Depression calling out and claiming “core” when a buddy was lucky enough to have an apple to eat. We reminded ourselves regularly of hunger.

In the last year of the Great Depression, Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” captured the spirit of the times when she declared, “I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.” Pope Francis asks us to do more than look to ourselves. He asks us to be so committed to tending to the needy around us that eventually no one will go needy. He asks us to remember that Jesus was a social activist.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.