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


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.

Chancellor McRaven and the Myth of Texas: Dose of Reality Needed

Palaima: Myth of Texas needs dose of reality
Austin American-Statesman
Posted: 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015
Print edition January 22, 2015
By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

I have lived in Texas full time for almost 30 years. For the past 16 years I have written regular opinion pieces in the Austin American-Statesman. In my first piece I responded critically to the vision William “Bill” Cunningham, then chancellor of the University of Texas System, put forward in January 1999 of what UT-Austin would become in the new millennium, essentially a corporation-like economic engine for the state.

I have learned four things from writing my first piece and almost 300 others. First, even distinguished faculty and administrators do not feel free to speak their minds publicly when they disagree with the regents, chancellor, president and deans above them. Second, my own public views and reasoning have the same effect as the remarks of the proverbial gnat upon the elephant. Third, many Texans believe in their own positive illusions about the greatness of their state, its institutions and the Texas way of life. Fourth, the University of Texas at Austin now is what Cunningham set it on the road to becoming: a corporately managed business-focused institution with an affiliated Godzillatron-sized sports entertainment industry and television sports network.

I have thought about all this after reading the message our new chancellor, former Adm. Bill McRaven, sent on Jan. 6, his first day of office. McRaven’s starry-eyed visions about Texas exceptionalism take American exceptionalism to the third power.

McRaven tells us that in his wide travels “everyone I encountered, from the youngest Afghan girl to the oldest African villager, had a common view of Texas and Texans. They understood that Texans were men and women of character and integrity — strong-willed, independent, bold, risk-takers, who helped the weak and downtrodden, who got up when they were knocked down, and who never complained about their struggles. Texans wore boots and big hats and sat tall in the saddle because there was a grandness in their manner. They understood that being a Texan was something special.”

Such jingoistic cream-puffery hardly needs chocolate topping, but McRaven ladles on a dollop nonetheless: “This image of Texans was universal, and we have rightly earned that reputation through generations of men and women who came to this great land and made it what it is today.”

All this proves that one thing has not changed in my 30 years in Texas: the grip that the myth of Texas has on the minds of our cultural, political and educational leaders.

Some 50 years ago Larry McMurtry published a collection of essays about Texas titled In a Narrow Grave. As Texas writer and memoirist Alvin Carl Greene Jr. put it, McMurtry “(took) apart Texas with all the skill and sadness of a master surgeon performing a postmortem on his mother.” McMurtry laid out in plain-spoken language the “megalomaniacal boosterism which afflicts almost all our cities.” He singled out Austin as a “yet greater megalomaniac to be considered,” adding, “what I have said about Houston and Houston’s pretensions could simply be repeated for Dallas.”

Unfortunately, as thinkers and writers know, thoughts and paper and blogs are ephemeral, but group cultural traits and dispositions, sometimes called prejudices, are fixed and long lasting. So despite McMurtry’s insights that “a Quality-Quantity confusion is something most Texans have come by naturally” and that prominent Texans view things Texan as “biggest” and “best,” the disease and its symptoms still persist.

Here’s the medicine I would prescribe: tincture of reality. The poor people I met in Madagascar in 2007 had no idea what a Texas even was. But when outsiders know something about Texas, many think of a long, dark road in Jasper, the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, the Branch Davidian Mount Carmel Center outside Waco, Charles Whitman and the UT Tower, Fort Hood in November 2009 and April 2014, Lyndon Johnson and the War in Vietnam, George W. Bush and our missions unaccomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They think of Enron and its financially ruined employees. They note that in 2012-13 Texas ranked 47th in expenditure for public schools K-12 while the city of Allen spent $60 million on a structurally unusable high school football stadium. They may also recall the July 2012 Associated Press story that “Texas ranked worst in the nation for health care” of its citizens.

Texas is a nice state for a chosen few. It can become great for all of us if we look at its problems with a realistic state of mind.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

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.

