Thursday, December 29, 2011

Words Matter

The day after I vowed to be funnier, I read the book Ghosts of War by Ryan Smithson.

I started the book yesterday and finished it today; it was delicious. Not in a sensory detail sort of way--as the sensory details in the text are quite sickening. But in a new-experience sort of way. In a way where you want to stop all else and melt into the words just like you would melt into a decadent piece of chocolate.

To say I know little about war would be an understatement; I know absolutely nothing. My grandfathers died before I was old enough to understand their experiences, and no one else I know has ever sat across from me and painted my imagination shades of sand and mortar and blood.

Smithson's account of enlisting in the Army as a teenager, enduring basic training and ultimately heading out for a tour in Iraq merely dipped my toes into the life of a solider, but this dip took me closer than I ever was before. I realize there are many stories about what has transpired over the last ten years, but I read his story, and his story changed me. It challenged me to think about the war from an entirely different perspective. It made me appreciate even the smallest inconveniences in my life because a blessing had to first be in place for me to have something about which to complain. His story inspired me to consider that despite the atrocities this war has caused, our efforts have helped some. They helped the kids he met. They helped the people he met. They mattered to the villages he saw.

I generally try to place little weight on the news, but I realized how greatly broadcasts have biased my views. The pacifist in me has objected to the war from day one, but Smithson's words have helped me to consider another view. His words have helped me realize that from his vantage point on the ground in Iraq, the people protesting US presence are a small percentage of rich people; the majority of the country is poor, and the majority of the country is a little better off now that Saddam Hussein is gone.

Of course that doesn't change the politics of the war or the rationale given for entering it, but it does give me hope that the thousands of kids who died didn't die in vain. It gives me hope the that millions of innocent Iraqi people who lost their life, will be redeemed by those who lived.

A year after he returned, Smithson found himself in a college composition class where he got an assignment to write about a time when he saw something destroyed. No one in the class knew he was a solider until he read his piece aloud.

Following the exercise, he wrote, "[i]t's funny, all I did besides sit in a dump truck during the ambush was write a story about it. It's funny, but the story is what matters. The story is what changes, at least for a moment, the way these people feel. And what an empowering sensation it is to share it...They are only words, words we use every day. But they are the words of a heart, the silhouettes of a generation. They are my silhouettes. In between these words, there's the resilient silence of humanity. This is my silence" (Smithson 300-301).

Through his words, Smithson not only complicated my opinion about the war, but his courage to tell his story captured the very essence of what we tell our students--that memoirs matter. That our stories matter. That words matter. Because they do.


  1. Laura:

    I love this piece. Much like you, I have been against the war for a long time, always keeping in mind those that have fought and died for what I considered a false concept of freedom. I love the depth of this piece, the fact it made me think, and the power it attributes to words. Some of your own words were piercing: "...painted my imagination shades of sand and mortar and blood." Perfect. I feel like I need to read the book now. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks, Betty. I read the book because we were considering it as a memoir option for our students. It really challenged me and it really moved me to see the value he placed on telling stories. I hope you had a great Christmas! I miss your writing. :)

  3. "It made me appreciate even the smallest inconveniences in my life because a blessing had to first be in place for me to have something about which to complain."

    This is so important, Mills. It's something I often think about. I'm not sure if our tendency to take things for granted is cultural, generational, or an ingrained part of our psyche. But I do think that the ability to be self-aware through someone else's words shows great humility. Powerful.

  4. Thanks, Andrea. I, too, wonder about this. And I wonder if it is human nature to take things for granted. Perhaps WHAT we take for granted differs from person to person or place to place, but that behavior of taking things for granted remains consistent. Everywhere I've traveled it seems like people living there take *something* for granted. It might only be the weather, but that's something...

    Hmm. Things to think about :)