Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home. Justin Hudnall, Julia Dixon Evans, Rolf Yngve (Eds.). San Diego, CA: SSWA Press, 2015.
While this collection of veteran writing about returning home is hardly the first in the genre, joining the ranks of volumes such as Operation Homecoming and Warrior Writers, Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home is unique in the diversity of perspectives represented and the brevity of the selections, as none are more than a few pages in length. This means each selection is tightly written and has to achieve maximum emotional connection and impact in a very short space; and each selection does so in an impressive way. A variety of perspectives and topics related to homecoming are represented, with some problematizing and subverting of the traditional narrative of warrior homecoming throughout. Some selections are stoic, some emotionally charged, but all retain a clear message and point of view. For the reasons discussed below, I highly recommend this work for a variety of audiences, but especially for civilians and academics interested in or who teach these issues—as it is a rare window into a world to which many civilians have limited access.
There were several themes that were particularly compelling and bear highlighting, at the usual risk of leaving much out, but these stood out to me both as a reader and scholar of war. First, there are stories about being haunted by the dead of war, by what they have seen with familiar themes of moral injury, loss, and wanting to go back—either to war or to who one was before the experience of war. There are the ghosts of departed comrades and atrocities witnessed, but also the ghosts of innocence, moral certainty, and belonging.
Another story reveals a veteran who experiences homecoming in the return to Afghanistan, not in the return to what we would normally think of as "home."
Second, there are stories relating the process of coming home and reintegration, along with the struggle of transition back to one’s family and old life, with loved ones coping to understand and feeling alienation from the "coming home" narrative. However, the volume also engages what it means to come home. There is one story about a veteran seeing her coming home through the eyes of her Vietnam veteran father who experiences his own healing and homecoming through his child’s warm homecoming from civilians in Maine. Another story reveals a veteran who experiences homecoming in the return to Afghanistan, not in the return to what we would normally think of as "home."
Third, there are stories that reveal anger, frustration, and alienation along the theme "civilians just don’t get it." There is anger at the lack of civic commitment, interest, and participation on the part of civilians, a lack of concern about the justness of the war, even as the veterans describe being thanked for their service and their reactions to this phenomenon. There is anger and resentment in some of the pieces, in others gratitude, bemusement, and ambivalence. It is not just the general civilian population that "doesn’t get it," but also family, friends, and colleagues the authors yearn to connect and reconnect with, but with whom there is a distance and a gulf that seems impossible to bridge.
Fourth, and connected to the aforementioned point, is the meaning of becoming a veteran and the bond of sister and brotherhood between veterans. One author relates a story of participating in the funeral of a veteran he did not know, but it wasn’t until this experience he identified as a veteran. Other stories describe the sense of familiarity between veterans, even those who were strangers, a sense that there was a shared moral universe and experience regardless of whether they physically served together.
Finally there is a theme in Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home reminiscent of the works of Tim O’Brien from Vietnam, as well as the British poets of World War I such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen: war is simply too small and large to describe, and language somehow fails to convey the experience of war. This is not just the difficulty of describing war to those who have not been there, but the larger theme of trying to capture the phenomenology of war with language, when so much of the experience is viscerally physical, spiritual and emotional.
Incoming is a volume about individual moments and battles rather than war.
This book, rather than providing a monolithic "veteran perspective," provides different, conflicting, and a challenging range of perspectives of veterans. This is a world that is only accessible via moral imagination for civilians; the shortness of each offering means that one can take a variety of approaches—like reading straight through to get themes and overall view or a more slow approach, savoring each piece. I do wonder how Incoming will be received by other veterans; will it be triggering, overwhelming or cathartic? Given that question, this volume is well suited for civilians looking for a glimpse of the homecoming experience, but the reactions of veterans to this volume would make an interesting beginning point for military/civilian dialogue and engagement.
To return to the title, which at least for this civilian brings to mind the imagery of incoming artillery in battle, the pieces in this volume are staccato in pace, including powerful imagery and flashbacks, and representing a fleeting moment in time, a feeling, a picture, or an idea, rather than a traditional narrative arc that we have come to expect in war writing. Incoming is a volume about individual moments and battles rather than war. In this lies its power and impact.
Pauline Shanks Kaurin holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Temple University and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, social and political philosophy, and applied ethics. She is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University and teaches courses in military ethics, warfare, business ethics, and history of philosophy. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Family members reunion with POWs in 1973. (CBS News)