Remembering Those Who Served on Veterans Day

“Remembering Those Who Served” Austin American-Statesman


Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012  Print edition November 11, 2012

By Tom Palaima, Regular Contributor

Every four years, Veterans Day in the United States closely follows national election day. This is fitting. Our country was founded through a revolutionary war and kept together through a civil war that cost the most lives of U.S. soldiers by far of any war our soldiers have ever fought. What was happening to soldiers in two wars (Korean and Vietnam) largely influenced the decisions by two incumbent presidents not to run for re-election. Since I was born in 1951, the president’s role as commander-in-chief has been a central topic of presidential election campaigns.

In the 13 years I have been writing commentaries for the Austin American-Statesman, we have had too many occasions to talk about wars, historical and current, why they are fought, whether they are worth the price paid by American men, women and children, whether the human and psychological costs of fighting are shared equally throughout society, and what those who do the fighting go through when they return to us.

Veterans and their families are concerned that the soldiers of their wars are treated fairly once they return home. As time passes, they and we see the war of our own generation — we are lucky if there was only one — lose contemporary meaning. It is jolting when the war that affected us, as soldiers or civilians, becomes ancient history to new generations, when “our” war is kept alive in movies, songs, books, newspaper clippings (and bookmarked URLs), old letters and objects that tap into deep emotions and memories. Many students who are now graduating from the University of Texas at Austin were not yet born when the active six-month combat phase of Operation Desert Storm had ended in February 1991.

Veterans of the Vietnam War know what it is like to live in the shadow of a great war that was fought with strong support on the home front, clear goals (get to Rome, Berlin and Tokyo) and big symbols of good and evil. All veterans know the personal costs of war and the moral ambiguities they faced while performing their own roles in the fighting or supporting those doing the fighting, no matter how righteous their war is.

It was important for Vietnam veterans to create their own national monument. They took the initiative. Controversially at the time, they chose a monument that downplayed traditional symbols of heroism and glory.

What we call the Vietnam War formally ended in 1975. By 1979 a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was incorporated and just after Veterans Day in November 1982 a wall of names cut into polished black granite was dedicated. As of 2011, 58,272 names are commemorated. By contrast, the national World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004, almost 60 years after the war formally ended. A national memorial to Korean War veterans took 42 years.

The Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan come to our attention most often now surrounding veterans’ issues. The high rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of these two wars have been called an epidemic. News reports have covered the difficulties recent veterans face finding jobs and receiving services owed them. Such attention and strong support by veterans of past wars led to the dedication of UT’s Student Veteran Center on Veterans Day 2011, many wars and 128 years after the university was founded.

On or around Veterans Day, let the veterans you know feel your gratitude and your heartfelt concern for the sacrifices they have made, sometimes well beyond their own choosing. Let them know that while public memorials and government and institutional services might be a long time coming, our human hearts are as resilient and tenacious as their spirits.

A Statesman reader proved this recently. He wrote to me: “I remember my dad standing in line with his lunch bucket waiting to vote before the start of the afternoon shift at the steel mill. The union had told him to vote for Adlai Stevenson but he was determined to vote for Ike as it was the Democrats and Truman that had sent his oldest son to freeze in Korea.”

Because of his memory, I have reread UT professor and veteran Rolando Hinojosa-Smith’s Korean Love Songs. I am now reading Bob Drury’s and Tom Clavin’s grimly vivid and literally chilling account of Korean War fighting by United States Marines, The Last Stand of Fox Company.

Sometimes we need to be reminded to remember what we never should forget.

Tom Palaima, regular columnist for the Austin American-Statesman is a professor of Classics at University of Texas at Austin: tpalaima@sbcglobal.net.


Palaima: Shootings in Afghanistan have roots in our history

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Palaima: Shootings in Afghanistan have roots in our history

Austin American-Statesman Monday, March 19, 2012

If you live long enough, one sure fact of life is that history will repeat itself and pose questions about who we are and try to be as civilized human beings.

Earlier this month, in southern Afghanistan, a 38-year-old U.S. sergeant with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq, slipped off base and into two villages and killed at least 16 fellow human beings in three homes. Among the dead were nine children and three women. He set 11 bodies on fire. He apparently acted alone and surrendered upon returning to his base.

Reactions bring a sense of déjà vu to anyone familiar with the wars American soldiers have fought in the past 50 years. Even guarded official responses are in their own ways sincere and true.

