The Sacred Brotherhood – and Sisterhood – of Those Who Understand

Sep 9, 2010 by

The Sacred Brotherhood – and Sisterhood – of Those Who Understand

We read a few days ago Larry Heinemann’s excellent quote about veterans after combat “carrying the darkness with us.” And yesterday, in “War Creates Brothers,” we learned about an historic gathering, a sacred ceremony of sorts, where Vietnam veterans like Heinemann met with Russian Afghansti veterans, at least a decade younger, and shared their stories with one another, bonding in the wet blood of brotherhood (and sisterhood, because it now applies to women veterans as well) from war. Now we synthesize the two together, with a quote from the article Heinemann wrote in 1989 in a national magazine, describing both the gathering mentioned above (lightly), and a much more extensive retelling of what the same Vietnam veterans’ trip to Russia to meet with the Afghansti initially was like, a few months before.

Heinemann describes at great length the similarities and the bonds among the men that were formed, and tells the story of how the Russian veterans became involved in their own war in Afghanistan, leaving generally bruised and beaten “after nine years and 15,000 dead.” Much of the article focuses on the stories of the Afghansti veterans they met in Russia, the grief of the devastated families of those who’d served, and the generalized indifference of the Russian government — all of which he can compare, to one degree or another, to situations in our own country, after Vietnam. (As an aside, the bureaucracy of the VA seems to stand in for that of the Russian government in his analogy.)

As clearly as he paints the picture of the Russian veterans’ suffering, and how it’s mirrored in our own, one of the strongest descriptions he suggests is why the veterans on both sides of the conversation, separated by decades and culture, are nevertheless able to bond so strongly, through telling stories about their experiences, horrific and otherwise. This is the same principle we’ve been alluding to recently in the series about ritual, and the unburdening that can come from individual warriors when they meet up with one another, and have the safe “container” in which to share their suffering, confusion and grief. Here’s Heinemann’s remarkable quote:

“These stories and many others, came forward because the Afghansti finally had someone in their midst — as we surely did not two decades ago [returning from Vietnam] — who knew what they were talking about. We were fellow soldiers who could listen to the madness and know they were not mad; someone who could validate their worst blood-bath nightmares; someone who had an inkling of the brutality they had endured and inflicted; someone whom they could trust with stories about the deadest, darkest places in their hearts.” — Larry Heinemann.

Circling back around to Heinemann’s earlier quote, mentioned a few days ago, we read in this article that it comes at the end of a longer declaration. As food for thought, I now include the full paragraph, in case it now adds fuller context, in light of the above.

“The Afghansti have caused a great many people a great deal of grief and have themselves suffered — for a lie, let us not forget — the same ways we in the United States have caused much suffering in Southeast Asia, and have also suffered much in return, also for a lie. It was no small betrayal, no small lesson for a man to learn at the age of 19. Any soldier returning home must rediscover his humanity and establish a livable peace with the discovered, liberated, permanently dark places in his own heart –the darkness that is always with us.”