Minds of 2015 graduates in Liberal Arts give hope for the future

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Palaima: Minds of 2015 grads give hope for future

Posted: 11:00 p.m. Wednesday, May 20, 2015

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

The University of Texas at Austin at the end of the spring semester is a place of relics and memories. Senior thesis writers and Ph.D. dissertators in the humanities leave their supervisors and readers with an assortment of parting gifts.

Their completed work offers insights into the human experience: how and why our society doesn’t work as well as it should, what individuals can do to make a difference, what lies we are told, what lies we tell, and what lies we want to believe. I speak here personally about five students I have worked with who are leaving my colleagues and me with the kind of empty-nest feelings that other faculty share.

Plan II honors student Brina Bui worked with psychiatrist Stephen Sonnenberg and me analyzing art programs in pediatric hospitals in Texas’s five major cities. Only Dell Children’s Hospital here in Austin employs trained art therapists who use art in an informed therapeutic process to discover what children are feeling and thinking. Bui’s research suggests that art programs, despite their therapeutic value, generally are viewed as inessential add-ons in pediatric hospitals and are not prioritized in their budgets.

Johnathon Reddinger, who is part of the Polymathic Scholars Program, studied representations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Hollywood films and documentary films. Reddinger joined the Marine Corps out of high school in summer 2007. He was deployed in summer 2009 to Al Anbar province, Iraq and in winter 2010-2011 to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, serving as 0311 Infantry Rifleman and 0313 Light Armored Vehicle Crewman. He matriculated at UT Austin in 2011. Reddinger doesn’t see the wars American soldiers fought in the war films Hollywood makes.

In his view, Hollywood films do bigger box office when their ideologies match the audience’s. This explains the switch from anti-war sentiments in Vietnam war films to patriotic sentiments in Iraq and Afghanistan war films. Hollywood films leave out, except in hints, “the debilitating injuries — mental and physical — that soldiers sustain on the battlefield and then bring home.” They stereotype the enemy and do not show how our wars devastate other cultures. Documentaries about soldiers and film interviews with soldiers, even ‘stars’ of Hollywood features like Chris Kyle, get at the truth. But the truth doesn’t sell tickets or reassure the general public or help recruit more soldiers.

Ciaran Dean-Jones’ Plan II thesis, directed by me with Sonnenberg and historian George Forgie as readers, helped earn him a $3,000 UT Co-op George H. Mitchell Award as one of the top seven undergraduate researchers this year. Dean-Jonesstudied President Abraham Lincoln’s writings closely to trace how Lincoln’s emotional and psychological struggles in early adulthood related to the theological beliefs he developed during the Civil War. As seen in his second inaugural address, Lincoln took to using the suffering of the Civil War to move our divided nation toward reconciliation rather than punishment of the South.

Commander Mike Flynn, a 1995 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, also came to UT in 2011, like John Reddinger. He is taking up a teaching appointment at the academy this fall. His doctoral dissertation in comparative literature, directed by Katie Arens with Cesar Salgado, Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, Gabriela Polit and me as readers, runs a PTSD Geiger counter — as he puts it — over the literature set during the drug-war violence in Colombia. Flynn identifies the broader social pathology of trauma and highlights the destructive force of human greed, the signifier that destroys all significance. His work focuses our attention on complex PTSD, on the ways trauma is transmitted across generations and from person to person, on how it persists in memory, and on what narration can do partially to heal personal and collective trauma.

Finally Jorge Wong, a classics major and McNair Scholar, explored the crisis — ancient Greek for point of decision — that King Agamemnon, himself an inheritor of multigenerational trauma, faced in the Greek tragedy named after him. Agamemnon was given the same choice Yahweh gave to Abraham: Sacrifice your child or bear the consequences of divine disfavor. Jorge highlighted the Greek ritual vocabulary the playwright Aeschylus used to make clear to readers and viewers from 458 BCE to the present how complicated the factors in Agamemnon’s decision were.

My memories and relics of this academic year preserve my faith in students with bright minds and passionate souls who persist in examining who we are as a society and my gratitude to my learned colleagues who provide inspirational nurturing to fledglings in the UT nest and even old birds like me.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

The Forever War on Terror and Thanking Our Veterans

http://www.statesman.com/photo/news/opinion/palaima-this-season-put-ourselves-in-the-shoes-of-/pCWWMg/

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.

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

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

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-no-intermissions-or-applause-in-real-stage/nRQ3q/

Thomas G. Palaima, REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR
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.

tpalaima@sbcglobal.net