A mother is reported to have opened the flowered blanket in which her 2-year-old daughter’s dead body was wrapped and asked, “Was this child Taliban?” Of course, she wasn’t. The woman’s daughter’s death is unholy. It offends our moral and religious codes, our deep-rooted instincts to protect the young and innocent.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the killings were “acts of terror and unforgivable.” Of course, they look like acts of terror to people who know firsthand what terrible acts terrorists commit. Forgiveness should be sought from the hearts of those who loved the victims.

President Barack Obama issued a statement that mostly rings true, “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the people of the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.”

Of course, mass killing of defenseless innocents by an experienced soldier is beyond tragedy.

There is no question that American soldiers are well-trained and learn rules of engagement to follow even in environments where the enemy is hard to identify. Most Americans do not lack respect for the people of Afghanistan, even if few of us have personal ties with Afghans or can even locate their country on a map.

The deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, declared, “I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts.” He probably cannot. But I bet he could begin a list of factors that would lead an experienced soldier, a married father of two, to do what he did on that morning.

Online, opinions are varied and less guarded, as we also might expect. Many see the killings as understandable, though not condonable – a product of the stresses our volunteer soldiers now face in the formally undeclared wars we are now fighting. They point out that our soldiers serve too many tours of duty and that veteran suicides have reached record rates. They call for us to pull our troops out of Afghanistan and not send them anywhere else. They wonder how soldiers operating under constant strain can hold themselves together while overseas and return as psychologically healthy human beings.

One spouse of a Special Forces veteran writes eloquently that this kind of brutal murder “is not what (Special Forces) soldiers are trained to do. The Special Forces code is ‘free the oppressed’ and that is what they are trying to do. The danger that they put themselves in to bring freedom for these people.”

Indeed, Obama stresses, “In no way is this representative of the enormous sacrifices that our men and women have made in Afghanistan.”

Finally, Obama was asked point-blank whether this incident in Afghanistan was comparable to the My Lai massacre that took place, uncannily, five calendar days later, March 16, 1968. He dismissed the comparison, saying in Afghanistan “you had a lone gunman who acted on his own.” But we should remember that, controversially, only Lt. William J. Calley was convicted on the charge that he did “with premeditation murder Oriental human beings, whose names and sex are unknown, by shooting them with a rifle.” Yet more than 500 women, children and old men were killed on that single day.

Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking the My Lai story in November 1969, will deliver a public lecture on Thursday at the University of Texas.

Make an effort to come to listen to what he thinks about the history he has lived through and sees now. History, unfortunately, will just not go away.

Palaima is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin: tpalaima@sbcglobal.net.

Learn more

Seymour Hersh speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday at UT’s AT&T conference center. Information: www.utexas.edu/know/events.


The initial charge against Calley as reported by Mr. Hersh was as reported here with the total number dead adding up to 109.

In the event, Calley was charged with four specifications alleging premeditated murder in violation of Article 118 of Uniform Code of Military Justice:

Art. 118. Murder

Any person subject to this chapter who without justification or excuse, unlawfully kills a human being when he– 1) has a premeditated design to kill; 2) intends to kill or inflict great bodily harm; 3) is engaged in an act which is inherently dangerous to others and evinces a wanton disregard of human life; or 4) is engaged in perpetration or attempted perpetration of burglary, sodomy, rape, robbery, or aggravated arson; is guilty of murder, and shall suffer such punishment as a court-martial trial may direct.

The specifications:

Specification 1: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr. …did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder an unknown number, not less than thirty, Oriental human beings, males and females of various ages, whose names are unknown, occupants of the village of My Lai 4, by means of shooting them with a rifle.

Specification 2: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr…did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder an unknown number, not less than seventy, Oriental human beings, males and females of various ages, whose names are unknown, occupants of the village of My Lai 4, by means of shooting them with a rifle.

Specification 3: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr…did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder one Oriental male human being, whose name and age is unknown, by shooting him with a rifle.

Specification 4: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr…did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder one Oriental human being, an occupant of the village of My Lai 4, approximately two years old, by shooting him with a rifle.